Johnathan Bryant got the scholarship he needed because he earned it.
Dorian Byrd got the friendship he wanted because he earned it.
Bryant and Byrd are two of 16 Georgia Southern seniors who will play their final game at Paulson Stadium at 2 p.m. Saturday against Western Carolina.
Each, in his own way, has been a contributor to the Eagles’ rise back to national prominence on the Football Championship Subdivision level, which made the decision to move up to Football Bowl Subdivision easier. Had Georgia Southern continued on the path it was following in the 2006-09 seasons — a combined record of 21-23 — the Sun Belt Conference very well may have been just a dream rather than reality.
Bryant, a fifth-year senior, is one of five players who remain from former coach Chris Hatcher’s last recruiting class while Byrd was a member of coach Jeff Monken’s first class.
The beginning of Bryant’s career had some unusual twists and turns.
He was recruited out of Cairo High School along with teammates J.J. Wilcox and Chris Teal, but he wound up starting college at Bainbridge State College as a grayshirt after going through preseason practice.
Bryant transferred to Georgia Southern for the second semester, and played in 10 games, starting three, in 2009. After the season, Hatcher was fired and replaced by Monken.
In the 2010 opener he started at slotback against Savannah State, but suffered a season-ending broken ankle that led to uncertainties regarding his future.
“I remember talking to coach Monken that summer (2011), and I told him I wanted to stay,” Bryant said. “I was trying to get a scholarship which I needed. He didn’t make any promises, but he told me if I did good and worked hard he might have something. I got my scholarship and it meant a lot because there were not a lot of dollars at my house. It was tough. A lot of people think I just walked in here on scholarship, but I had to really work for it.”
Byrd came on scholarship, and like Bryant, he came with a pair of high-school teammates. Robert Brown and Carlos Cave played with Byrd at Macon’s Westside High School.
As an undersized 240-pound left tackle, Byrd started all 15 games in the Eagles’ surprising run to the 2010 FCS semifinals. He was the only true freshman in the Southern Conference to start all of his team’s games.
When asked by an interviewer in the opening week of preseason camp about his biggest concern, in all sincerity the soft-spoken Byrd said, “I want my teammates to like me.”
Four years later it is safe to say Byrd has accomplished that goal as he is one of the most popular Eagles among his teammates. He has also added 20 pounds, and despite playing through several injuries has been an All-Southern Conference pick, and last year was a third-team All-American.
“It’s been a great four years,” Byrd said. “We’ve had a lot of wins (35), and it’s been great to be a part of restoring the traditions to Georgia Southern. We’ve had a lot of big wins. We haven’t had the success we wanted this year, but we’re still playing for a cause, and that’s to be the best we can. We seniors have accomplished a lot, and now we’ve got to look to the future. We’ve helped this program move to FBS, and we can be proud of that.”