Shawn Bryson's long road to graduation

3:30 a.m. drives worth it for 1998 title-team fullback

Detroit Lions running back Shawn Bryson jumps over guard Ross Verba while being chased by Green Bay Packers safety Nick Collins during the first quarter of a 2006 game at Ford Field in Detroit in 2006. Bryson, a former Vol, has finished up his degree at Tennessee and will graduate today.

Photo by Associated Press

Detroit Lions running back Shawn Bryson jumps over guard Ross Verba while being chased by Green Bay Packers safety Nick Collins during the first quarter of a 2006 game at Ford Field in Detroit in 2006. Bryson, a former Vol, has finished up his degree at Tennessee and will graduate today.

Shawn Bryson

Shawn Bryson

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.

Shawn Bryson

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.

Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble

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Comments » 44

VOLliven2it writes:

Fantastic story of success for a great Volunteer. I am so glad to see this happen for Shawn Bryson. Best to you man and thanks for the memories. I remember a few big runs and blocks during his career as a Vol.

huntined#565710 writes:

WOW GREAT STORY PROUD OF HIM!!!

BigVolinCarolina writes:

Congratulations, Shawn! Great effort and accomplishment in getting your college degree.

Wish you still had some eligibility left--you were a quiet-yet-noticeable leader on that 1998 team. And I'll never forget your touchdown saving tackle against Auburn in the 1997 SEC Championship that you made when you came out of nowhere to make a huge play for us.

WV_Vol writes:

This is a great story about one of my all-time favorite Vols! I have family in Franklin, NC and I remember them telling me about him when he was in High School there. He was "as advertised" for sure. Glad to see this type of character in and around the program.

GloryDays writes:

Seems like a lot of Fulmer's players had a lot of heart, and put forth extra effort. Congrats.

NashvillePreds writes:

TD run against FL in '98 was defining.
Major props on the degree.
Please teach Da'Rick & Bray what The Volunteers mean to all us faceless fans.

Futbol_Phan writes:

Truly inspiring story. Congrats to you, Shawn Bryson!

mercuryvol writes:

Great story for one of the great (and undersung) Vols. Congratulations to you,Shawn. If my mind doesn't fail me,was he not the fastest player on the '98 team at 250 lbs.?

lomas98 writes:

Definition of total team player. Came to tn as a running back and couldn't pass players like jay Graham and Jamal Lewis on the depth chart. Moved to fullback and really accepted the role opening holes for Lewis and ultimately Henry and Stephens. Great blocker, receiver, and runner. As someone mentioned, he scored a td against Florida in 98 and scored the first touchdown in the fiesta bowl in the championship game. Glad to see he is finishing his degree, we certainly need to hear more stories like this.

RoadTrip writes:

Great story. Congrats, Shawn. You will do as well with the rest of your life as you did on the football field.

LJS1984 writes:

CONGRATULATIONS! Another back from the glory days! GRADUATE ASSISTANT PLEASE!!!!

ORboy writes:

Congratulations Shawn. You provide a shining example of what it takes to be a true winner. Determination, perseverance, willingness to go the extra mile. I'm proud to say that you represent the best qualities of a Volunteer For Life!

volfaninbuckeyeland writes:

I have that 98 game with Fl as well as most of the others from that season on a VHS cassette. I still remember jumping off of the couch when he ran through that mammoth hole and he was gone in a flash. The Fl players didn't know what hit em, and on the Tenn sideline, coaches and players alike erupted in celebration. I also remember telling my wife after that game that I felt like that team was a team of destiny, and that 98 might just be the year that UT would go all the way. Without players like Shawn Bryson those memories would never have been possible. Thanks, Shawn, and congratulations on another TD run with your education. Sounds as if this one took a lot more effort than the one against Fl.

LJS1984 writes:

Jay Graham and Shawn Bryson were a TWO of the most influential people in my life. Fourth and fifth respectively behind Andy Kelly, Carl Pickens, and Dale Carter. CONGRATS SHAWN, MY DEGREE FROM UTK IS POLI SCI AS WELL!!! THANK YOU!

LJS1984 writes:

in response to LJS1984:

Jay Graham and Shawn Bryson were a TWO of the most influential people in my life. Fourth and fifth respectively behind Andy Kelly, Carl Pickens, and Dale Carter. CONGRATS SHAWN, MY DEGREE FROM UTK IS POLI SCI AS WELL!!! THANK YOU!

UTK DECEMBER GRAD 2008.

