Heading into his sophomore season at North Little Rock High School, running back Altee Tenpenny had never heard of a combine.
He didn’t know a summer circuit fitness test could rocket a previously obscure name onto the radar of every major college football program and secure the attention of top college football coaches. However, his high school coaches did, and in June 2010 they encouraged him to attend one. Tenpenny came back with a score of 90.91. “Everybody was looking at me like I did good,” he said. Indeed, at 15 years old, without a minute of varsity football under his belt, the native Arkansan’s score identified him as an elite athlete, the kind that made college football coaches and fans drool.
His performance his sophomore season underscored those numbers as he rushed for 1,232 yards and 15 touchdowns but his combine stats the following season really sent his stock soaring. At a Nike-sponsored combine in Fort Worth, Texas, Tenpenny went through a series of football-specific drills – the 40-yard dash, shuttle, vertical jump, and power ball toss – and absolutely killed it, accumulating a SPARQ score, that measures speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness, of 129.6. In July of 2011 he competed in the SPARQ ratings national championship. Out of a field of 150, Tenpenny finished second.
National prep football recruiting sites soon ranked him near the top of his class. Mississippi had already offered a scholarship and now so did Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn and other schools. What began as a SPARQ in the summer of 2010, four digits hinting at vast potential, developed into a full-fledged brushfire on the recruiting landscape.
And as Tenpenny entered his senior season, nowhere have the fires burned brighter than between supporters of the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Tenpenny committed to Alabama in January 2012, but until a recruit signs a national letter of intent on the first Wednesday of February, that means nothing. Until then, recruits are free to change their minds and flip, and schools can do their best to make that happen.
In the case of Altee Tenpenny, the decision came down to whether or not he would stick with Alabama or succumb to pressure and stay in Arkansas. If he sticks with his word and selects Alabama on Feb. 6, then a player Rivals.com has ranked as the 36th-best player in the class of 2013 becomes yet one more drop in a tide of four- and five-star players that have come to Alabama and over the last four years swept aside almost every foe. Given the perennial national contender’s depth at running back, there’s no guarantee Tenpenny will even appear on the field in 2013, or, if he does, that he’ll receive more than a handful of touches. However, he will be all but assured of winning at least one SEC title, and, if he stays in school the entire time, perhaps a national championship as well.
But if Tenpenny shocks the nation and chooses the Hogs, he immediately becomes a cornerstone in Arkansas coach Bret Bielema’s rebuilding effort. Ninety-eight percent of his home state would hail him as a savior, a once-in-a-decade type of player on par with former Razorback record-setting running backs Jerry Eckwood, Madre Hill and Darren McFadden. Given Arkansas’ lack of depth, he’s a near lock for earning heavy minutes as a freshman, but his chances at winning an SEC or national championship in the coming years would plummet, and under an increased workload as a featured back, perhaps his stock as a pro prospect.
This, or something like this, is how the majority of fans see it. But what about Tenpenny himself? This is the question that has consumed Tenpenny and his inner circle of family and friends as the young man from North Little Rock makes what might be the most important decision of his life while facing the scrutiny of the fans and media in both states.
And he is only 18 years old.
North Little Rock High School, with approximately 2,800 students, is located near the geographic center of Arkansas. Tenpenny and his classmates are representative of modern North Little Rock and the surrounding area. To the southwest are some of the county’s most desperately poor neighborhoods. To the northeast are solidly middle class neighborhoods that border the interstate and sit amid a concrete sprawloplex of big-box stores and chain restaurants, where Altee Tenpenny, his mother, stepfather and little brother live. Tenpenny’s stepfather Lee Shephard is constantly on the road, inspecting buildings for a commercial waterproofing and roofing contractor. Tenpenny’s older sister attends the University of Central Arkansas in nearby Conway and his two older brothers serve in the Army.
Before Tenpenny, perhaps the most famous running back from what is now called North Little Rock High was Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. As teenagers, both players, Tenpenny and Jones, developed renowned work ethics, and not just because of their time spent on the football field. Jones put in countless hours outside of school working at his father’s grocery store and in the last few months, Tenpenny, despite the maelstrom swirling around him and his decision, works the grill at David’s Burgers for five and a half hours each school night. “I want to stay level-headed,” he said of his job, which offers a bit of a reprieve from the pressure. “I try to keep the football talk to a minimum. I got a football life, a regular life and work life.”
