KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It was always Colton Jumper’s dream to play football for Tennessee.
It was also one he never thought he would fulfill.
After all, Jumper was bound for the United States Naval Academy and a football career with the Midshipmen following his standout career in high school, where he earned all-state honors his junior and senior seasons.
But that path hit a dead end and Jumper navigated a series of bumps in the road that ultimately led to him joining the Volunteers as a walk-on linebacker in January.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to run through that ‘T,'” Jumper said in August, a couple of weeks before he turned that dream into reality in Tennessee’s season opener against Utah State.
“This is really kind of crazy. I would have never thought I would have ended up playing here. I decided like two days before I reported. I think I reported on a Sunday, and I decided that Friday.
“I just sat down and talked with my parents and said, ‘Look, I want to go to UT,’ and they were like, ‘Well, we support whatever you do.’ Up until that I was still going through the decision process and weighing the pros and cons.”
The process Jumper went through to join the Vols began long before he even had that decision to make.
Navy says no
Jay Jumper still remembers the two exact dates from last summer.
Colton, the middle of his and his wife Dawn’s three children, was set to report to the Navy on June 22, but there was some uncertainty.
— Jay Jumper
During a series of standard medical tests prior to enrollment in the academy, doctors identified that Colton had a kidney condition called membranous nephropathy, a non-life-threatening disease that causes his kidneys to leak protein.
Still, Colton and his family were expecting to receive a waiver that would allow him to play at Navy as planned.
Seven days before his scheduled move to the campus in Annapolis, Maryland, Colton found out the waiver had been denied while the Jumpers were vacationing and awaiting the news in Sea Island, Georgia.
“It was really devastating,” Jay recalled this week by phone.
“We thought the news would be different than what we got. We got references from the coaches that he would be able to get a waiver that would allow him to go into the Naval Academy with his military commission. They had other people go through with much more severe medical conditions than Colton. None of the coaches felt like that this would be an issue.”
Instead, Navy called it a “non-qualifying condition.”
Though the Midshipmen jumped into Colton’s recruitment fairly late in the process — he committed following a visit the Sunday before national signing day — he’d taken a visit to Air Force that piqued his interest in a service academy. His uncle, Cal, had some military experience from his time in the Marine Corps after playing football at Vanderbilt.
“Obviously when you go to a Navy or an Air Force or a school of that caliber, you’re looking at where does this take you after four years,” Jay said. “It’s really a 40-year decision, not a four-year decision. He always felt like that coming out of Navy, it would really give him a great headstart on a post-college career.”
Colton finished his senior season of high school with 131 tackles, 19 for loss, eight sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2012. Baseball taking up his springs and knee surgery prior to his senior season slowed his recruitment, but he still took visits to UT-Chattanooga and William and Mary in hopes of playing college football.
“That was definitely difficult to process,” Colton said. “I was really set on going to Navy, but then I just kind of had to flip a switch and be like, ‘Look, what’s done is done. I’ve got to focus on the future now.’ There really wasn’t any turning back.
“It was nothing I could control, nothing that the school could control, or the coaches could control, so there weren’t any hard feelings or anything like that. I just really had to focus on the future and where I was going to go.”
Back on the market, Colton weighed his options, which included walking on at Tennessee. He contacted Scott Altizer, then the Vols’ director of high school relations — he took a senior associate athletic director post at UTC last month — and was told there was a spot available for him.
It was on too short a notice, though, so the Jumpers kept looking around for a temporary option that essentially would allow him to be recruited all over again.
Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia was one possibility, but Colton settled on The Hun School of Princeton in New Jersey because of head football coach Dave Dudeck’s reputation of getting his players to Division I programs.
“We looked into junior colleges and places like that,” Colton said, “and then we also found Hun, a post-grad thing like that up north. We really liked coach Dudeck up at Hun, and so we decided to go there and played a semester of football there and came out with offers.”
It wasn’t seamless, though, as Dudeck was relieved of his duties the week school started.
Hun, which plays in the Mid-Atlantic Prep League, went 2-6 in 2013, and Colton played fullback and linebacker.
He then received scholarship offers from Western Kentucky, Navy, Army and Charlotte, began hearing from Vanderbilt and SMU and kept in contact with Altizer and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen at Tennessee.
Just got the third D1 offer for the class of 2014 from Western Kentucky #Hilltopper
— Colton Jumper (@jumper_53) November 15, 2013
He took an official visit to WKU, but that option fell through when head coach Bobby Petrino returned to Louisville in January.
That left the Vols as his favorite option.
“I had Division I scholarship [offers] out of my post-grad year,” Colton said. “I said, ‘Look, Mom and Dad, this is what I want to do,’ and they said, ‘Go do it, and we’ll pay for it.'”
‘Happy for him’
Jay grew up in Red Bank, and attended Baylor, and aside from two years away, he’s always lived in Chattanooga, where he’s now president and chief executive officer of two companies.
Whereas his father and one uncle played at UTC, Jay’s other uncle, Tommy, played football at Tennessee, where he was part of the 1951 national championship team and roommate of Vols legend and college and pro Hall of Famer Doug Atkins.
A former UT season-ticket holder, Jay would always take Colton and his older sister Hannah, a successful cross country and long-distance track runner at Vanderbilt, to Tennessee games.
He struggled to hold back his emotions in talking about seeing Colton make his debut for the Vols three weeks ago.
— Colton Jumper (@jumper_53) August 31, 2014
“Obviously it’s emotional,” he said. “To see him realize his dream, persevere through all the issues he’s gone through … I was just happy for him.
“I’ll never forget when he got off the bus at the Vol Walk, and I got a great picture of it — the smile on his face, the happiness he had. To see the pride in himself and accomplishing everything he’s done through overcoming all the obstacles was just incredible. It’s something I’ll always remember. It was absolutely incredible.”
Colton played on defense in the fourth quarter of Tennessee’s first two games against Utah State and Arkansas State, and the Vols appreciate what the 6-foot-2, 227-pounder brings.
“Colton’s been a great addition to our football family,” coach Butch Jones said. “He’s been very consistent. It’s very important to him, and he represents the program exceptionally well. He works each and every day, and the growth and maturation from when he enrolled and started with us to where he is now, it’s night and day.
“He continues to develop, and we’re very excited about him.”
Up next for Colton is earning a scholarship.
“That’s definitely my goal,” he said.
He’s already living his dream.
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