Josh Sweat’s father visited his son at Florida State, flipped a light switch in his room and witnessed a startling contraption. This wasn’t a student’s standard-issued laptop on his desk. It was a homemade computer with bright lights and water flowing.
“What are you doing here? Are you building bombs? What’s going on?” asked William Washington, Sweat’s father.
“No, Dad,” Sweat said. “That’s coolant.”
“I never even knew computers had that!” Washington said.
Sweat, the Eagles’ burgeoning, 25-year-old pass-rushing star builds computers. From scratch. With his 10 1/4-inch hands manipulating small parts.
Outside the Eagles’ locker room, Sweat explained the process with a straight face.
“It’s a lot easier than you think,” he insisted.
Once you have the components, it should only take a few hours. Sure, the casings can present a challenge. And if you add water cooling, that raises the level of difficulty. Otherwise, it’s simple.
There are certain hobbies that are common in NFL locker rooms. You can talk golf in one corner, gaming in another. Music and food are popular topics. Then there’s Sweat building computers — more than 20 in the past decade, each one better and different than the one before — and his eyes widening while explaining the intricacies of his latest creation.
“You would never expect Sweaty to be really nerdy, but he really is,” Eagles linebacker Patrick Johnson said. “He’s completely opposite of what you’d expect from somebody (like him).”
“I would say they’re not typical for an NFL player,” Eagles assistant coach Jeremiah Washburn said of Sweat’s hobbies. “He does have some unique interests.”
This is the way Sweat’s mind works. He can walk into Best Buy and purchase a computer, but it wouldn’t be the same. The motion rate would lag. The design would lack an artistic flair. It’s better to do it his way. Because for Sweat, beauty comes from reconstructing chaos.
He was once a top-10 recruit who left a high school game in an ambulance because of a knee injury that threatened his career. He missed last postseason because of a ruptured artery that threatened his life. Each time, he needed to rebuild himself just like a computer built from scratch.
In between, he was a fourth-round pick whose athleticism outpaced his skill. By his own admission, he needed to learn how to rush the quarterback upon entering the NFL. Now he’s a top-of-the-league sack artist, with 11 this season.
Each project became a maniacal desire, one that’s hidden behind layers seldom revealed to the public. You don’t know the power by looking at a computer, and you don’t know Sweat by seeing him walk through a room.
“Josh has always been one mind-focused,” Washington said. “Because he gets compartmentalized. And that’s how he rebuilt himself. Because every time there’s a challenge, if he decides, ‘I’m gonna go over this hurdle,’ he just becomes so focused on it. And sometimes it’s scary. He gets so focused on things, that that’s the only thing that matters.”
Sweat’s interest in building computers dates back to high school in Chesapeake, Va. He’s an avid video gamer and learned that gaming is better on a PC than a traditional console.
“He asked for money to buy a really expensive computer,” Washington said. “Well, we have eight kids. … That’s a lot of money.”
So instead, Sweat asked for money to buy parts. Then he watched YouTube, over and over again.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Sweat said. “I just found it’s really just following directions just to get a basic PC functioning.”
He didn’t want to settle for basic PC functions. He learned water cooling. He learned glass blowing. When he went to Florida State, any money from his parents wasn’t spent on partying. It was used to build computers.
As Sweat refined the craft, the computers became more sophisticated. An NFL paycheck helped cover the expenses, which swelled with supply chain limiting parts. He can spend about $1,200 on fittings alone. Then he needs tubing, and that requires either bending or cutting the tubes. Go to the graphic cards, and he’s looking at $2,500-$3,000 for the specs that he wants. Then it’s another $600-$700 for the central processing unit.
“And that’s just the basic parts to get it running,” Sweat said. “It gets expensive when you want to take it to the next level.”
It started as a hobby. Now it’s become a passion — one that he says he likes to “go over the top” to achieve.