As a sophomore, despite his stellar performance, his team finished 5-6, its season ending on a rain-soaked field in northwest Arkansas as Fayetteville beat North Little Rock 23-7 in the opening round of the 7A state playoffs. Still, Tenpenny’s performance, coupled with his combine scores, made him the state’s hottest prospect heading into his junior year. “I’m looking at all schools, trying to see what they’re about, see how they’re gonna be winning,” he said on the television show Arkansas Sports Nation on July 26, 2011. “When I graduate, I want to be able to come in as a true freshman and get playing time, just like Michael Dyer,” he said, referring to the former Auburn running back and Little Rock native. In August, however, he fractured his right ankle during an intrasquad scrimmage.
The injury, which required surgery, was slow to heal and caused Tenpenny to sit out the entire season. Tenpenny became the state’s most interviewed injured athlete as he watched from the sidelines as his Charging Wildcats plunged deep into the postseason, making it all the way to the semifinals before falling 31-7 to Bentonville, a northwest Arkansas powerhouse.
Still, by the following winter, Tenpenny had received even more scholarship offers as schools like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State expressed interest. Then in January 2012, he took an unofficial visit to Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus. The night before the trip, he sat and wrote down a list of pros and cons that a decision to attend Alabama would entail. The litany of national titles, future NFL first-round draft picks and Heisman Trophy contenders were enticing, but Tenpenny also liked the coaches. “Everything felt right. Everything felt comfortable, he said. “The environment, the staff, they liked to run the ball. Everything just meshed up.”
By the time he entered his car for the return trip, the pros definitely outweighed the cons. On Jan. 28, he announced his commitment to the Crimson Tide.
In early July, Tenpenny was one of two running backs committed to Alabama, yet on July 9, he told 247 Sports, an online recruiting news outlet, that although he was “99 percent solid” on the commitment to Alabama, he still planned on visiting other schools. “The 1 percent is the recruiting process, since you know anything can happen,” he said. All over Arkansas, Hog fans began to dream about that “anything.”
Then, over the next few months, “anything” started happening. Alabama continued to stockpile blue-chip running backs, more than most programs get over the course of a decade. All of a sudden, Tenpenny was only one of many.
The potent running game that has led Alabama to three of the last four national championships operates on a simple premise: NFL running backs tend to have short shelf lives. According to an NFL Players Association study of NFL rosters from 1987-1996, the average NFL career is 3.3 years. Running backs, at only 2.57 years, have the shortest careers of all.
College’s best running backs aren’t compensated millions of dollars for each crushing body blow they absorb. Mileage saved on the body in college can result in a potentially longer pro career and more money down the line, and Alabama coaches use the argument to convince superstar prep tailbacks that sitting on the pine for a season or two is actually in their best interest.
Since 2009, American football fans have watched the Tide’s assembly line of top running backs take carries from each other and rip the heart out of opposing defenses. Each headliner – first Mark Ingram, then Trent Richardson, then Eddie Lacy and now T.J. Yeldon – first complements and then supplants his predecessor as the Tide’s marquee running back. All the while, four and five-star recruits who would take top billing for other SEC teams, such as Roy Upchurch, Jalston Fowler and Kenyan Drake, make punishing cameo appearances.
Only twice during the Tide’s most recent run of dominance has one of its players averaged more than 15 rush attempts a game for one season (Ingram in 2009 and Richardson in 2011). Most ‘Bama backs qualify as a "low-mileage back,” a term Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples noted has crept into NFL draftniks' vocabulary. “It's not an insult,” wrote Staples. “It means a back has taken fewer hits at lower levels and therefore might have a longer career in the NFL.”
As a result, Tenpenny has come to accept the fact that Alabama’s projected backfield has gotten considerably more crowded since he first committed. In February, one of Georgia’s top prep running backs, Tyren Jones, committed to Alabama. In September, Florida’s top running back, 6’3, 240-pound Derrick Henry, did too. About the same time, five-star junior tailback and Alabama native Bo Scarbrough followed suit. Each player will not only battle each other for minutes, but they must also fight for playing time with veteran T.J. Yeldon, whose debut season was even more impressive than that of recent All-Americans Ingram or Richardson.
Tenpenny, however, claims to welcome the challenge. He studies video of Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Bo Jackson and Earl Campbell to figure not only what made them successful, but to discern how he can one day outdo them. His Nike T-shirts announce “DAMN I’M GOOD” without a whiff of irony. Tenpenny wouldn’t be where he is today without this kind of confidence. Arkansas fans grudgingly understand the attraction of a winning program like Alabama’s.
