Denied by doubts and diagnoses, Tennessee walk-on Colton Jumper persists to prove his worth
For months, Colton Jumper resisted being a walk-on.
The native of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., a suburb of Chattanooga, knew the truth about non-scholarship players. There's no glamour and no guarantee. As a standout linebacker at the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Jumper felt that recording 251 tackles (including 39 for loss), five forced fumbles and two interceptions during his high school career would warrant a scholarship offer or two from Power 5 programs.
No dice. A handful of FCS schools pursued him, and mid-level Division-I schools Western Kentucky and UNC Charlotte showed interest. Tennessee, which was just about to start the Butch Jones era, said he'd only have a spot as a walk-on.
Jumper and his younger brother, Will, grew up going to Tennessee games (their father is an alum) and spent most fall Saturdays in autograph lines waiting for players like Eric Ainge to sign their ball caps and jerseys. But Jumper had too much pride to walk on. He believed his play was worthy of a scholarship, so he politely declined the offer. He didn't know that a year later, he would face the same decision again. First he had to take a detour.
The initial leg of that alternative route came his senior year of high school, when he finally got a scholarship offer that excited him. This one came with a long-term promise from the school that offered it, so long as Jumper was willing to make a long-term commitment. The Naval Academy had a spot for Jumper, with the understanding that he'd have to serve the country for five years after the fact.
Jumper's spin to his initially hesitant parents was, "a guaranteed good job for a long time." The family has familiarity with the armed services: Jumper's paternal grandfather (Army) and great uncle (Navy) both served in World War II. His uncle Cal spent 28 years in the Marines. Colton says he was drawn to the service academy partially because he found the added challenge intriguing. "We think we're busy as 'regular' student-athletes," he says. "I can't imagine what those athletes go through."
Then, Jumper received devastating news. Routine medical screenings, required for anyone wanting to attend a service academy, revealed a rare kidney condition. Jumper applied for a medical waiver the spring of 2013, his last semester of high school, hopeful he could get cleared.
While he waited, doctors put him on heavy doses of prednisone, the steroid used to treat a variety of issues, many of them related to inflammation. Jumper hated it. "It was awful," he recalls. "I got kinda fat, and it threw everything out of whack with my body."
When doctors suggested bumping up from a 150-milliliter dose to 250 milliliters, Jay and Dawn Jumper intervened and said they wanted a second opinion for their son. As usual, parents' instincts were correct. A second doctor discovered Jumper had been misdiagnosed and correctly diagnosed him with membranous nephropathy, a condition in which the kidney's filter function doesn't work correctly. Doctors assured the Jumpers that it was a mild case (membranous nephropathy is not life threatening, but it's unusual to find in a young person) and told them that with a low dose of blood pressure medication, the condition would slowly go into remission. Colton would need to monitor it his whole life, but he should be fine.
It wasn't good enough for the Navy, though. Ten days before Jumper was set to leave for Annapolis, a campus he had fallen in love with, the Jumper family took a short family vacation to Sea Island, Ga. While there, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo called and delivered devastating news that Colton's medical waiver had not been accepted.
"Crushed," Colton says of his initial reaction. "I started crying, had to leave the room. I had really bought into what the Naval Academy stood for, and then all the sudden it's like you don't belong anywhere."
When Colton returned 20 minutes later, Jay Jumper couldn't believe the maturity displayed by his middle child. Colton told his parents that they could wallow in sadness, or they could design a new gameplan. They went with option No. 2.
The next leg of the detour involved prep school. Typically reserved for students fighting for better academic standing, Jumper enrolled at The Hun School in Princeton, N.J., eager for a second chance to prove himself. He figured another year stuffing the stat sheet would help him draw Power 5 interest, but in the back of his mind, he hoped he'd get another crack at the service academy. If Navy re-recruited him, he could retake the medical exams and this time, he thought he'd pass.
Midway through his prep season, though, a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder sidelined him for the rest of the year. "Suddenly I can't play anymore," Jumper says, "and it's like, wow, this is the whole point of why I came up here—what's next?"
Enter, Tennessee. Tommy Thigpen, the Vols linebackers coach, made another appeal to Jumper. Thigpen assured him that in Knoxville, there were immediate opportunities to play because of thinning linebacker depth. He'd get a chance to contribute and earn the scholarship he believed he deserved. When his parents told him they'd happily help him through college, Jumper set aside his pride. Two days after visiting with Thigpen on campus, he enrolled early at Tennessee in January 2014.
"I really was in awe of him," Jay Jumper says. "Anytime you're a walk-on, you have to start at the back of the line."
Jumper played in just one game as a true freshman in 2014 but was a regular in the rotation as a sophomore. And true to its word, Tennessee rewarded him in May with the scholarship he always believed he deserved.
Now, as a junior, Jumper is the Vols' second-leading tackler with 59, including four for loss, and one interception. While Tennessee's defense is mostly known for All-America defensive end candidate Derek Barnett, defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. told CampusRush.com earlier this season that Jumper is on the rise.
Tennessee (8–3) goes to Vanderbilt this week, with the Commodores on the cusp of bowl eligibility. This has caused some temporary division within the Jumper family. Colton's older sister, Hannah, was a cross-country runner for the Commodores who was named the SEC freshman of the year in 2012. And Cal Jumper played football at Vanderbilt. Asked whom Cal will be rooting for this weekend, Jay Jumper deadpanned, "We're not sure. We haven't asked because we're not talking to him this week."
While Jumper contemplates how to serve his country and community after college—the NFL hopefully beckons first, of course—he's often reminded of the Naval Academy and wonders what football would have been like there. Still, he says everything worked out better than he could have imagined, and he takes special pride in nurturing other walk-ons now, assuring them that they have a place at Tennessee.
"I'm next to a lot of them in the locker room, and I'm always telling them we've gotta stick together as walk-ons," Jumper says. He's so passionate about growing the walk-on culture with the Volunteers that he even helps recruit them.
His first target was a 6'2", 206-pound tight end who also grew up going to Tennessee games and getting autographs. Like Colton, this walk-on also had some initial hesitations. But Will Jumper saw how Jones and the Tennessee staff treated his big brother and decided he'd give it a try, too.
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.