“When you get more technical — like if you see the stuff I do now — it’s much different than easy stuff,” Sweat said. “So when I say build a computer, OK, that’s the easy part. Then the last level is getting radiators, getting water pumps, glass tubes, metal tubes, whatever you want. Make sure everything’s cooled properly, it makes it silent so you don’t hear fans. And it looks like art. Now, to me, it is art. I know I can get it functioning, I know I can get it performing just as well as anything out there. To me now it’s about, how well can I make this look, what design can I do, can I build it into this case?”
He’s mounted computers into walls. He’s made floating PCs in desks. He once purchased a shower door and cut the glass so he had a piece big enough for his needs. Sweat uses the computer mostly for gaming, but it’s also a workplace for web browsing or recording or productivity.
And every year, he builds it again. He constructs two — one for his brother, and one as an upgrade from what he already used. He’s racing against himself, trying to create a better version.
“This is a way for me to express my artistic side,” Sweat said. “I take pride in how well I can do in whatever I set out to do. … It is a passion and a hobby, for sure.”
And it’s one that might grow throughout the locker room. Johnson is looking to build a computer from scratch and has spoken with Sweat about the process. So is Brandon Graham.
Sweat’s current setup includes his “main PC,” which is built into a finished white wooden table. Sweat drilled holes to hide wires and mounted the computer horizontally, an untraditional setup that essentially made it a floating desk with tempered glass atop for the mouse and keyboard. His second computer is custom-built and wall mounted for guests. That has coolant flowing vertically, which alleviates air bubbles. The horizontal setup makes bubbles more of a nuisance.
Sweat sees parallels between the way he builds computers and plays football. When he prepares for a given matchup, he identifies pass-rush moves for specific opponents. What works one week might not make sense the following week. The “guest PC” can be used for any game he plays, but he wouldn’t use it for video editing. His “main PC” can be used for anything — that’s akin to a pass-rush move that would work against any lineman.
It was noted to Sweat that building computers isn’t generally viewed as normal behavior. The appeal of computers is often simplicity — fewer parts, ease of use, portability. And it seems somewhat audacious for a teenager to think he can learn through a YouTube video. But this offers a window into Sweat’s personality.
Sweat once wanted to throw the discus but didn’t know how. He taught himself on YouTube and became a state champion. Sweat once encountered trouble in school because he wanted to spend too much time reviewing a test. He needed to make it perfect, and he wasn’t notified about a time limit.
“He has a tremendous amount of depth,” Washburn said. “He’s a very thoughtful person, and I don’t know if a lot of people know that about him.”
It’s how he recovered from injuries and developed into a standout pass rusher. Sweat didn’t see an audacious teenager building a computer. He saw a focused one.
“The type of dude I am, I’m so spontaneous that even if I don’t know if it’s gonna work out, I just go and do it anyway,” Sweat said. “Let me buy (the parts), and when I get it, I’ll figure it out from there. … If I got my mind set, it ain’t going to change. I made up my mind that I’m going to do it and I’m going to go all the way through with it.”
Sweat had a Tuesday off in his Philadelphia-area home on Jan. 11, 2022, five days before his first playoff game as a starter, when he felt lightheaded and his abdomen grew heavy.
“Hey, I’m dizzy. I think I passed out,” he said to his father on the phone.
“We’re in Virginia! Go to the emergency room. Go to the hospital!” Washington told him.
When Sweat arrived, he learned the severity of the discomfort. An artery ruptured, for an unspecified reason, and spilled blood. He needed an emergency procedure to cauterize the artery. It only took minutes and saved his life.
“It was scary until it wasn’t,” he said.
The Eagles weren’t embellishing his condition when they described it as “life-threatening” before the postseason game, with little explanation about the significance of what occurred.
“I don’t think people really had gotten a full understanding that had he fallen asleep that day, he would have bled to death. He would have died,” Washington said. “He had lost so much blood. It was amazing that he could still do all the things that he could do. But his mind was so focused on playing in that playoff game, continuing to be that football player. And he had to take a moment and realize that this moment was bigger than that.”
Not that Sweat needed perspective about injuries. On Sept. 19, 2014, he dislocated his knee and tore ligaments in an injury so severe and grotesque that he risked leg amputation. He was the nation’s top-ranked defensive end at the time, and the injury has been attached to his name ever since — through college, through the draft process, even during his tenure with the Eagles.