Still, they hoped the allure of early playing time and the resulting glory that comes from being an Arkansas native might help flip Tenpenny. “I guess winning talks,” wrote one commenter on the Arkansas sports message board Hogville.net. “But dang, I think I’d get tired of sharing carries with 18 people. Be a small piece, or THE piece at home.” As another fan wrote on Wholehogsports, “We don’t care if you’re better than Ingram, or Richardson, or any other ‘Bama running back. We want to see if you’re better than Cobb[s], or Hill, or Jones, or McFadden. Do it at Fayetteville and give us all a thrill.”
Cedric Cobbs, Madre Hill, Felix Jones and Darren McFadden are names Tenpenny has heard all his life. Each of these running backs set records and helped lead the Razorbacks to SEC West titles. Tenpenny couldn’t escape their legacies if he tried. Two of his North Little Rock teammates – Juan Day and Kavin Alexander – are cousins of Cobbs and McFadden. Another teammate, Aaron Adams, is the little brother of former Razorback wide receiver Joe Adams. Tenpenny said he hasn’t discussed Razorback connections with these teammates, though.
Indeed, through last fall, he preferred not to talk much recruiting at all. He focused on making the most of his last chance to bring home North Little Rock’s first state title since 1972.
The Charging Wildcats tore through the 2012 regular season with an undefeated in-state record as Tenpenny and running back Juan Day (an Arkansas commit) formed a punishing one-two punch. The only blemish came in a 30-14 loss to Texas’ perennial power Longview High. North Little Rock secured home field advantage for the state playoffs and took advantage in the quarterfinals with a 28-0 romp of suburban Cabot High. The game’s highlight came in the third quarter, when Tenpenny chose to hurdle a 5’8 defender. By the end of the game Tenpenny had tallied 1,328 yards and 19 touchdowns on 181 rushing attempts for the season. All that stood between North Little Rock and the state championship game in Little Rock was Fayetteville High.
The defending state champions were one of the few teams in Arkansas with the same amount of talent as North Little Rock. Three Razorbacks commits headlined the Bulldogs – safety Alex Brignoni, linebacker Brooks Ellis and quarterback Austin Allen, whose brother, Brandon, is currently an Arkansas quarterback and whose father, Bobby, was an assistant and is now Arkansas’ high school relations director.
In the semifinal against North Little Rock, these three stars helped Fayetteville build a 24-6 lead by the first minutes of the fourth quarter. North Little Rock staged a furious comeback, but ultimately fell short, losing 30-28. Tenpenny finished with 48 yards on 20 carries, but that statistically lackluster performance was deceptive. His ability to run after catching the football, gaining 56 yards and scoring two touchdowns on only three receptions, nearly led North Little Rock to victory and caused Fayetteville coach Daryl Patton to tell the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “When he caught that ball the other night on a screen pass and he was sprinting down the sideline, I swore I saw a cape coming from the back. He looked like Superman. He was flying.”
Meanwhile, in late November, the Arkansas Razorbacks ended their season under interim head coach John L. Smith a desultory 4-8, far below the expectation of fans. Over the next couple weeks speculation over the hiring of new head coach reached a fever pitch.
Even Tenpenny was curious. Although on Sunday, Dec. 2, he said he was still solidly committed to Alabama, Arkansas still had a chance. “First I just got to see who all is on the staff,” he said. “I’ll just ask them how they’re going to get me ready and will they give me a chance.”
Yet that was only one factor in his decision. The opinion of his mother, Shenitta Shephard, carried weight and Tenpenny has always indicated he will choose a college where his parents feel comfortable. His mother does not suffer fools. She is looking for a head coach who will treat Altee “not like a product, but as a person,” she said. The coach, she said, needs to “meet the demands of the total person, not just football. Football is his extra,” and “If you come to me with football first, that kind of deters me because that’s not what I’m sending him there for. That’s what got him there, but my thing is his education. I want him to come out with a degree because there needs to be a Plan B.”
Tenpenny’s Plan B is television. He plans to major in sports broadcasting, just like his older sister, and dreams of appearing on ESPN or The NFL Network. Until then, “I want to continue to play football as long as the Lord blesses me to” he said.
