Encouragement helps homeless boy become college basketball star

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana -- Sophomore Caleb Swanigan, number 50 for the Purdue Boilermakers, may be the most talented college basketball player in the country. But he is also the most unlikely.

“Feels like I just had two lives, really. For lack of a better word it feels like I died and then got a reincarnation,” Caleb said.

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Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan in action

Michael Conroy, AP

The new Caleb is a college basketball star. The old Caleb weighed over 360 pounds in 8th grade; The only thing the kid could dunk was a cookie.

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A younger Caleb Swanigan

But what makes his success most implausible is that for the majority of his childhood, Caleb was homeless. His mom used to drag him from shelter to shelter, in Indianapolis and across the country, until 2011 when she gave up her parental rights.

“He had on a blue shirt, a tie, some khaki pants and he had his little duffle bag under his arm. That’s all the possessions he had,” said Roosevelt Barnes, who adopted Caleb.

At the time, Roosevelt was recently divorced and his other kids were grown and gone.

“And it allowed me to have somebody in the house that I could love again, really,” he said.

Love and encourage. Roosevelt says you have to encourage.

Which is why, when that 360 pound 8th grader said he wanted to play basketball, of all sports, Roosevelt didn’t try to lower Caleb’s expectations. He raised them.

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Roosevelt Barnes

CBS News

“When he couldn’t jump over a piece of paper, I was telling him, ‘You’re great. You’re the best power forward in the world,’” Roosevelt said.

Asked if he was lying to Caleb, he said, “No I wasn’t. I was speaking faith. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.”

And Caleb believed.

“I guess he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself at that point,” he said.

It helped that Roosevelt knew a little something about sports. He played pro football in Detroit and he now works as a sports agent. So he laid out a program for Caleb that included getting in shape and getting mostly A’s in school.

As a result, Caleb Swanigan was named an academic All-American on Thursday; One of the top basketball players in the country with a 3.3 GPA to boot.

Is this kid one of a kind? Or is he just one of many kids on our streets and in our foster system who simply need someone to believe?

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  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.