Marcus Spears is big in every sense of the word. His physical stature is that of a former NFL defensive lineman, a veteran of nine seasons who towers over his ESPN counterparts on-screen. Spears has a big personality, too, with his lilting Southern accent and conversational tone. And, of course, it’s his nickname. The man known as Big Swagu is one of the more iconic and recognizable characters in the ESPN universe.
His style is colloquial. It’s welcoming. Spears wants to have a conversation with whomever is willing to listen, a tone he’s worked on developing since his first day at ESPN. Whether it’s his coworkers on Get Up or NFL Live, or the millions of viewers tuning in, Spears wants everyone involved to feel like they’re sitting around on a sofa, just chatting about sports.
This is the foundation for Swagu and Perk, Spears’ first endeavor into full-time podcasting alongside Kendrick Perkins.
Spears told The Big Lead that when he was growing up he’d listen to his grandmother talk on the phone with her friends. They’d talk about all sorts of things, good and bad, about the people at church and in the community. Spears didn’t grasp the nuances of the conversations the adults were having, but knew he loved to listen.
“I would just sit there and listen and I'm like, ‘This is the most entertaining thing that's happened to me,’” Spears says. “So I think that's what me and Perk are trying to do. Come be a fly on the wall and listen to us talk. We’ve got a lot to say.”
Teaming up with Perkins makes perfect sense. They were both born and raised in the South. You can hear it in their voices, a rarity in an industry where quirky mannerisms are usually drilled out of personalities long before the red light goes on. Spears has NFL expertise borne from a lifetime of playing, and Perkins has his NBA experience after a 15-year career.
But what sets them apart? What makes Swagu and Perk different from any other podcast dedicated to discussing the storylines of the day in football or basketball, many hosted by those with similar professional backgrounds? The answer is simple: the draw will be Spears and Perkins themselves and the authenticity they plan to bring to every episode.
Spears knows NFL and NBA analysis doesn’t necessarily differentiate him and Perkins from the pack, even if he believes they bring some of the best in the game. Yet that isn’t why he wanted to make a podcast, and it’s not why he wants the audience to tune in. He wants people to listen because he and Perkins will be real. Real about sports, and real about life.
“Me and Big Perk from the South, man. We speak with broken English, sometimes we curse, we get loud, we get passionate and that's real life, you know, that's what people do,” Spears says. “People go through hardships. People have highlight moments that they want to share with the world, but they don't have the platforms to do it. We wanted to be this big, wide-stretched community of different age groups. Like, you may tap into the podcast and something hit you and makes you stay to see what's gonna be talked about next. Something that you may not be interested in at all. But because you are part of the family, you're like, let me stay and listen to what my uncles and my cousins are talking about.”
Spears wants it to be more free-flowing and loose than a standard podcast format. The draw of the podcast is who’s doing the talking, not what they’re talking about.
“It's like really recess. It's not like a structured dodgeball game or structured kickball game,” Speras explains. “It's like, y'all go outside and just wild out for the next 45 minutes and that's what me and Perk are doing.”
He does recognize there needs to be some semblance of order. In the first episode, Spears tees Perkins up to talk basketball and lets him go. From there, listeners get to enjoy the full experience of Marcus Spears and Kendrick Perkins. Their conversation ranges from Ted Cruz and gun laws in Texas to the importance of father figures in the lives of young men. There’s plenty of sports talk; sports are what the two have dedicated their lives to, after all. But there are hefty doses of lifestyle and culture mixed in.
“We are proud, super proud Black men that care about our culture and care about our people. But this podcast for everybody,” Spears emphasizes. “Like, this podcast is for the people because me and Perk go through a lot of stuff that people go through and we’re probably going to ruffle feathers, we’re going to offend, we're gonna make you laugh. Ultimately we want to make you laugh and we want you to leave that podcast saying, ‘Damn. They made me think, but I had a good time while I was thinking.’"
Spears doesn’t really care about expectations. He won’t be pigeonholed just because he was a football player. That much is clear seeing all of his appearances across the Worldwide Leader’s studio shows, where he always has a well-researched thought to give no matter what the topic of the day is. The podcast forum allows Spears to talk about what he wants in the way that he wants -- and what that is will change with each episode.
“In our mind, life is always evolving, Sports has always evolved in sports is the sport's going to give you a lot, but we also focus a lot on who we are, the experiences we have and family and I think the thing for us man, we're just not scared to talk about our flaws and the things that we get wrong and some family stuff, family chaos.
“I hope that resonates with people. It's just it's really what people go through, that's what we're trying to convey.”
Spears recognizes it may not be for everyone. He and Perkins are a different flavor of ice cream, Spears explains. Somebody showing up expecting strawberry or vanilla might not like what the two are offering. He even admitted he’s looking forward to seeing the negative reviews, both to laugh at and to use as extra motivation. He describes Swagu and Perk as a “life podcast,” one that isn’t going to save the world but one that will give the audience a peek into the lives of himself and Perkins and hopefully teaches them something.
Above all else, he wants the people listening to know that he and Perkins are just that: people. It can be easy to forget, given the long shadow their larger-than-life personalities and careers can cast. Spears believes they have a lot to offer, no matter who is listening.
It’s the sense of community, though, the collective sense of belonging that will fulfill their vision. Spears wants to foster an environment where everyone feels like they’re sitting in a living room with Swagu and Perk, talking about life and all the trials and triumphs that come with it.
“Come be family, man. Ultimately, if you listen in on Swagu and Perk, you should feel like you're part of it,” says Spears. “Don't matter if you’re a middle-aged white dude, a young white dude, a young white woman, young black man, young black woman, you should feel some attachment to what me and Perk are doing.
“And if we’re alienating anyone, then I don't feel like we're doing our service to what the podcast should be. I think that's what's gonna keep us going, to be honest with you. Community, family. and the engagement you have with family. Whether that's good, bad or indifferent, eventually we all come together.”