To do that, Tenpenny wants to play for a coach emphasizing the run game. “I’m not going to go to a passing school,” he said. “So [the system] would matter. If [Arkansas’ new coach] tried to come in and run like an air raid or the spread system, I want to say it would take some of interest off, but we’ll just have to see what he’ll run.”
While Alabama wide receivers coach Mike Groh recruited Tenpenny for the Tide, Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton served as the Razorback’s lead recruiter. Horton has a proven record of developing talent – from 2007 through 2010, he coached four 1,000-yard rushers – and Tenpenny has already directly benefitted from Horton’s coaching through the instruction he received at summer camps he attended at the University of Arkansas. The running back thinks highly of Horton, something that worried some Alabamans.
Moreover, North Little Rock coach Brad Bolding grew up with Horton and considers him a friend (indeed, Bolding’s father coached Horton in high school and Horton’s father coached Bolding at the University of Central Arkansas). Brad Bolding said Tim Horton should receive much of the credit for keeping Tenpenny’s interest in the Razorbacks during the tumultuous 2012 season and that without Horton Tenpenny would not have considered going to Arkansas last fall.
Horton is adept at flipping elite recruits. In 2008, he flipped receiver Joe Adams from USC, and in 2011, he flipped running back Jonathan Williams (projected as Arkansas’ 2013 starter) from Missouri.
All the same, Tenpenny realized that Arkansas’ new head coach will want to clean house, meaning assistants like Horton will need to look for new jobs. “The weirdest thing is thinking that Coach Horton could be gone,” Tenpenny said. “He’s a great guy, a great coach. To get rid of him … would be dumb.”
On Dec. 4, news leaked that Bret Bielema, who led Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowl appearances, would be Arkansas’ next head coach. The development blindsided many observers. Tenpenny learned of the hire while sitting at his home. “I saw something posted on Twitter by a friend,” he recalled. “The first thing I thought was ‘Who is he?’” Tenpenny didn’t need to research Bielema’s past himself, though, as comments started streaming in to his Twitter feed. “Everybody else was talking about it. It was all over the place.”
North Little Rock coach Brad Bolding told Tenpenny about Bielema’s reputation as a running coach and noted the Wisconsin Badgers backs that had succeeded in his system. Bielema’s most recent success story, Montee Ball, won the 2012 Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back.
What Tenpenny thought of the hire, and how he saw himself fitting into a Bielema-coached offense, soon became one of the state’s most discussed sports topics. On Dec. 7, in an article about Bielema’s first day on the job, the Democrat Gazette chose to illustrate the story with a picture of Tenpenny.
Tenpenny discussed his first phone conversation with Bielema. “We talked a little,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Tom Murphy. “I understand what he did at Wisconsin with the run game. To me, that’s a plus.”
His opinion was also expressed in more subtle ways. Many Hogs fans were heartened to see Tenpenny, whose Twitter account name is @Boobie_Miles_22 ( in homage to the main subject of Friday Night Lights) and includes #BAMA in his Twitter account profile, chose to re-tweet messages sent his way that encouraged him to flip.
Some Hog fans took these retweets as a sign Tenpenny’s once seemingly solid commitment to Alabama was cracking. So did local sports media. Razorback Nation’s Adam Alter bluntly asked Tenpenny if Bielema is the type of coach that would persuade him to change his commitment. Tenpenny laughed, then said, “As far as that, I don’t really know. I’ll just have to wait until my official visit to go down there and talk to him.” Alter, a television reporter, then asked, “Is it a possibility you could wear a Razorback uni next year?”
Tenpenny kept putting him off good naturedly as the reporter kept trying, putting the question several different ways, before Alter finally asked, “Could you see yourself wearing a Razorback uni one day?”
Tenpenny just laughed and shrugged his shoulders. Hearts soared when he first answered, “Well, I mean, anything is possible. I could see myself wearing a Razorback uniform,” but they sank when he added “but right now I’m committed to Alabama and the next step right now is the Army All-American game, so I’m gonna train for that and worry about signing later on.”
