Tech's Bedford juggles football, academic load

Former walk-on now All-ACC performer while carrying demanding class load

It was the week leading to the ACC Championship game, and Georgia Tech junior center Sean Bedford was a wreck. And not the rambling kind they sing about so fondly on The Flats.

Sleep had become a rumor.

Pressure was building with the second hand's every lurch.

Deadlines flitted around the young man's head like swallows at dusk.

He didn't finish the project for his Fixed Wing Senior Design class until 6 a.m. the morning of departure for Tampa and the biggest game of Tech's season. Awaiting him on his return was a Jet and Rocket Propulsion final, with questions that, to less-learned outsiders, might as well be in a foreign language.

"I didn't get a whole lot of sleep leading up to the game — I don't mind telling you, now that we won," Bedford said.

Life can get complicated here at the nexus of football and aerospace engineering.

The uncommon path that Bedford has chosen — combining big-boy athletics with one of the most difficult majors they can devise at the Institute — has seemed almost impassible at times.

Just how tough is aerospace engineering, a program no other football player is currently attempting? "The joke," said Bedford's Jet and Rocket Propulsion teacher David Scarborough, "is if you can't make it in mechanical or aerospace [engineering], you go into civil. And, if you fail at that, you go to UGA."

He was feeling the full weight of that 800-pound gorilla of a major entering the championship game. Bedford is a no-excuse guy, but perhaps the stress slowed down in Tampa - where by his own review, he did not play particularly well against Clemson.

But now, with the semester finished, and no more classes until after Tech's Orange Bowl date with Iowa, he is on a relative vacation.

"It's a huge load off my shoulders," he said of the break from the academic part of the program.

"That's the biggest thing for me, having the extra time to come in and watch some more film, relax after workouts, maybe not be so wound up. And maybe get some sleep, which will be a nice change."

For a few weeks, Bedford can take a deep breath, pause and reflect on what an eventful year it has been.

Here was a former walk-on defensive lineman who won the starting job at center this season and was so much more than functional. He became the model for the Tech student-athlete, an exemplar highlighted on every national broadcast, the subject of a New York Times feature, first-team All ACC center. All while completing the most difficult stretch of a most difficult major.

With the blur of the recent months now slowed down to a manageable pace, he can look back on this season and say, "I'm having the time of my life right now."

Football not a priority

Before Bedford was an up-from-obscurity starter on the Yellow Jackets 11-2 title team, he was a rocket nerd.

He always was large. "This one's strong, you better watch out for him," the delivery room nurses told his father, Dean. At Sean's baptism, the priest blessed him and began the recruiting process for Notre Dame. But football was a late-comer in this story.

His father is an engineer specializing in membrane technology - hasn't anyone in this family ever taken a humanities class? - so the Bedfords moved around, following dad's projects. Many of Sean's youngest years were spent in the Virgin Islands, far away from the influence of American sport.

Wherever he was, there were always stars. "In the Islands, I wasn't interested in sports at all," he said. "I'd sit there and watch these VHS tapes about the future of the space program. That, to me, was the most interesting thing in the world.

"I've been to space camp three times. I've built more model rockets than I can remember; we built a ton of them, me and my dad. I can tell you the entire unabridged history of the space program up to the space shuttle."

When he was 10, the family settled in Gainesville, Fla., where the culture of football was unavoidable. His father eased him into the game. And, by high school, Sean was everyone's all-academic player, but just a bit short and light when it came to drawing D-1 recruiters.

He has connections in the right places. Florida coach Urban Meyer is a member of the same church his family attends, Queen of Peace. There was, however, no lobbying at communion for a place on the Gators roster.

Sean looked at the Ivy League. But that didn't seem like enough of a challenge from the football standpoint.

Thus, he took a leap of faith into major college football and a major college major.

At Georgia Tech, Bedford was welcomed to all the really complex stuff that makes those rockets go and, without a scholarship in hand, the crushing anonymity of the scout team.

A fresh start

Likely, as long as Chan Gailey was at Georgia Tech, Bedford would have been one of those dedicated scout team drones who on deep background help a football team get better. He was an undersized defensive lineman (6-1, 270 after a big meal) – just good enough to be a handful in practice, but not so good as to challenge for playing time.

With a new regime last season came a fresh set of eyes. In the fall of '08 Paul Johnson saw something else in Bedford. There is a different template for offensive linemen in Johnson's system, one that favors mobility over sheer bulk.

"He reminded me a lot of the kids we had the [Naval] Academy who played 100 miles per hour," Johnson said. "Bottom line was, we were having a hard time blocking him. My thought process was, well, if you're whipping this guy over there, why don't you just come over and take his place?"

Johnson had him work one practice with the offensive linemen. "What was I gonna do, say no?" said Bedford, whose initial impulse was to do just that. He had played some center as a freshman in high school and had sworn it off forever, he thought.

But he certainly was smart enough to recognize an opportunity when one hit him in the facemask.

Bedford had plenty of moments of doubt in his first couple years at Tech, as he tried to serve two difficult masters. At times, he gave thought to quitting football, a dead end, it seemed, to devote full attention to his studies. Other times, feeling like he was drowning in coefficients, he considered detouring to a less demanding major.

"He got a lot of pressure from his old man to ride it out," said the aforementioned father.

Here, in Johnson's simple notice of his practice field effort, was a sign that there could be a payoff to struggle. Bedford hung in. By the time this spring arrived, with center Dan Voss out injured, Bedford was getting all the practice reps he ever wanted. He seized the starting job and wouldn't let go.

It has been fairly well established that the kid has some smarts. In the weekly test given Tech's offensive linemen about their upcoming opponents, most of them give the barest necessary sketch. "Sean writes a freakin' novel," said tackle Austin Barrick.

But don't let the brains fool you, he can play a little smashmouth, too. Twice this season, he was recognized as the ACC's lineman of the week.

The duality of Bedford's life in football and aerospace engineering dovetails in one fundamental way. All those clichés about never quitting that players are bombarded with on the field do translate to the flight dynamics class, he said.

"I think that carries over to your academic and personal life," he said. "At one point this semester, I went like 46 hours without sleeping because I was working on a project and practice and everything. It was just something you had to suck up and make it through."

For the next few weeks, at least, Bedford can lay down the burden of the science of flight and just tunnel into the rudiments of football.

Everything between now and Jan. 5 is strictly ground based. Aerodynamics has nothing remotely to do with the study of a corn-fed, 285-pound Iowa defensive tackle.