The commute never became routine. In the final weeks, with his ultimate goal finally in sight, it only grew more difficult.
For the past 15 Tuesdays, former Tennessee fullback Shawn Bryson would wake up at 3:30 a.m. in his Atlanta home and be on UT's campus by 8 a.m. Five classes and 12 hours later, the 35-year-old Bryson would check into a local hotel.
Wednesdays were spent exclusively at the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center, where he'd spend hours with his tutors and rub elbows with current UT student-athletes. Thursdays were just like Tuesdays — five classes, 12 hours, barely any time to eat — only the three-hour drive came at the end of the day, bringing him back to his family and reminding him why exactly he was putting himself through this arduous grind in the first place.
Friday, nearly 13 years since he ended his UT career with a national title, Bryson will graduate with a bachelor's degree in political science.
"When you're on a mission to do it, it's not a big deal," Bryson said. "I've dedicated my time to get this done and out of the way.
"I'm on a mission to get it finished."
I like to teach my kids how to finish. I kind of feel like a hypocrite if I'm not finishing myself, especially as far as school goes.
Bryson, who started every game of UT's undefeated 1998 season, was by no means a slouch in the classroom during his four years at UT. He just did what the majority of college seniors who have any shot at the NFL will do over the next few months, as he withdrew from his final spring-semester classes to focus exclusively on the league's draft.
For Bryson, it certainly paid off.
As a fullback, Bryson didn't carry the ball all that much at UT, but he was impressive enough during pre-draft workouts to land with the Buffalo Bills
as a running back in the third round. After three years in Buffalo and four more with the Detroit Lions, Bryson's professional career was over in 2006.
From a purely football perspective, the sense of finality was there. It just wasn't when Bryson hatched plans for the rest of his life.
He dabbled a bit in real estate and conducted private workouts with younger players, but Bryson's bigger goals often veered toward a dead end when he was reminded about his lack of a degree.
"My ultimate goal is to get into a coaching aspect, teaching aspect, whether it's high school level, college level," Bryson said. "Just trying to get into that, I've found it difficult without a degree.
"I like to teach my kids how to finish. I kind of feel like a hypocrite if I'm not finishing myself, especially as far as school goes."
Bryson's inspiration to return came from multiple people and multiple places. Back at UT, he said, it was from Dan Carlson.
Currently an associate director with the Tennessee Fund, Carlson spent a decade as the coordinator of UT's Renewing Academic Commitment (RAC) program, which helps former student-athletes whose eligibility has expired return to school and finish their degree. After passing an admission test to gain entrance into the program, the former athletes receive a scholarship in return for 10 hours of work per week with the athletic department.
Carlson said he "planted the seed" with Bryson shortly after his NFL career came to a close. He provided periodic, subtle reminders until Bryson began taking classes in Atlanta over the summer and ultimately committed to one final semester at UT.
"You've got to be really committed to make that type of commitment to come here and do such a thing," Carlson said. "This speaks volumes about how badly he wanted to get his college degree."
All the want and desire doesn't make the return any less difficult or awkward, Carlson said.
"In college, you never really had a break so you were in the habit of writing papers, doing multiplication and different types of problems," Carlson said. "All of a sudden now, for some people, you've had five, 10, 15, 20 years away from that. You haven't had to use those parts of your brain and a lot of those skills.
"Like anything, they get rusty just trying to remember what's a run-on sentence with the proper verbiage you want to use."
The memories, Bryson said, often flood back to him when he walks on campus in between classes. They're especially triggered when he sees current Vols walking in and out of the Neyland Thompson Sports Center on their way to class, practice or dinner.
Reality, though, hits him inside the classroom, where he's just another student working toward a degree.
"I'm so old now," Bryson said with a laugh. "These young people, I guess I'm out of their time."
When it came to finishing what he started, Bryson never ran out of time.
Getting there was the only hard part.