Oranj writes:

Let's congratulate him on his personal achievement, not just on his underutilized skills at TN. Did we ever think based upon his involvement that he would be an NFL player?

To experience the professional "high" but then be able to return to a regular life with graduation as the goal - coupled with the logistics he endured - is so very admirable.

These are the stories we need to hear more about. VFL

BillsBrother writes:

in response to mercuryvol:

Great story for one of the great (and undersung) Vols. Congratulations to you,Shawn. If my mind doesn't fail me,was he not the fastest player on the '98 team at 250 lbs.?

Fastest player, yes.
250 lbs, no. With TN listed at 220. In NFL at 230.

DannyVol writes:

in response to NashvillePreds:

TD run against FL in '98 was defining.
Major props on the degree.
Please teach Da'Rick & Bray what The Volunteers mean to all us faceless fans.

That was a great run...right up the middle with surprising speed.

cincykid writes:

in response to LJS1984:

Jay Graham and Shawn Bryson were a TWO of the most influential people in my life. Fourth and fifth respectively behind Andy Kelly, Carl Pickens, and Dale Carter. CONGRATS SHAWN, MY DEGREE FROM UTK IS POLI SCI AS WELL!!! THANK YOU!

The same Dale Carter who played for the Chiefs and was arrested for firing a gun at a car at the Country Club Plaza shopping area in KCMO, and numerous other incidents? Yeah, very influential.

OwensboroVol writes:

Absolutely the greatest thing you ever done Shawn! One thing I always told myself, my children, and now my grandchildren is that NO ONE can ever take your degree away from you. There will not be a single day go by that having your degree won't bring some kind of benefit to you. The most valuable thing I ever accomplished,

ctownvol writes:

Cincy- If you knew Dale, you would know what kind of man he has grown into. I know Dale Carter. I see the good he does in his community and the time he spends coaching kids. Dale is a good man. Everyone has made mistakes. The true test is to rise above them. Just thought you might want to know.

volfan14#216050 writes:

Shawn,
Once again, the Vol Nation is very proud of you and your accomplishments! Thanks!

CrankE writes:

in response to volfaninbuckeyeland:

I have that 98 game with Fl as well as most of the others from that season on a VHS cassette. I still remember jumping off of the couch when he ran through that mammoth hole and he was gone in a flash. The Fl players didn't know what hit em, and on the Tenn sideline, coaches and players alike erupted in celebration. I also remember telling my wife after that game that I felt like that team was a team of destiny, and that 98 might just be the year that UT would go all the way. Without players like Shawn Bryson those memories would never have been possible. Thanks, Shawn, and congratulations on another TD run with your education. Sounds as if this one took a lot more effort than the one against Fl.

Likewise! As soon as Bryson hit the hole, he was gone. It was already past tense. 57 yards. Give him six! Touchdown Tennessee!

give_him_6 writes:

GREAT story!! Congrats Shawn, your commitment will be seen by a lot of folks, especially your kids, as how to finish a job right!! VFL!!!!

tmartin writes:

in response to untimed_vols_ghost:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

We are just as good now. I mean Poole, Lane, Neal and Toney are just as good as those 4.

Vol_Stuck_in_GA writes:

Congratulations

standfast#211788 writes:

These are the kinds of guys Coach Dooley ought to bring back to Knoxville to talk to the players every year in the Vol for Life program -- how to set priorities and goals, and dedicate yourself to achieving them. Congratualtions, Shawn, on a job well done.

Jakevol writes:

A true example for younger folks to follow. Things just don't come to you, You must work for them. Secondly, Shawn is leading by example,, only in America! When he walks across the stage and gets the papers, it's another GIVE HIM 6!

voloffaith writes:

in response to ctownvol:

Cincy- If you knew Dale, you would know what kind of man he has grown into. I know Dale Carter. I see the good he does in his community and the time he spends coaching kids. Dale is a good man. Everyone has made mistakes. The true test is to rise above them. Just thought you might want to know.

Ctown notice what time cincy typed his view....might enlighten as to nature of post. Also inability to see what type of individual he may have grown into. Living in the past never moves you forward.

KevDVol writes:

Congrats to out Fastest Fullback Ever!
Ran the ball and not his mouth. Shawn was the best all-around back in arguably the most talented backfield in UT Football history - but he never complained about having to block most of the time.

The great run against Florida is permanently burned into my memory. He would have been the starting tailback in almost every other SEC backfield in '98 - but Shawn Bryson earned his Championship rings by putting the team first.