Catering news coverage to local market’s fan base is nothing new, but in a market like central Arkansas where no less than 95 percent of college football fans root for the Razorbacks, it has led to situations where local media members have gone beyond simply asking questions and overtly tried to convince him to flip. In one interview on the statewide sports talk show “Overtime” on The Buzz 103.7 FM, hosts Trey Schapp and Matt Jones, a former All-SEC Razorback quarterback and first-round NFL draft pick, didn’t try to hide that. Jones told Tenpenny that he faced a similar dilemma when he was in high school and considered attending Oklahoma because he knew his chances of winning a national title would likely be higher there. But he stayed in Arkansas and told Tenpenny that if he stayed in Arkansas, “Your opportunities after football is over are gonna be that much broader,” then Jones and his partner joked about hiring Tenpenny to work for the Buzz.
That wasn’t a serious offer, but the exchange did point to one major reason many Hog fans believe Tenpenny should stay: his post-football job opportunities. Even Brad Bolding admits this argument has a “lot of meat on the bone,” noting that many former Razorback football players end up working for some of the state’s largest corporations. “Especially in northwest Arkansas,” said Bolding, “there’s a lot of them that work for J.B. Hunt and Tyson and Wal-Mart, you know, making six figures a year.”
Later, Tenpenny explained that from his perspective this argument makes sense only if he wants to remain in Arkansas for the rest of his life. “I mean I understand Arkansas is a great state,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for people in the state – I have a lot of respect for the school,” but “growing up, I always said I was going to explore the world.”
Although he admitted that, “I can’t get away from it, I’m Arkansas raised, it’s in my blood,” he also added that he just wants to “show the world what Arkansas kids are like. Just show what Arkansas can produce.” In order to do that, he would have to leave Arkansas. Alabama is the first step to the rest of the world.
With a bench press of 325 pounds and a squat of 510 pounds, Tenpenny’s build compares favorably with players like the Cleveland Browns’ Trent Richardson. Nevertheless, what elevates Tenpenny into the realm of the nation’s best prospects are his accompanying quick feet and an ability to sidestep opponents in less than a moment’s notice.
As his comments to the media have demonstrated, he is just as adept in sidestepping uncomfortable questions. Even though he admits that, “stuff like that irritates me,” he developed a way to respond. “When they try to sneak in a little sneaky question,” he said, “I don’t try to pay too much attention. I just try to laugh it off and switch to another question.”
The media might or might not have gotten a sound bite that sent the message boards and talk shows into a tizzy. Either way, Tenpenny understands the process, even if it makes him uncomfortable.
“It’s like a situation where, say, you and your girlfriend are going through some troubles – it’s like if somebody was interfering with that. It’s really not any of their business.” In recent years the football recruiting industry has only gotten bigger and bigger as various media outlets have figured out that nonstop recruiting coverage can make football a year-round sport. Tenpenny, whether he has liked it or not, has played a starring role in the production.
He is their business.
Matrell Speight full well knows the power of a Bret Bielema sell. In December, shortly after Bielema was hired, the junior college All-American linebacker flipped from Kansas State and signed with Arkansas.
Speight, a senior at North Little Rock High when Tenpenny was a sophomore, didn’t think he’d ever play for any major college program, especially Arkansas. He didn’t have the grades. Former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino didn’t show him any love – not in high school, and not when he attended Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College to raise both his grades and his profile. So when a program the caliber of Kansas State offered him a scholarship, he jumped at the opportunity and committed on Dec. 10.
However, after Bielema and Bobby Allen visited his North Little Rock home, he changed. “I could tell he was a great coach and I could see him doing big things at the University of Arkansas.”
One of those big things would be keeping SEC West rivals from poaching the state’s top players. While Spaight emphasized that Hog coaches didn’t directly ask him to recruit Tenpenny, he said they made it clear that one of the first orders of business was to begin building a wall around the state’s blue-chip recruits and make attending Arkansas option number one for the most talented prep players.
When Spaight signed his national letter of intent at North Little Rock High on Dec. 19, he made sure to take his former teammate aside for a few minutes. He told Tenpenny, “Competition’s gonna be everywhere you go but there’s a better chance of going to Arkansas and having a starting job.” He reminded him that, “you can make it [to the NFL] from Arkansas just as much as you can from Alabama.”
Still, Spaight didn’t try to put too much pressure on his old teammate. “That would be fun playing with him again, but at the same I would just like to see him be successful,” he said. “That would make me more happy … so if it’s at Arkansas, I’ll be very happy. If it’s at Alabama, I’ll still be happy.”
