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#TGW: Learning From Those Who Walked Before Them

June 21, 2017

Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

College began on Wednesday for 32 Georgia Tech new football student-athletes but they got a head start in Monday’s expanded freshman orientation program, when nearly a dozen former Yellow Jackets showed them the ropes, so to speak.

After speaking with head coach Paul Johnson about providing Tech’s 22 scholarship freshmen and 10 preferred walk-ons an even better map than has been offered in the past, director of player personnel Andy Lutz said a plan was hatched.

“We said, `Let’s bring some guys in who have been in their shoes and have them talk to the kids about how to succeed at Georgia Tech,'” Lutz explained. “Talk about how you treat people, how you treat women, how you treat fraternity guys, how you treat people in town, anything to help them moving forward . . .

“All the guys who came and spoke are graduates, doing very well in their own realms whether the NFL or business, whatever. It really turned into `If you come here and do what you’re supposed to do, this is what you can become.'”

The Yellow Jackets’ newcomers arrived on campus last Tuesday, as per usual, but where in recent years class began on the following Monday, this summer the calendar calls for Wednesday as the first day. “We had extra time,” Lutz said.

So, Lutz enlisted the help of director of football operations Mike Huff and a pair of former Tech student-athletes currently on staff — assistant director of operations Kevin Cone and graduate assistant Tevin Washington — to create a program that’s likely to remain part of the program in years to come.

“We had time and we felt that it would be really beneficial to get some of the guys who laid the foundation for the program to give the knowledge and wisdom [from the perspective of] guys who have been through it,” said Cone, a wide receiver at Tech from 2008-10 before he spent parts of five seasons in the NFL, chiefly with the Falcons. “It’s meant to help them get through Tech and their lives.”

They invited former players — some with NFL experience — to speak about their college experiences, make suggestions and field questions.

The full panel of former Yellow Jackets included Butler, Sean Bedford, Trey Braun, Tim Byerly, Andrew Gardner, Gary Guyton, Joe Hamilton, Roddy Jones, Kofi Smith and Omoregie Uzzi.

Meeting from 9-11:30 a.m. Monday, the student-athletes heard briefly from Coach Johnson first, then Butler and the rest of the blue-ribbon panel took the floor.

A two-time all-ACC player for Tech (2001-`04), Butler set a school record for tackles by a defensive back with 119 in 2003, before playing eight seasons in the NFL. He won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants after the 2007 season when they upset the undefeated New England Patriots.

Since returning to Tech and graduating with a degree in building construction in 2015, he has gone into business as the owner of a pair of Golden Corral restaurants. The married father of three boys lives in Cobb County and is a candidate for Emory’s MBA program in the fall.

“We wanted to give the reality of what it means to go through Georgia Tech and how to go through it,” said Butler, who was inducted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame in 2014. “One of the big things that I discussed was building on relationships that are there.

“There are a lot of people there to help them, to make sure they start their academics out strong. If you need help, ask for help. Be proactive about being a good football player and being a good student.”

Guyton, who played at Tech from 2004-`07 before spending four seasons with the Patriots, echoed Butler’s message and added thoughts.

“One of the best questions [a freshman] asked was, `If you could change something you did, what would that be?’ ” he recalled. “If I could change something, it would be to shake more hands of people in my classes or even alumni. When we were there, it was all about football, football.

“You can imagine being a freshman, with all the stuff that’s thrown at you, it’s hard to find your footing. Don’t be afraid to ask. How do you balance? You’ve got to prioritize. School and football need to be priorities 1A and 1B.”

In addition to hearing advice on how to treat fellow students, professors, members of the Greek system, women, residents of Atlanta and more, the newest Jackets were also encouraged to build relationships with teammates, classmates and past graduates.

“That was a big, resounding point,” Cone said. “A lot of guys don’t want to reach out for help but we have such a big support system in place and we have alumni who will help you in any way they can.”

Kofi Smith, a former Georgia Tech cornerback and special-teams standout from 1995-98, is now the president and CEO of the Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corporation. He could one day be an employer or, perhaps, refer future graduates for jobs elsewhere.

With that, he encouraged freshmen to build themselves in every way.

“What I hope they remember is that each one of them is representing a company and because they are a company, they should always be thinking about how to improve their stock,” Smith explained.

“Whether it’s winning that position on the football field, getting high grades, improving your pay . . . part of improving your stock is improving your brand, how you look, how you act . . . and out-working everybody competing against you.”

Tech football’s new orientation program, which was followed by a catered lunch in the Letterman’s Club, has been deemed a success and a starting point for the futures of all freshmen and the program.

“All the freshmen were positive about it,” Lutz said. “It was something they needed to hear, very eye-opening. The ex-players who came in, they were very positive as well. Being the first time we’ve done it, I think it will help build relationships with the ex-players.”

Butler and other former players agree wholeheartedly.

“I’ve been talking with some of the coaches about getting the alumni involved in the program,” he said. “I still work out at Tech three times a week. I do think it’s beneficial to have guys be around. I know a lot of those young guys would like to see us and talk to us.”

Smith applauded the mix of former players chosen to speak.

“I think what Mike and Kevin and Tevin put together was fantastic because they had guys who have been to the NFL and guys who have not been to the NFL — like myself — who have been very successful,” he said. “The shared tapestry under all of us is work ethic.”

Proud to have participated, Guyton appreciates helping lay new groundwork for the Tech football program.

“It was a wonderful experience. I wish we had something like this when I was coming through college my freshman year,” he said. “It’s different to have somebody guide you, be a lighthouse — to shine light. I think it’s a great thing for former players to come back . . .

“The best thing we have is experience for these guys who are in school. If they have us to tap into, it’s up to us to tell these kids to walk this line, [or] don’t walk that line. That’s very valuable.”

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