As they entered the demanding job of military academy student-athletes, Josh Jackson and brothers A.J. and Jarrett Mackey did so with a built-in support system.
Teammates since youth football, the Brookwood graduates weren’t going it alone when they enrolled at the United States Military Academy Prep School two years ago.
In front of the cameras
A quick look at where to watch former Gwinnett standouts in today’s college football action:
• Noon Miami (Ohio) at Florida, ESPN
Buford’s Jaytee Swanson (No. 32) plays linebacker for Miami. Buford’s Omar Hunter (No. 99) plays defensive line and Buford’s T.J. Pridemore (No. 45) plays fullback for Florida.
• 12:20 p.m. La.-Lafayette at Georgia, WPCH
For UGA, Peachtree Ridge’s Drew Butler (No. 13) is a punter, GAC’s Caleb King (No. 4) and Norcross’ Fred Munzenmaier (No. 48) are running backs, Buford’s Kolton Houston (No. 66), Buford’s Dallas Lee (No. 64) and Wesleyan’s Josh Parrish (No. 55) play offensive line, GAC’s Christian Robinson (No. 45), Parkview’s Jason Veal (No. 49) and Dacula’s Jeremy Sulek (No. 30) are linebackers, Buford’s Billy Johnson (No. 94) is a snapper, Winder-Barrow’s Taylor Bradberry (No. 80) is a wide receiver, Brookwood’s Brian Brewer (No. 27) is a running back and Peachtree Ridge’s Connor Norman (No. 11) is a defensive back.
• 3 p.m. Appalachian State at Chattanooga, SS
Parkview’s Kalik Barnes (No. 14) plays quarterback, Wesleyan’s Ian Barnard (No. 67) is an offensive lineman and Peachtree Ridge’s A.J. McDonald (No. 40) is a linebacker for Appalachian State. Berkmar’s Kadeem Wise (No. 27) plays defensive back, Collins Hill’s T.J. Hurless (No. 74) and Mill Creek’s Austin Wilson (No. 54) plays offensive line for Chattanooga.
• 3:30 p.m. Jacksonville State at Ole Miss, CSS
Mill Creek’s James Powell (No. 47) is a linebacker, South Gwinnett’s Michael Bradford (No. 85) is a wide receiver and South Gwinnett’s Griffin Thomas (No. 88) is a kicker for Jacksonville State. For Ole Miss, Buford’s Melvin Harris (No. 5) plays wide receiver, Peachtree Ridge’s Brandon Sanders (No. 14) plays linebacker, Cameron Whigham (No. 55) plays defensive end, Parkview’s Julian Whitehead (No. 28) plays defensive back.
• 7 p.m. Arkansas State at Auburn, FSS
Buford’s Jessel Curry (No. 33) plays linebacker for Auburn.
• 7:30 p.m. Northwestern at Vanderbilt, CSS
For Vandy, Duluth’s Kennard Reeves (No. 28) plays running back, Collins Hill’s T.J. Greenstone (No. 74) plays defensive line, South Gwinnett’s Jonathan Krause (No. 17) is a wide receiver, Grayson’s Tristan Strong (No. 29) plays linebacker and GAC’s Blake Southerland (No. 35) plays linebacker.
• 8 p.m. LSU vs. North Carolina, ABC
GAC’s T-Bob Hebert (No. 53) plays offensive line, Peachtree Ridge’s Derrick Bryant (No. 36) plays defensive back and Peachtree Ridge’s Kevin Minter (No. 46) plays linebacker for LSU.
“It helped a lot because going into prep school was a big culture shock,” Jackson said. “You don’t know what’s going on but you’ve got your brothers there with you. The first year I ever played football in fifth grade, they were the first two guys I met and their dad was our coach.”
The military lifestyle is still rigorous — the 6:15 a.m. wake-up, the uniform inspections and other strict rules — but the former Broncos are used to it by now as sophomores on Army’s football team.
Not that they still don’t lean on each other frequently. Jackson said every cadet wonders why they go through the rugged process at Army, allowing the thoughts of leaving to creep in.
But the trio has excelled at the West Point, N.Y., school of 4,400 students with help from each other.
“We’re friends with J.J. but at the same time, I consider J.J. as much my brother as A.J.,” Jarrett Mackey said. “I took another brother up here so I had a familiar face to get me through the hard times.”
Those three brothers are expected to be major parts of the Army defense in today’s season opener at Eastern Michigan. After years of struggles, the Black Knights are coming off a promising 5-7 season. They’re aiming for a winning record and a bowl game.
Jackson is a starting cornerback and punt returner, in addition to playing on every other special teams unit. The 6-foot, 185-pounder was one of eight freshmen to earn a varsity letter last season, contributing quickly and intercepting a pass in his first college game vs. Eastern Michigan.
Jarrett Mackey is the starter at Bandit, a hybrid linebacker/defensive line position in the Army defense. The 6-2, 230-pounder played in seven games last season, also earning a varsity letter.
A.J. Mackey will be in the defensive line rotation at noseguard, where the 6-1, 266-pounder backs up senior Mike Gann, the team’s top defensive player who is on some preseason All-American watch lists. He didn’t play as much last year because the Plebe year is tough on big linemen — he lost 20 pounds but has gained it back.
The players still hold hands before kickoff, following the tradition at Brookwood. Unlike last season, all three are in major roles, just like high school, too.
“Me and Jarrett were talking before and it’s almost like back in high school or pee-wee,” A.J. Mackey said. “I’m on the field and I see (Jarrett’s) next to me and I look back and see J.J. there.”
But football is a small part of their requirements. After breakfast at 6:50 a.m., it’s straight to class until nearly 3 p.m. Then immediately it’s practice time. After an evening of studying, there isn’t much free time left before lights out.
By next month, they must pick a major.
“It’s hard,” Jarrett Mackey said of the curriculum. “I’m taking 20 credit hours during the season. I don’t know any other Division I athletes doing that.”
After Army, they are required to serve five years of active duty and three years with the reserves. If they leave the academy before they begin classes in the fall of 2011, they won’t be locked into future military service.
But all three said they plan to graduate there and take advantage of a free $250,000 education. That doesn’t surprise their high school coach.
“Those three kids, they’re the best,” Brookwood head coach Mark Crews said. “All three are great kids, great football players and from great families. They’re top-notch.”
Gwinnett Grads is a column that runs on Saturdays spotlighting the achievements of past Gwinnett standouts. Coaches and parents are urged to send suggestions via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or via fax to 770-339-8081.