In early January, Tenpenny headed to San Antonio, Texas, for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a game that annually features 90 of the nation’s best prep football players. Also selected for the game were fellow Alabama running back commits Derrick Henry and Tyren Jones, both of whom Tenpenny considers as friends. During the week of practice before the game, al.com’s Wesley Sinor asked Tenpenny if the prospect of a crowded backfield in Tuscaloosa worried him.
“I ain’t worried about who’s rushing in the backfield,” Tenpenny said. “Derrick Henry, he’s a great athlete – can’t wait to play with him, so is Tyren – but right now I’m just really focused on what I got to do.”
Illness sidelined Tenpenny for the final day of practice for the All-American Bowl, and he received only a few carries as his team lost 15-8 in front of 40,133 fans on Jan. 5. Still, he enjoyed the experience, in particular the opportunity to hang out with his teammates-to-be.
He said at the start of the week he and a few other Alabama commits got into the habit of calling out Alabama’s “Roll Tide” rallying cry. “Then after like the first two days everybody got to saying it,” Tenpenny said. One of those people was Kenny Bigelow, a defensive tackle who’d committed to the University of Southern California. Bigelow tweeted he’d been hanging with Henry and Tenpenny and they were “really opening my eyes.” Tenpenny said he didn’t say anything to Bigelow about going to Alabama. Apparently, the big man was just swept up in the calling of the Tide.
After the All-American game, Tenpenny and his parents met with the new Arkansas running backs coach, Joel Thomas, who’d been waiting for them in the lobby of their hotel. “I could see myself being coached by him," Tenpenny later told the Democrat-Gazette’s Richard Davenport. "Because he's a cool coach, the type of character he has and the way he approaches things and how he keeps it real.”
Thomas had replaced Tim Horton, who for a few weeks was said to be in the running for reassignment to another Arkansas coaching position. That didn’t happen, and on Jan. 5 he joined Auburn as tight ends coach. Tenpenny told Richard Davenport he was disappointed to hear about Horton’s departure, but that it wouldn’t affect his interest in the Bielema-led Hogs.
In the month preceding signing day, life for Tenpenny and his family has become ever more frenetic. In one particular busy stretch, they attended an awards banquet and on back-to-back weekends made official visits to both Tuscaloosa and Fayetteville. Between those trips, they hosted separate visits from assistant coaches.
Joel Thomas, along with Arkansas’ new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, arrived three days after the family returned from Tuscaloosa. Tim Horton, who certainly didn’t forget about Tenpenny, arrived later in the week. Groh and Saban made their visits earlier. Tenpenny said that it was a little strange seeing Horton represent another program but understood Horton had to make the move. “You got to do what you gotta do,” as Tenpenny put it. Horton urged the family to make an 11th hour official visit to Auburn, but after consideration, the family decided to forego a third consecutive weekend of travel. “I already had my mind made up between Alabama and Arkansas,” Tenpenny later said. “There wasn’t really no need for us to waste our time or for us to waste their time.”
During the peak of these visits and trips, the scene at Tenpenny’s home resembled a North Little Rock version of Times Square. At the time, the tumult was so intense that it was almost impossible for family members to speak on the phone or respond to texts. Signing day could not come soon enough.
On Jan. 16, Tenpenny and his family attended the ceremony for the Landers Award, the most prestigious individual trophy in Arkansas high school football. Tenpenny was a finalist, along with a host of Razorback commits including Austin Allen, Drew Morgan and Hunter Henry. Morgan, a receiver whom Bielema had flipped from Arkansas State, won the trophy and accompanying $3,000 scholarship, but Tenpenny still enjoyed the ceremony, catching up with players he’d gotten to know over the years through football camps, campus visits and Fellowship of Christian Athletes dinners.
In particular, Tenpenny had grown close to fellow central Arkansan Hunter Henry. The two players had long been considered the two best Arkansas recruits in their class. According to some recruiting outlets, Henry was the best prep tight end in the country.
Henry, whose father played football for the Razorbacks, committed to Arkansas in the summer. In the following months, he overtly tried to convince other players to join him in Fayetteville, including Tenpenny. “I told him he should come to Alabama,” said Tenpenny “[And] he tells me I should come to Arkansas.”
Henry’s logic was familiar; he told Tenpenny that if joined the Razorbacks he would raise the profile of his home state program just as another central Arkansas native had. “You’re just an Arkansas kid,” he recalled telling Tenpenny, “and if you look at Darren McFadden and all them, I think you’ll be successful.”
In response, Tenpenny, he said, “would just laugh and be like, ‘Wait until signing day.’”
