The Tragedy of Caleb Swanigan: What Can We Do To Prevent These Deaths?

It is with heavy hearts that we once again see headlines sharing the news of another young black athlete gone too soon. This time, it was 25-year-old former NBA player Caleb Swanigan. His story highlights some of the biggest challenges facing the black community today.

To honor this young man and bring awareness to the circumstances that led to his tragic death, we will explore Swanigan’s story and discuss some of the ways in which we can prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.

Caleb Swanigan’s Story

Caleb Swanigan had it rough from the start, being born into an unstable family situation. His father had a crack cocaine addiction and didn’t hold regular employment. As one of his mother’s six children, Swanigan spent much of his early childhood moving around and often living in homeless shelters.

Not only did Swanigan have a difficult life from early on, but he also inherited traits that would impact his journey. From his father, Swanigan inherited height — a key to his basketball career — as well as a tendency toward obesity. The latter impacted both Swanigan men and contributed to their deaths. When the elder Swanigan passed away in 2014 from medical complications from diabetes, he weighed nearly 500 pounds.

Swanigan seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. By the time he was in 8th grade, Swanigan was already over 6 feet tall and weighed 360 pounds. It was at this point that Swanigan’s older brother stepped in and implored his own former AAU basketball coach, Roosevelt Barnes, to take the teen in.

Coach Barnes accepted the challenge and adopted Swanigan, raising him as his own. With the support of Barnes, Swanigan improved his eating habits and started working out. By the time Swanigan graduated from high school, he had lost 100 pounds and was a budding athletic star.

Swanigan’s Successes and Shocking Death

After high school, Swanigan went on to play basketball at Purdue University. In college, Swanigan worked with staff to continue to strengthen and tone his body. He became a standout player, earning accolades from his freshman year onward. In 2017, Swanigan was named the Big Ten Player of the year. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted in the first round of the NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers.

While Swanigan had been a star in college, he never quite found his footing in the NBA. He spent most of his time in the G-League system, and after moving around teams ended up back with the Trailblazers in 2020. When the league restarted its 2019–20 season, interrupted by COVID-19, Swanigan opted out of the 2020 NBA bubble claiming personal reasons.

In 2021, no longer in the NBA, Swanigan ran into some minor legal trouble. He was charged with misdemeanor drug possession, but more alarmingly photos of him released from the incident showed the former athlete as having gained a substantial amount of weight. Swanigan mostly stayed out of the spotlight until it was reported in late June that the young man had died of natural causes at a Fort Wayne, Indiana, hospital.

Understanding ACES

A key to understanding Swanigan’s story is to understand “ACEs.” ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) are “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood.” These experiences can include abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, and growing up in a household with substance abuse or mental illness. Research has shown that ACEs are linked to many poor health outcomes later in life, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and early death.

In Swanigan’s case, he likely experienced almost all 10 of the negative factors on the ACEs list. And while his situation was certainly severe, research shows that in the United States 61% of black children have reported experiencing at least one ACE. This is much higher than white children (40%). In Swanigan’s case, he was also part of an “ACES Cluster.”

ACEs are not limited to just the situations children face within their own homes or families. In fact, they reflect the general circumstances in which the child lives. Thus, the impact of ACEs is actually cumulative. For people like Swanigan and other young black Americans, research has identified high rates of adverse experiences in areas where multiple detrimental situations are occurring simultaneously. This is known as an ACEs cluster.

Poor Health Outcomes in the Black Community

The black community is disproportionately affected by ACEs. This disparity is even more pronounced when we look at specific health outcomes. For example, black men are twice as likely as white men to die from prostate cancer. They are also more likely to die from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

What happened to Caleb Swanigan is shocking because he was a talented professional athlete. However, when you step back and look at the bigger picture, you see how his lifelong circumstances drove him to an early death, and the success and health he experienced were more of an aberration than the norm in today’s society.

How Can We Prevent Such Tragedies?

Preventing tragedies like Swanigan’s death will require a multi-faceted approach. First, we need to address the disparities in ACEs that exist between different racial groups. This can be done through targeted interventions that seek to reduce the number of ACEs experienced by black children.

We also need to continue to create opportunities for health education and overall well-being for black athletes in high school and college. Data from the NCAA for 2018 showed that 56% of Division I men’s college basketball players were black, and 48% of Division 1 football players were black. Understanding the likely ACEs and ACEs clusters these students experienced before college should inform schools on how to provide additional resources to support better health and educational outcomes.

Additionally, we need to increase access to quality healthcare for the black community. This includes both mental and physical health care. Finally, we need to continue to raise awareness about ACEs and their impact on health outcomes. Only by working together can we hope to prevent tragedies like Swanigan’s death from happening in the future.



Dr. Campbell earned his MD from The Ohio State University College of Medicine and received several awards and accolades from the school.

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Dr. Jason Campbell

Dr. Campbell earned his MD from The Ohio State University College of Medicine and received several awards and accolades from the school.