Friday, February 08, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Tenpenny stays true

Leader sportswriter

In the middle of the three scorers’ tables lined up consecutively in the center of the court at Wildcat Arena Wednesday morning rested a nameplate that brought a bit of disgust to college football fans in the area.

It simply read “Alabama.”

That’s where North Little Rock senior running back Altee Tenpenny was to take his place among six other Wildcat teammates for National Signing Day following an interview session in which he faced nearly every sports reporter and recruiting groupie in central Arkansas from television, print and Web.

The fact that Tenpenny decided not to stay in Arkansas may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some local fans, but that element did not put any kind of damper on the big day as classmates, as well as other members of the community, filled up the lower level of the home side to watch the signings take place. The day was not just about Tenpenny, however, as six of his classmates also got their chance to sign their Letters of Intent. Gary Vines, Kaylon Daniels and Rodney Bryson all committed to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Kenny Howard and Javian Williams both signed on to become part of the Coffeyville, Kan. Community College Red Ravens football program and Gerald Watson to Ouachita Baptist University.

There was speculation in the days leading up to the signing that Tenpenny, who is listed as a four-star recruit by most outlets, might possibly have a change of heart and stay in state to become an Arkansas Razorback. But Tenpenny blasted those hopes out of the water late Tuesday with a message on social media confirming his commitment to the defending BCS champs.

The hiring of new Hogs coach Bret Bielema on Dec. 4 changed the landscape in the final stages of the annual football-recruiting frenzy, a series of events that included the new Razorback staff getting a foot in the door at the Tenpenny residence. Reports varied on the NLR senior’s level of interest with the U of A, including a visit to Bud Walton Arena, where he led the crowd in calling the Hogs during a Razorback basketball game.

Bielema and staff kept in steady contact with Wildcats football coach Brad Bolding during the process, and held out hope until the clock hit 8:30 on Wednesday morning.

“You’ve got to comment on coach Bielema and their staff,” Bolding said. “I’ve gotten to know all of those guys really well. They did an incredible job of recruiting him, in a month. If you look at the time period they had versus Alabama, they had a month versus about a year and a half.”

Some believed and hoped that Bielema’s penchant for running the football and record of success as head coach at Wisconsin, along with the overwhelming number of elite-level running backs matriculating to the Crimson Tide program, might sway Tenpenny into staying closer to home, a proposition that looked at times as if it might possibly come to pass.

“They really closed some ground in that month,” Bolding said. “You’ve got to give hats off to them. It says a lot about a teenager to have the kind of loyalty this kid has. You see these kids all around the country flip flopping and going in all different kinds of directions. He said where he was going from day one. He stuck to his commitment, and you’ve really got to appreciate that in a teenager.”

Tenpenny and his teammates came out just after 8:40 a.m. to a roaring ovation, as Bolding stood near the home side of the court and addressed the crowd. He went through a brief summarization of each of the seven players’ journeys to reach the next level, including Tenpenny. Bolding noted that while his star running back’s choice may not have been the most popular one in the state of Arkansas, it was still one he stayed with through numerous other temptations.

With his future bright and a loaded Wildcats team that was just as effective as a passing unit offensively, Tenpenny was used sparingly for the most part during his senior season in a number of easy blowout victories for North Little Rock in 2012. He was still able to pick up 1,008 yards on 93 carries and 16 touchdowns, with an average of 10.84 yards per carry.

The Wildcats went 7-0 in 7A/6A East Conference play and finished up 10-2 overall.

“I think it says a lot about our community and our school,” Bolding said of having seven signees. “I’m really excited about the direction our program is going. We feel like we’re in the elite status of high-school football in Arkansas. We’ve got guys like Altee and the rest of these guys who are signing coming up, and it sounds a little bit cocky, but we don’t look at rebuilding, we look at trying to reload.”

Tenpenny answered the onslaught of questions prior to the signing with the poise of a seasoned celebrity, including one regarding the transition from a fun child’s game to a major endeavor.

“You’ve got to keep the fun in it,” Tenpenny said. “It’s hard to do; I’m not going to lie. Waking up at six in the morning, you’re not going to like it. Running sprints, you’re not going to like it. Lifting weights when your body hurts, having your coach yelling at you to keep pushing, I mean, you’re not going to like it. But you’ve got to remember why you’re doing this. If you love the game, then there’s nothing to it.”