At the same time, Tenpenny appeared just as intent at flipping Henry. On an earlier, unofficial visit to Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus, he ran into Henry, who despite committing to Arkansas was making an official visit to Tuscaloosa.
Only a few moments into their conversation, Tenpenny made his play, asking him, “‘You feel this, bro? You feel this? This is awesome down here. This is where you need to be. We can be teammates,’ and all that stuff,” Henry recalled.
Henry responded, “Yeah, we could. We could, man. It would be awesome.” Clearly, Tenpenny wasn’t the only player still wrestling with his decision.
The friends again ran into each other on the weekend of Jan. 18 during both players’ official visit to Arkansas, one of five official visits to different campuses recruits are allowed. The visit was similar to the one Tenpenny made to Tuscaloosa; he and his parents talked with coaches, academic advisors and current team members, and toured the school’s facilities. Just as Alabama had feted Tenpenny and other recruits’ at a local restaurant, Henry and Tenpenny were taken to the Catfish Hole, Fayetteville’s best-known restaurant. A favorite of Razorback fans, the Catfish Hole is a place whose website gives more prominence to the owner’s allegiance to Arkansas football – “Go Hogs!” – than the current menu. Arkansas fans knew it would be one of their final chances to try to convince Tenpenny to change his mind.
When the young men arrived fans waiting inside the restaurant were determined to leave no ego unstroked and gave the entering recruits full, rock-star treatment, cheering, taking pictures and rising to their feet to give them a standing ovation. The scene was similar to the one that had played out when Tenpenny and his parents ate at Chuck’s Fish restaurant in Tuscaloosa. Then something extra happened in Fayetteville.
As the recruits ate, a few fans not officially affiliated with the university treated the dinner like a virtual broadcast. As Altee’s mother Shenitta later said, as the boys ate one of the men called out “what school they’d played at, how many yards they’d had or touchdowns, tackles or whatever. I was like ‘O.K…’It was impressive and weird at the same time.”
Altee, however, thoroughly enjoyed it. Swept up in the scene, he gave Razorback fans heart when he took up a dare from another Arkansas commit to “call the Hogs,” delivering Arkansas’ signature rallying cry, then showing even more enthusiasm by dancing and trying to goad other recruits, including Henry, into joining him. “Of course, all the Hog fans loved it,” Tenpenny said later, and the hopes of Razorback nation rose with each move. Added Henry, “That’s just Altee’s personality, real outgoing and fun … I got up and did a little wave, and then sat down.”
Despite the excitement, however, Henry and the other Arkansas commits were not particularly aggressive trying to persuade Tenpenny to flip. More than any fan or coach, they knew the ultimate decision over where to play football was Tenpenny’s alone to make, and at this late date, they were sensitive to the pressures involved in that decision and knew he was unlikely to change his mind. According to Henry, they simply told him it would be nice if he would be their teammate and left it at that. Catfish Hole customers, however, weren’t nearly as shy. As the boys ate, dozens shouted out their preference, begging Tenpenny to flip.
Tenpenny understood, but soon afterwards seemed to indicate their efforts would, ultimately, be in vain. “Everybody was like ‘We need you to be a Hog. We need you to come represent your state,’” he said. But Tenpenny had thought of all that before, and with each passing day his decision seemed more certain. By attending Alabama, he said, “I don’t see why I can’t represent my state and show other states what Arkansas can produce.”
The Razorbacks chose two players – offensive lineman Cordale Boyd and cornerback Tevin Mitchel – to serve as hosts for Tenpenny during his official visit. On the surface, Mitchel seemed like an ideal choice – not because of his own story but because of that of his father. Eric Mitchel is an Arkansas native who in the 1980s was one of the state’s most highly sought prep football players. A running quarterback, Eric Mitchel ended up going to Oklahoma instead of Arkansas. Once there he soon realized he would receive very little playing time behind star Sooner quarterback Jamelle Holieway.
Mitchel wanted to transfer from Oklahoma to Arkansas after his freshman season, but neither program would allow it. Instead, as Mitchel told the Democrat-Gazette, he had to wait decades for his son Tevin to fulfill his own dream of playing for the Hogs.
Tevin Mitchel and Tenpenny hit it off well. As Tenpenny said, “I got a lot of respect for Tevin. He’s real cool, down to the earth. He reminds me of my older brother. … He watched after me and made sure I didn’t do anything that was inappropriate or that I wasn’t supposed to be doing.”
