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Thursday May 28th, 2020 3:35AM

Column: Former Georgia player shows power of persistence

By The Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) — For all its ills, there are times when college athletics gets it just right.

Meet Shedrick Wynn, who arrived at Georgia in 1999 to play football but never finished his college degree.

Life kept getting in the way.

Now, two decades later, at age 39, he’s a testament to the power of persistence.

He's a college graduate.

“I wanted to do this by the time I turned 40,” Wynn quipped. “I just made it.”

Wynn’s story is a familiar one for so many athletes who figure college is nothing more than a nuisance on their way to the pros. The defensive end was initially recruited to Georgia by Jim Donnan, went through a coaching change that brought Mark Richt to Athens, and got significant time on the 2002 team that captured the school’s first Southeastern Conference title in 20 years.

But, instead of setting himself up for a triumphant senior season, a nagging back injury turned out to be a career-ender. He was diagnosed with spondylitis, a form of spinal arthritis, along with a bulging disc and two chipped vertebrae in his lower back.

It was the first of many challenges he would face over the years, forcing him to put his college education on hold just 12 hours shy of his degree.

“He had a lot of things pulling on him when he was trying to do it the first time,” said Glada Horvat, the school’s senior associate athletic director in charge of academics and eligibility. “He was trying to be a dad and a student, but he just couldn’t get over the hump.”

A native of the east Georgia town of Lincolnton, Wynn held several jobs over the years, working at a car dealership, a paint store, a moving company, a golf course, and the Caterpillar facility in Athens. He got married and raised three children. He also helped out as a high school coach, keeping him connected to the game he loves.

In 2013, life dealt another blow.

His wife, Andrea, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Needing a job with better health insurance benefits, Wynn accepted an offer to become a paraprofessional and assistant football coach at Cedar Shoals High School, not far from the Georgia campus.

Working with young people got Wynn to thinking: How could he inspire these kids to pursue their dreams when he never completed his?

“Even though it looked like my goals were continuously eluding me, it's about having that perseverance to keep pushing forward," he said. “Don't give up, no matter how long it takes. Sometimes, we're worried about how people see us, how we might be perceived by the world. But when you get that opportunity to do something, do it. Seize it.”

Over the years, Wynn had stayed in touch with Horvat, inquiring time and time again about returning to school but never following through. Then, a chance meeting at Cedar Shoals, where Horvat’s children went to school and she remains an avid booster, sparked a renewed interest in Wynn to finally finish what he started all those years ago.

“Maybe he didn’t want his son to graduate high school before he graduated college,” Horvat said with a chuckle. “He just seemed so grounded. He was dedicated to it. He was ready.”

It wasn’t a breeze by any means. After such a long time away, Wynn needed nine classes to complete his degree in Housing Management and Policy. While some courses were available online, he also had to attend classes — which was an additional burden because Wynn didn’t always have a way to get to campus beyond walking.

“Every once in a while, I picked him up and got him to school,” Horvat said, quickly pointing out that it’s allowed under NCAA rules.

Wynn spent two years completing the necessary credits. He often found himself in the same class with Georgia players such as defensive end David Marshall and defensive back Mark Webb.

“These guys could be my kids,” Wynn cracked.

Despite the age difference, he fit right in. He knew what they were going through.

Wynn’s final semester was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing him to complete his classes online. He had been planning a big project as part of Earth Day, but wound up writing a paper instead.

No worries.

He doesn't even mind that the commencement ceremony was postponed until October at the earliest, denying him a much-deserved chance to collect his diploma in front of a cheering crowd. He was more than content to put on his cap and gown, head over to Sanford Stadium, and pose for a picture with his wife and stepchildren.

Not to mention all those congratulatory texts he got from ex-teammates and former coaches Donnan and Richt.

“Hey, man, I'm just glad to be finished,” Wynn said with a hearty laugh. “I do feel bad for the young people who graduated. I know that's something they look forward to.”

Wynn is the first member of his immediate family to get a college degree, so he’s determined to pass on what he’s learned the hard way. His stepson, 18-year-old Jalen Jackson, graduated from Cedar Shoals and plans to head to Georgia Southern this fall to play football.

And, if his dad has anything to say about, get that degree.

___

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org, follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and find his work at https://apnews.com

___

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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