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Second Time Around

April 30, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn

Chances are that if you’re at Georgia Tech’s commencement ceremonies Saturday, you’ll have an, “I remember that guy!” moment upon seeing Gary Guyton, Joshua Nesbitt and T.J. Barnes accept degrees.

Don’t be surprised.

These three former Tech football players worked in or are playing in the NFL yet have designs beyond the game, and will join 69 other current or former Jacket student-athletes, managers and trainers in graduating.

This may be a surprise: Their scholarship opportunities and access to academic support systems at Georgia Tech did not end when their college eligibility expired.

The Georgia Tech Athletic Association (GTAA), the NFL and even the NCAA helped Guyton, Nesbitt, Barnes and other former Jackets fund the final pursuit of degrees.

Guyton, who played for the Jackets from 2004-`07, would’ve walked the walk sooner if he weren’t so successful at the next level.

After joining the NFL’s Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2008, he was active for all but one game as a rookie. Although New England missed the postseason that season, he and his teammates were busy into what would be the spring semesters at Tech in ’09, ’10 and ’11. That prevented the Hinesville, Ga., native from working on that degree. In ’12, he was still busy chasing his football dream with the Dolphins, Cowboys and Chargers.

By the winter of ’13, Guyton was hitting the books again, taking 12 hours at Tech in a program through which the NFL reimburses Guyton for school fees so long as he achieves a B or higher in each class. He had seven hours this spring.

“I wasn’t able to get back to class when [the Pats] made the playoffs,” said the former linebacker, who had 230 combined tackles and assists in the NFL. “I always wanted to get my degree from Tech, but kept missing registration.

“Having a degree from Georgia Tech and being able to network has been a great experience. It was definitely on my bucket list.”

Guyton hopes to leverage his business administration degree as he tries to start a trucking/logistics company. His father is an over-the-road driver.

Where Guyton, 28, has received reimbursement from the NFL for the 12 credit hours he took in ’13 and the seven he’s wrapping up this spring, Nesbitt, 26, did not qualify for that plan as he did not spend enough time in the League.

The NCAA has a grant program that Nesbitt has used to pay for his Tech fees with a stipend for books.

Remarkably hard-headed and physical as the Jackets’ primary quarterback from ’07-’10, Nesbitt, 26, has taken greater advantage.

After spending ’11 and part of ’12 with the Buffalo Bills, the Greensboro, Ga., native re-enrolled in the spring of ’13 and is wrapping up a degree in business administration.

He’s open-minded with regard to what he might do in the future, but returning to Tech was not optional. Nesbitt lives in Covington now with his wife and a 3-year-old daughter, and with a son on the way.

Like Guyton, he has found academic life less challenging the second time around chiefly because he has no other commitments on campus.

“Oh yeah, by far,” He said. ” `Easy’ is not the word I would use, but . . . I would say there are certain things I learned from the NFL: being more attentive, being in a class and just being prepared.”

In addition to the NFL, Major League Baseball also has ways of helping former student-athletes return to college.

There are times when former student-athletes do not qualify for programs funded by the NFL, MLB or NCAA and in those situations, the GTAA will provide financial assistance to match what a student-athlete had while his or her eligibility was intact so long as the students meet academic requirements.

The GTAA also continues funding the scholarships of student-athletes whose eligibility has run out but are finishing their degree requirements – fifth- and sixth-year seniors.

Assistant Director of Athletics/Special Projects Doug Allvine, a former Tech football player, works extensively with former student-athletes to get them back on course toward degrees they may not have finished the first time around.

Sometimes those student-athletes come to him. On other occasions, he goes after them, as when he re-recruited former basketball players B.J. Elder and Zach Peacock, and former football player P.J. Daniels. They graduated last year.

Other times, returning students still have a little too much of the bravado that made them successful athletes. Tech officials welcome former student-athletes back with open arms, but, “Our message is don’t come back until you’re ready,” Allvine said.

There have been occasions where returning student-athletes bite off more than they can chew; the academic re-acclimation process can be jarring for young men and women who might be immersed in the work force and/or family.

“[Former fullback] Mike Cox will be taking two classes this summer. I wouldn’t let him take four,” Allvine said. “I said, `Mike, I’ve been doing this a long time . . . `The guys who have been out a while, we’ll ease them back in. “

Once back in school, former Jackets have access to the same academic guidance systems as current student-athletes.

“We provide the same support to students who are coming back. They also have the opportunity for subject tutoring, and we will work around their schedules,” said Associate Director of Academic Services Chris Breen, who oversees the football team. “A full gamut is there . . . including the Total Person program.

“I think the emotional and physical maturity is the biggest difference. Every student-athlete is different, but their level of focus and discipline and engagement with the faculty tends to be heightened . . . it’s extremely important to them at this point.”

While Guyton said he has not needed as much assistance from the academic support systems as he did in his playing days – “I have more time . . . I don’t know where we found the time, or the energy back then” – many returning student-athletes partake.

At least five other former Tech football players were either enrolled this spring or will be this summer, including Izaan Cross, Keyaron Fox, Cox, Will Heller and Vance Walker.

All but Cross (2009-`12) qualify for NFL assistance. He is on Tech’s tab.

Tech typically does not pay the bills for room and board.

Barnes (2008-`12) is still in the NFL. He wrapped up spring classes last week, went back for workouts in New York, where he is a member of the Jets, and planned to return to Atlanta Thursday for a final exam and to walk.

The Enterprise, Ala., native was undrafted in ’13, spent some time with the Jaguars last spring and summer, and joined the Jets – but was not active – last fall.

“[Returning to school] wasn’t too bad. I was used to it because I was only a year removed from school,” said the former defensive tackle. “[Head] coach [Paul] Johnson was really pressing about it, but it was more on me. I didn’t want to be four or five years down the line and having to take more courses because they added more courses.

“A lot of coaches reminded me to take care of business, coach [Andy] McCollum, [former] coach [Al] Groh . . . he texted me congratulations on going back to school because that is one thing that they can’t take away from you if you can’t play football. Coach [Ted] Roof, I’ve gotten to know him, and he says it’s great.”

Barnes, 23, will go back to the Jets and try to make this year’s active roster for the first time.

He may try coaching when his playing days are over. Or, he might tap his business management degree, and, “open my own business, maybe something in real estate,” he said. “I’m back because you never know what your future may hold. You have a piece of paper that says it’s all worth it.”

Nesbitt said, “I’ve got a few things that are in the works, but I’m open-minded to going anywhere.”

Guyton, who has been married for less than a year, plans to keep Atlanta as his own while he tries to start that trucking company yet he continues working out in the event an NFL team calls.

He’s less pre-occupied with the football dream now, however, because he’ll soon have that piece of paper.

“We’re going to have a nice little party with my family and friends,” Guyton said. “It’s funny . . . when people ask what year I am, I say, `Nine-and-half,’ from 2004-2014. Good thing for me they don’t put dates on the diploma.”


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