Given the demands that varsity football places on both mind and body... and given that not all college athletes are, shall we say, high performers in the classroom... a fifth year has come to be viewed almost a necessity for student-athletes in helping them complete their academic requirements before their scholarships run out.
And then, there are players like Eric Byrum.
A two-time Academic Honor Roll recipient who exemplifies all the virtuous qualities of the modern-day student-athlete, Byrum will have no difficulties completing all requirements next May for his degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology. And yes, he'll do it in the traditional four years.
The only down side? "It goes by really, really fast," Byrum said.
Three short years ago, Eric was a raw freshman linebacker preparing to play his first college football game, a Thursday night affair against MTSU. Today he's a senior, preparing for his final varsity campaign and hoping to finish out his career with his teammates on a winning note. It's all gone by in a flash.
Byrum has vivid memories of putting on the home uniform for the first time three years ago against MTSU. It was a huge adrenaline rush, he says.
"I just remember going in there and looking up in the stands. My adrenaline was pumping, and there was so much excitement."
Of the 26 signees who inked with Woody Widenhofer in 2001, only three played that first season; the rest went the five-year route. Besides Byrum, the others were Jason Mathenia (who left school after one season) and Brandon Smith.
"I never got to redshirt, so it's all gone by a little bit quicker for me," Byrum said. "But I don't regret playing early at all. I really enjoyed being able to go to all the away games with my brother."
Getting to play that one season alongside his brother Jamie, a captain and starting center on the 2001 team, made it all worth it for Eric. Never mind that he saw only very limited playing time, and never mind that the 2001 Dores, Widenhofer's last Vanderbilt team, finished a disappointing 2-9.
"[Playing as a true freshman] was a good experience for me, especially playing with my brother. That was a great privilege. It was a good move in my situation, because Jamie was here that year.
"I think that class turned out to be a good recruiting class. There were a lot of guys in that class who've had a big impact here."
But suddenly it's all kicked in for Byrum that this is his last chance to make a difference in the program.
"I've been around the program for a good while now, even for several years before I was here, when I was coming to watch my brother play," he says. "Those teams came close to having a winning season a couple of times, but never quite got there. This is the last chance for me. We're hopefully going to get to that bowl game this time."
What's his brother Jamie, a 2002 graduate, doing these days?
"He's working for State Auto in Columbus [Ohio]. You probably wouldn't even recognize him now. He's lost a lot of weight. He ran a triathlon recently and won in the 200-lb. and up division. He still works out a lot, gets up at 5:30 every day to lift weights."
Fall camp opened for Eric's senior season on August 12, but Byrum missed the team's first Saturday practice. His absence was excused, however-- he was taking the MCAT test for entrance into medical school.
"I'd been studying for it all summer, and I think it went pretty well," Byrum said. "The scores don't come back until October, so we'll see." If all goes well, he plans on applying to several medical schools in the coming year.
All four of Byrum's career starts came in his sophomore year of 2002, a year in which the team was dominated by freshmen and sophomores. Last year, injuries limited his effectiveness and his playing time. (He told VandyMania he'd never in his four years been asked to do an interview before doing this one.)
Linebacker may be the team's deepest position for 2004; all three starters (Moses Osemwegie, Otis Washington, Herdley Harrison) return. Additionally, a number of returnees (Kevin Joyce, Marty Morgan, Funtaine Hunter) and newcomers (Curtis Gatewood, Jonathan Goff) could once again put the squeeze on Byrum's chances of seeing the field.
But Byrum, the team's only senior linebacker, was running with the second team as recently as last week. He sees nothing but good coming from the unit's uncharacteristic depth.
"I really think that could be an advantage," he said. "Usually a lot of the SEC teams have a little more depth than us. They rotate guys in, so in the fourth quarter they're not quite as tired.
"This year we can do that. We can keep rotating guys in, and keep everybody fresh. That could be a big advantage for us."