Jay Tully never doubted where he wanted to end up. An injury, on the other hand, changed Brady Earnhardt’s plans.
Their journeys weren’t swift or easy, but they took the two Middle Tennessee products to the same place — the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Tully, a Franklin native, and Earnhardt, from Old Hickory, share the backfield as fullbacks for Army.
Both were recruited by Vanderbilt. Both attended prep school. And both have yet to get their chance in a game for the Black Knights, Army’s football team.
More importantly, though, with Veterans Day approaching on Friday, both realize their ultimate destinations extend well beyond the football field and hold a higher significance.
“It was more than just football that made me want to come to West Point, be a cadet and graduate,” Earnhardt said. “I fell in love with the military at prep school. I can’t wait to graduate, be a second lieutenant and lead soldiers and lead our army. I don’t want to be anywhere else, and I don’t even think about it.”
For as long as Tully can remember, he wanted to be a fourth-generation Army officer.
His great-grandfather Harvey Jablonsky is in the College Football Hall of Fame after a six-year collegiate career at Washington University in St. Louis (1927-29) and Army (1931-33). He played guard and was a captain at both schools, before serving as an assistant coach at West Point. He also served in World War II, leading a parachute infantry regiment. He eventually rose to the rank of major general, commanded the First Armored Division and spent 34 years in the military.
Tully’s grandfather, father and uncle all followed suit and attended West Point. Thus, Tully planned to do the same after graduating from Battle Ground Academy.
“I never really left that dream,” Tully said. “I knew I wanted to do that, even after 9/11 and knowing what was at stake. I still wanted to come to West Point. None of my family swayed me to do one thing or the other. It was all on my own.”
One problem: He wasn’t accepted into West Point.
So he took an offer from Samford in Birmingham, Ala. There he played just one season, getting two carries in a 2008 game.
That same winter, Rich Ellerson and a new coaching staff took over at Army. Tully saw a door open.
“When it didn’t work out [with Army at first], I didn’t quite settle, but I went to Samford,” he said. “When the opportunity came up again I still wanted to do it. Ultimately I want to be an Army officer, but knowing that I can play football and achieve that goal as well ... obviously West Point is where I want to be to do that.”
Tully transferred from Samford to attend military prep school in Fort Monmouth, N.J., fulfilling the academic requirement needed to get into West Point. He sat out last season due to transfer rules.
Prior to Saturday’s game at Air Force, Tully and Earnhardt still had yet to play. Neither he nor Earnhardt traveled with the team last month when it lost 44-21 to Vanderbilt, though Tully bought a plane ticket to Nashville and was on hand at Vanderbilt Stadium.
A sophomore in terms of eligibility, Tully has spent most of the season taking repetitions on the scout team offense.
“I, like everyone else, has their role in helping us win. Not getting to play yet is not diminishing my dream to play. I’m still working on that goal,” Tully said. “... But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It is a unique experience that you can’t really get anywhere else.”
Earnhardt might not have a West Point lineage like Tully but the military is also in his blood.
His great-uncle, Robert Taylor, was a chaplain for the Air Force during World War II. He was captured and spent 42 months in Japanese prison camps. He received the Silver Star for bravery, and President John F. Kennedy named him Air Force Chief of Chaplains with the rank of major general.
He later wrote a book about his ordeal, “Days of Anguish, Days of Hope” that Earnhardt read a couple years ago while being recruited by Army.
“It was pretty inspirational, pretty crazy to think someone of my own blood line went through something like that,” he said. “It is a little different and I do think about it. My grandparents have talked to me about Uncle Taylor. Knowing that something so prestigious has happened in your family line is just motivating. You can do that because it is in your blood. You have the potential to do something like that and do something with your life.”
But what led him to Army was an injury.
At Mt. Juliet High School, Earnhardt drew the attention of coaches from Vanderbilt and Tennessee as he ran his way to more than 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. Earnhardt, in fact, grew up as a huge Vanderbilt fan and — like Tully — was recruited by former Commodore running backs coach Ted Cain.
But at a football camp at UT prior to his senior year he tore his lateral collateral ligament in his knee. Suddenly, those bigger schools backed off, but Earnhardt was impressed by the commitment from Army assistant coach John Brock, who stayed on the trail.
“After I came on my visit I was set. I wanted to be a Black Knight and be a part of the Long Gray Line,” Earnhardt said. “Now it is a dream come true. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Like Tully, Earnhardt attended prep school to improve his academic standing and is in his first year at the academy. As a freshman, the 5-foot-8, 205-pounder has moved back and forth between tailback and fullback in practice, working with the team’s B squad and chipping in on the scout team.
Looking forward, Earnhardt envisions a career in the military — something he first thought about back in middle school.
“I know it was just talk, but now it is for real,” he said. “I’ll have a great opportunity here, graduate from one of the best schools in the country and then end up doing something worthwhile in my life and really play a huge part and contribute back to my country.”