HOOVER, Ala. — The reunion caught us both off guard.
And it happened during the opening session of SEC Media Days on July 17.
I was sitting at a table typing quotes and ruminating over what my next column would be when a Southeastern Conference official walked in with a handsome student-athlete. “This is Ryan Swope,” the official said. “He is a senior wide receiver for Texas A&M.”
The name hit me and I leaped to my feet, looking into the face of a man I recognized even though I hadn’t seen him since he was a boy.
“Ryan Swope!” I shouted. “The last time I saw you, we were throwing a football together in a parking lot in Kunming, China. You were picking up your sister and we were getting our daughter.”
His eyes widened with recognition and a broad smile swept across his face.
“Yeah,” he said, “Wow, how have you been? What a small world.”
Everyone else in the room looked at us as if we were speaking in tongues.
Said former Kentucky quarterback and FOX Sports South college football analyst Tim Couch, “That has to be the introduction of the week.”
James Bates, a former Florida linebacker and another FOX Sports South analyst, asked, “Ryan, what is the proper footwear for tossing a pigskin in Kunming, China?”
Only Ryan and I understood the bond that we shared, one that continued to connect us 10 years later.
The Swope family, along with my wife, Debbie, and I, are among the thousands of Americans who travel halfway around the world to adopt daughters from Chinese orphanages. Through that experience, we share a kinship that keeps us connected even when we lose touch.
Kunming is a “midsized” Chinese city of 6.9 million people in the south-central part of the country, just north of Laos in the foothills of the Himalayas. It sits 5,000 feet above sea level but is close enough to the equator that it has year-round temperatures about 70 degrees.
The name Kunming directly translates to “spring city.”
But it isn’t all chirping birds and cherry blossoms.
We and the Swopes picked up our daughters in a Kodak store, one of scores of street-front shops in the city center. Like many lost-in-translation moments, we were kept in the dark about why we’d stopped there. I assumed one of the expectant fathers forgot his film. It was only after one of the impatient adoptive mothers asked, “Why are we here?” that we learned the babies would be delivered to the aisle near the zoom lenses.
Just like that, a bus pulled up and a herd of nannies entered the store carrying our children. The Swopes’ new addition, Hannah, was 8 months old. My daughter, Liza, was the oldest child in the group at 16 months. With all the pomp and ceremony of a trip to the DMV, the nanny plopped Liza on the floor in front of us, turned and left without looking back.
The poor child reacted as you would expect. She hadn’t seen a Caucasian person before, so she must have thought she’d been abducted by aliens.
She had also never ridden in a car, eaten in a restaurant, flown on a plane, or even been on an elevator, all of which we subjected her to in a matter of hours.
The Swopes tried to help us as Liza remained inconsolable for much of the trip. Ryan, along with his younger brother, Louis, and his older sister, Regan, played with Liza constantly while their mother, Louise, coached Debbie, assuring her everything would be fine.
The day after we got our children, we toured the orphanage and then traveled to the abandonment sites to see where our girls had been found.
All orphans in China are abandoned. Even though China has a strict one-child policy, the government has also outlawed giving up children voluntarily. So newborns are left on street corners or in dumpsters. The lucky ones are placed outside government buildings, where they will be found quickly.
Hannah Swope was left under a train trestle beside a river.
As we visited the site, a train rumbled overhead with a deafening roar. I will never forget the look of anguish on the face of the father, Paul Swope, as he thought of the terrifying, lonely night his daughter must have spent there.
After a whirlwind of airline flights, immigration officials and “welcome home” signs, we all went our separate ways. Christmas cards and social media have been our only contact with the Swopes and the other members of our adoption group, although we feel as close to them now as we did that morning in the camera store.
I remember fondly the afternoon we visited the Stone Forest, a huge limestone outcropping that is one the more popular tourist attractions in Kunming. Ryan and I threw a football in the parking lot while Louis tried to cover his brother. At the time I thought they were pretty good athletes for 12- and 10-year-olds.
Now they are in the SEC. Ryan is the go-to receiver at Texas A&M; Louis is a walk-on defensive back and special-teams player for the Aggies.
Seeing Ryan again at Media Days reminded me of the details of our first trip to China and inspired me to reach out to old friends with whom we share an inexorable link.
Speaking with Paul Swope again was like reconnecting with an old friend. We quickly caught each other up and then planned to get together when A&M travels to Auburn in October.
Louise sent me an essay that Ryan wrote when he was a senior in high school. He titled it, “The Gift.”
“My little sister had dental surgery yesterday so when I came home from football practice, she was still a little out of it,” Ryan wrote five years ago. “I found her quietly playing in my parents’ bed. She had an abscessed tooth which doesn’t happen to too many 5-year-olds. The nannies (in the orphanage) don’t have time to feed all the babies so many times they will just prop up a bottle full of milk or sugar water. It may be there dripping for hours at a time. This often causes (tooth) decay.
“I can’t begin to imagine my life without Hannah. She screams when I chase her and laughs when I catch her . . . She comes to almost everyone of my games in her cheerleading outfit. Sometimes she waves or yells my name from the stands. She is (the) best little sister . . . She is a gift from God.”
As I was preparing to take Liza to the golf course (Debbie and I have become junior golf parents), I showed her some decade-old pictures of her and Hannah together in China.
“Will we get to see them again?” she asked.
“You bet we will,” I told her. “I’ll make sure of it.”