I hope that Justin Hunter, our young linebackers and others can follow Shawn Bryson's great leadership example. It may be too late for some to learn about humble leadership.

hcjournals#206623 writes:

So, so great.....

richvol writes:

I was sitting there when Shawn cleanly broke through that hole in the Florida line 57 yards from the end zone. I thought that the Florida secondary would catch him but he ran away from everyone and no one was within 10 yards of him when he crossed the goaline. Florida was stunned and I began to feel good about our chances of winning that day. It's still one of the most exciting games I ever witnessed.

bUTchVFL writes:

From a '92 UTK grad, I say welcome to the family Shawn. Congratulations!

VOLinTX writes:

This is just an absolutely great story of determination and dedication. Congratulations to Mr. Bryson. You just became a real "role model".

hikerdude writes:

Its really nice to get a story like this every now and then. I had not heard of the Renewing Academic Commitment program before. We should be proud of that.

Chappy writes:

in response to cincykid:

The same Dale Carter who played for the Chiefs and was arrested for firing a gun at a car at the Country Club Plaza shopping area in KCMO, and numerous other incidents? Yeah, very influential.

It's Christmastime, and this is a feel-good story. Why the spite and bitterness? You'll be a much happier person if you let go your anger.

hueypilot writes:

I think Bryson was among the five fastest guys on that team. He broke another long run in addition to the one against Florida. In short yardage situations if the other team sold out to stop the dive and he broke through to the second level, there was no one going to catch him
Congratulations young man.
I went back to school at 38 at night for three years and got my degree. I think it means more to you when you do it that way. Anyway, good luck to you.

illinoisvolfan writes:

Thank you KNS for this type of story. No, it doesn't generate as much discussion as a controversial one, but it's much more uplifting. Congratulations to Shawn for his drive and desire. Pay attention current Vol players, this is how you get things done...sacrifice and effort.

CoverOrange writes:

in response to hueypilot:

I think Bryson was among the five fastest guys on that team. He broke another long run in addition to the one against Florida. In short yardage situations if the other team sold out to stop the dive and he broke through to the second level, there was no one going to catch him
Congratulations young man.
I went back to school at 38 at night for three years and got my degree. I think it means more to you when you do it that way. Anyway, good luck to you.

Totally agree. I got my masters 10 years after my BS. I finally understood why my freshman year roommate who had quit his job at TVA to get his degree spent all his time studying.

traderjoe writes:

NEWS! Kansas chooses Weis over Fulmer. I guess weight wasn't the issue with Fulmer after all.

Volfantm writes:

Excellent work, Mr. Bryson!

johnlg00 writes:

When Shawn was an incoming freshman, he sat at my family's table at the welcoming barbecue in TBA. We were all impressed with his quiet but friendly demeanor and we all could just feel that he would be a great success on and off the field. I was privileged as a GTA to teach him in class and tutor him later in a variety of subjects. As the article stated, there was never a question of his ability as a student but he did fall into the time "trap" of the semester after he finished his eligibility before finishing his degree. No one could blame him for taking the time to prepare for the NFL draft, but it does show how hard it is to finish if you wait that late. Taking the hard road to finish after all this time speaks well for him but shouldn't surprise anyone who knows him. All the best in the future for an outstanding young man and a true VFL!

VolAtUGA11 writes:

Congrats, Shawn! One of my favorite Vols. Seems like every time I remember Ward calling his name on the radio, it was for a first down. Got to be tough to stick with the plan of graduating, after all these years and all those commuter miles this semester. Many well wishes for the future!

fratricide08 writes:

I'm a bit late to the party (only just saw this story) but I wanted to say congrats to Mr. Shawn Bryson on an amazing achievement! I wish nothing but the best for you and yours.

One part of this story though that has nothing to do with Shawn struck me as odd and that's the entrance exam. Why does this program require an entrance exam? Seems to me it should be open to all ex-athletes as long as they're willing to commit to the work. I really hope this program isn't screening out athletes who might need more remedial work or simply more work to achieve a degree. I've taught kids of many different abilities and unless there's a cognitive problem, and even then it has to be on the level of what might be called 'mental retardation' (and I'm speaking purely technically there with no insult intended), just about anyone can earn a diploma in at least something even if they're slower learners than others.

Yes, it can take a whole LOT of work and TIME and some may only be able to tackle one subject at a time but it can be done if everyone (the student, his/her tutors and professors) are all in and dedicated to helping the student learn.

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