The injury and recovery have been well-documented during the past decade, and it can be tied neatly with a bow years later when he’s a Pro Bowler with a new contract. But Sweat hasn’t forgotten how scared he was that he could lose his leg, that he might need to spend life in a wheelchair.
“Might be over for me,” Sweat said he thought on the field.
Until there was a plan for recovery. At that point, it was like building a computer from YouTube. Follow the instructions. Be exhaustive in trying to construct a better version. Washington remembers Sweat being “obsessed” with the rehab. There was a machine in their home to strengthen Sweat’s leg, and he used it so much that Washington threatened to take it away. This is what Washington referred to when he said Sweat becomes “compartmentalized” — whatever the task is at the moment becomes a singular compulsion.
As frightening as the knee injury appeared and how rigorous the recovery proved to be, Sweat suggested that returning from last January’s scare was more meaningful. He had 7 1/2 sacks in his first year as a starter, earned a contract extension, found his footing with the team, and then he’s suddenly back in a hospital bed.
“I lost all my weight, all my strength,” Sweat said. “I felt like I had to hit that reset button.”
Sweat is listed at 265 pounds. He said he dropped to 235 pounds after the emergency procedure. And he couldn’t just eat Froot Loops to add weight.
“I had to do it the right way, make sure I balanced my weight lifting with what I was eating,” Sweat said.
He also needed to rebuild his mind — ”I was on a low,” he acknowledged — and developed a hunger for career achievement that he hadn’t felt previously. Not when he tried breaking into the Eagles’ rotation, not when he earned his contract.
“I developed a serious love,” Sweat said. “I want to be great. Be excellent. Normally I don’t even use that, but I want to be like other guys mentioned.”
That turned into a career season — 11 sacks through 15 games — before another frightening injury in Week 17.
In the first quarter against the New Orleans Saints, Sweat attempted a routine tackle like in any game he’s ever played. This time, he didn’t stand up afterward. He remained motionless on the turf. The Philadelphia crowd was hushed. Players prayed. In the stands, Sweat’s parents agonized.
“When your child doesn’t get up, your heart stops,” Washington said. “I was on the field when he hurt his leg. Walked out there, he was talking. ‘OK, leg. We can fix it.’ When he doesn’t get up — and you can’t see him, you can’t get there — you hold your breath. His mom, she holds her breath. You’re in just a holding pattern. You pray. And you just hold on. But when you get to hear him talk to you, that relief falls over you.”
On the field, unbeknownst to the fans or the viewing public, Sweat communicated with teammates before he was taken off on a stretcher and carried to a local hospital in an ambulance.
Paul Lancaster, the Eagles’ senior director of player engagement, immediately found Sweat’s parents in the stands and brought them to the training room to see their son. An escort was arranged to take them to the hospital.
The Eagles’ care for Sweat’s health is particularly touching to Washington, who saw how the team had a representative with him around the clock in the hospital last January and routinely checked on Sweat throughout his recovery.
“You couldn’t ask for anything more. And need I say perfect,” Washington said. “That comfort of being with your child? There’s nothing else. … They did everything for us that we could have imagined.”
The neck injury was less serious than the fears of those watching, and Sweat was released from the hospital later that evening. With his parents there with their son almost one year apart, there was a familiar discussion from the hospital bed. He needed to continue building. Last January, it was about reaching double-digit sacks. This time, it was more than his 2022 total.
“Believe it or not, when he was in the hospital … he was talking about sacks,” Washington said. “‘Dude, calm down. It’s OK.’ Those are the things that he said. … He switches and goes, ‘I have to turn it up next year, because I get better each year. Eleven is a lot. Have to get to 12-13 next year.’ So, you know, each year we want to get better, and he has improved every year. But that’s his mentality.”
First comes the postseason, which he missed last year. He’s expected to start in Saturday night’s divisional-round matchup against the New York Giants.
