100 in 100: Macon County’s Shawn Bryson, college football champion and NFL fullback

Franklin’s Shawn Bryson won a national title at Tennessee and played seven NFL seasons with the Bills and Lions. (Don Heupel / AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Macon County

Shawn Bryson

Shawn Bryson’s value to the teams on which he played during his college and pro football career wasn’t the kind that can be measured by the numbers on a stat sheet. Rather, it’s the fact that his teammates at Tennessee thought highly enough of him to elect him as a team captain as a senior.

Bryson was a selfless role player for the Volunteers, a lead blocker and short-yardage back who spent most of his time opening holes for others to run through and get their names in the headlines. But without him, Tennessee likely would not have won the national championship in 1998.


He gained only 200 rushing yards that season, and more than a quarter of them were on one pivotal carry against Florida. It came on a 57-yard touchdown burst up the middle against the Gators that gave the Vols the momentum needed to pull out a 20-17 overtime victory.

“I think Shawn Bryson probably epitomizes that team as much as anybody,” coach Phil Fulmer said at the time. “He was a tailback and moved to fullback willingly.”

Shawn Bryson rushed for 2,144 yards, caught 185 passes for 1,383 yards and totaled nine touchdowns during his NFL career. (Duane Burleson / AP Photo)

His sacrifice was rewarded not only with a national championship ring but also with selection in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills.

Bryson finally got a chance to run the ball as a rookie, leading the team in rushing with 591 yards — 86 more than he had in his entire four-year college career. He also caught 32 passes out of the backfield. After three seasons in Buffalo, the Franklin native moved on to the Detroit Lions, and he enjoyed his best season with 606 rushing yards and 340 yards receiving on 54 catches.

Following a seven-year NFL career, Bryson went into coaching, serving tenures as an assistant at Lenoir-Rhyne, Temple, Florida A&M and Chattanooga before taking over a program of his own at the high school level. He is currently the head coach at The Asheville School.