DANIA BEACH, Fla. -- Before there was Tennessee edge rusher Byron Young, there was Georgia Military College edge rusher Byron Young.
Before that, there was Dollar General store manager Byron Young in Columbus, Georgia.
"I would open up the store, count the register and stock shelves," Young said Tuesday before the No. 7 Volunteers continued preparations for Friday night's Orange Bowl against No. 6 Clemson. "I was the manager, so I would supervise but also go up front and be a cashier if I was needed. Normally, I was just stocking shelves and walking around making sure the cashiers were doing their jobs."
It was during those months in 2018 and 2019 when the current 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior would endure a repeating comment from customers.
"People would come in there and say, 'You look like you play football,' and I would stand there and say that I once did," Young said. "That was the hardest part, hearing that every day. Football was always in the back of my mind. I just didn't know where to start."
Young will complete his incredible two-year journey with the Vols inside Hard Rock Stadium, with his next stops being the coveted Senior Bowl on Feb. 4 in Mobile, Alabama, and an opportunity in the National Football League. Whoever selects him will land a 25-year-old rookie.
In Young's 22 games with the Vols he has compiled 80 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. He was named a Southeastern Conference first-team selection earlier this month following a vote of the league's coaches.
"He was extremely raw when we got him, but he's always been like a sponge," Tennessee second-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "He's taken every opportunity we've given him and maximized it, and that's why he's in this position right now. Somebody is going to get a really good young man and a tremendous player."
Young played at Carvers Bay High School in the minuscule town of Hemingway, South Carolina, which is roughly an hour inland from Myrtle Beach. He did not have the academic transcript to go straight to college, so he moved with his father and some siblings to Columbus, where he had an older brother stationed at Fort Benning.
A Burger King was Young's first employment locale in Columbus, but then he was recommended for a managerial position at Dollar General that was accompanied by multiple life lessons.
Such as dealing with unruly customers.
"Yeah, that happened a lot," Young said with a smile. "That was a hard part, too, having to keep your composure, because I knew I needed that job. There were a lot of times when rude customers came in -- you could be having a bad day, or they could be having a bad day. I would stand there trying to keep a smile and not say anything.
"They like to say 'the customer is always right,' and anything I said, they could report me. A customer did report me one time, but my boss said, 'I know you didn't say any of that stuff.' Personally, I didn't feel like the customer was always right, but I'm respectful of a another person."
The junior-college tryout avenue opened for him at GMC in Milledgeville, and Young capitalized, not only earning a spot but racking up 31 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 11 games during the 2019 season. In 2020, however, there would be no season for Young or any other junior-college performer due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Saddled without football again, Young's life consisted of online classes and working at a Circle K.
"I thought I was back to square one, and I honestly didn't know what to do," Young said. "I thought it might be over for me. I pretty much worked at Circle K for all of 2020, because I had to pay off some bills.
"As soon as I left practice, I went to work. Sometimes I worked overnight and woke up to take my classes."
Young's numbers from his 2019 season would hold up, however, and South Alabama, Old Dominion and Southern Illinois offered scholarships. In late October of 2020, former Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt came calling, and Young was more than willing to ride out the transition of Pruitt's dismissal and Josh Heupel's hiring and the staff changes that came with it.
With Tennessee ravaged by the transfer portal and having a clean slate at every position last year, Young quickly displayed his talents and worked his way into prominent playing time, all the while intriguing new teammates with his backstory.
"I didn't know a lot about Byron," junior edge rusher Tyler Baron said. "We had watched his tape and were blown away. We were like, 'How is everybody in the world not talking about this guy?' Byron is an awesome dude, and I'm excited for him in this process and how he's accomplishing all his dreams. What he's been through shows how tough he mentally is."
Said senior linebacker Aaron Beasley: "When I heard his story, it was one of the craziest I had heard. He's had a long way to get here, and I'm proud of him."
This is Young's second trip to Miami, with his first being GMC's game at ASA College in 2019 inside a venue that seats roughly 5,000. The stakes are much bigger Friday night, and the potential to enhance his draft stock against a quality opponent is one of the reasons opting out "didn't feel right."
"Guys like BY are the guys you root for," Banks said. "He wasn't a five-star recruit coming out. He is a guy who has definitely been developed, but I would say that about half our roster. We didn't inherit a bunch of five-star recruits and those type of things.
"We wish we could have him one more year, but we understand."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com.