“It means everything,” Sweat said. “I took it hard not playing (at the end of the season). The pace I was going, I felt like nobody could play with me. … I felt like I could not be stopped.”
Hits snooze button off the snap and is always the last one out of his stance.
Frame carries a lean lower body.
Motor runs hot and cold.
Sweat didn’t ridicule the evaluator. He agreed with the assessment.
He played a different technique at Florida State than when he arrived in Philadelphia, and he didn’t recognize the importance of accelerating off the ball. He was leaner in college, and with the way he needed to play on the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle, he didn’t necessarily resemble the Energizer Bunny.
There’s a certain humility to hearing Sweat discuss the player the Eagles drafted. He was 6-foot-5 and 251 pounds with 34 5/8-inch arms, a 4.53-second 40-yard dash and a 39.5-inch vertical jump. That’s almost like a lab-created pass rusher — except he didn’t know how to pass rush.
“I didn’t have that. It was hard for me to still flip that switch,” Sweat said. “High school, I did my thing, but I was blessed, in different ways that they weren’t. I still trained, but athleticism took me a long way. In college, I was late off the ball every time. I didn’t know the importance of pass rushing, it was more just doing my job, hold my spot, that’s it. It wasn’t, ‘Go get it.’ It took me a long time to get it going.”
In Jim Schwartz’s defense as the LEO defensive end, there was no other option. “You gotta do it, or else,” Sweat said. Schwartz was a believer in Sweat, who learned in a group that included Graham, Derek Barnett and Chris Long. Vinny Curry returned in 2019. The Eagles wanted to redirect these tools into going toward the quarterback, using the speed and quickness they believed he possessed.
Basically, building an edge rusher like Sweat builds a computer.
“Man, I’ve seen him figure out that, ‘OK, these are my strengths,’” Graham said. “When he started realizing how fast he was, he was getting off the rock and then the moves came when he was practicing every day. … Now, Sweaty is legit. Legit.”
The production increased each season. He went from zero sacks to four to six to 7 1/2 to 11. His quarterback hits have ascended from nine to 11 to 14 to 18. The contract he signed in September 2021 was more for what Sweat could become than what he had accomplished.
After last season, the coaching staff challenged Sweat to develop into more of an “alpha guy,” according to Washburn. Sweat told them he was ready for that step.
“He’s really embraced that role, even more than I thought he would,” Washburn said. “I think he wants to be a guy that people count on here, and a reliable player, and that’s why we admire him so much as a staff. Because he’s just been, down in and down out. He’s an elite pass rusher, but the things he does for us from the run game, coverage, just the little things, is just so valuable for our defense.”
Sweat speaks in a way he never did before. He’s not afraid to say he wants to be viewed among the league’s best players. He doesn’t shun a higher profile. There’s a passion for excellence that he acknowledged wasn’t present a decade ago.
Washington said if Sweat studied the game in high school, he would have been “amazing” — and he was already a top recruit. Even at Florida State, Sweat did not play to his optimum. But when he reached the NFL, the stakes were raised. He wasn’t the best. It tested how much football mattered.
“I was playing because I was good at it then,” Sweat said. “Now I play because I truly love it and want to get better.”
Sweat envisions what’s ahead. Just like the computer he built in high school doesn’t look the same as the one currently in his home. The computer in his home when his contract expires after the 2024 season won’t be the same as the one he has now. He’ll keep building his career. That’s what he does.
“The story about him and his growth is going to be truly interesting,” Washington said. “But the thing I’m proudest of is he’s a good person. Not that he’s a football player. Not that he can build computers. But that he’s a good person. At the end of the day, that’s all we have.”
It occurred to Sweat that this is exactly who he wanted to become. He’s a football star who’s “really nerdy,” who overcame injuries that could have ended his career — and even his life. He has a $40 million contract and builds two computers per year. And whatever is thrown in his direction, he seems to wipe it off like the sweat on his face during his signature sack celebration.
What would the teenage Sweat who first started buying parts for computers and didn’t quite know how to rush a quarterback think of his life now?
“The coolest dude in the world.”
(Top illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photo: Andy Lewis / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)