However, Mitchel didn’t tell Tenpenny the story of his father and his regrets, Tenpenny said. Like the other Hog commits, Mitchel didn’t press and let him know he would support him no matter the university he chose.
The second night of the visit, Tenpenny and some other recruits left their parents and went to another player’s home, where they relaxed and played some video games – Madden NFL 13, NBA 2K13 and NCAA Football 13. In NCAA Football 13, Tenpenny’s choice of team was telling. He said he always chooses Alabama and, if that team isn’t available, “I play with Florida or something like that.” He doesn’t play as Arkansas.
The family returned home on the afternoon of Jan. 20 to crash after their whirlwind schedule in advance of signing day. “It’s tiring. It’s not stressful,” Shenitta Shepard said a few hours after arriving home. “It’s fun when you’re at the schools and you’re doing the different events.”
All the same, there has been a toll. Normally, the family attends services at Gaines Street Baptist Church in Little Rock on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. The hustle and bustle of those January weeks kept the family away from their support group at the church. Still, Shenitta says prayer itself remains “a constant” in her family. She said she anticipated leaning on God even more in the last few weeks before signing day. “We’re gonna be doing a lot of fasting and praying because I want him to be sure that there’s no regrets, no anything.”
Tenpenny has followed suit, making sure to reserve 10 minutes each night for meditation and prayer. In recent weeks, he’s also reviewed the list of Alabama pros and cons he's kept up to date since he committed. He has simultaneously done the same with his list for Arkansas, factoring in input from the new coaching staff. “I don’t want to hold anything the old coaching staff did or had against the new one,” he said.
Perhaps Arkansas’ last, best shot at flipping Tenpenny came in late January.
Head coach Bret Bielema and assistant Joel Thomas wanted an in-home visit with Tenpenny and his parents to follow up on the official visit to campus, but were running out of time. The visit took place on Jan. 24, but by that time Tenpenny’s work schedule and that of his stepfather had already been set.
In response, the family and coaches compromised. On the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 24, Bielema and Thomas spent about 45 minutes watching Tenpenny practice track at North Little Rock High. According to Bolding, Bielema left to fulfill a fan’s request by visiting a patient at a nearby hospital, then headed to Tenpenny’s home to meet with Shenitta Shepard, her mother, an uncle and Altee’s little brother. Two hours later the coaches dropped in to David’s Burgers where Tenpenny was cooking at the grill. They stayed about 30 minutes there and visited with Tenpenny in a backroom.
Although the NCAA prohibits Bielema from mentioning recruits by name on Twitter, he still found a way to let savvy fans know what was going on, tweeting a picture of David’s Burgers.
According to Tenpenny, Bielema and Thomas never mentioned Alabama. Instead, they emphasized the same Arkansas selling points they’d made before. “That the program, of course, is on the upcoming and, of course, come represent home and it will be good leading my home state to a national championship,” Tenpenny recalled.
Tenpenny listened politely, but as he put it later, “I don’t really say too much back. I just smile and nod my head and say ‘Yeah, it would be nice for all that.’”
“After you get recruited for two and half years, there’s nothing new that can be said. You hear the same stuff but sometimes it’s just put in different format.”
Bielema and Thomas had done the best they could with such limited time, especially considering they only arrived on the scene in December, but it appeared that the only flipping going on that night were the burgers Tenpenny flipped on the grill.
As signing day dawned, Tenpenny seemed more than ready to join the Crimson Tide. On Monday night, he Tweeted “I’m 100% to Alabama..!! #rolltide.”
The sky will not fall on the Arkansas program if Tenpenny attends Alabama. Most Arkansas fans have reconciled themselves to the likelihood that Tenpenny will wear an Alabama jersey. They also know that what has historically separated Arkansas from SEC powerhouse programs isn’t so much a lack of offensive playmakers as a lack of dominant linemen – especially on defense.
They do, however, worry that the loss of Tenpenny hints at a larger, longer-lasting problem. Bielema’s recruiting strategy hinges on skimming talent from Florida and Texas, and he and his staff have so far succeeded in this. On Monday night, Alex Collins, a four-star running back from south Florida, committed to Arkansas over Miami, Florida, Florida State and Wisconsin.
Collin’s announcement may herald a brighter future for Arkansas recruiting, but Tenpenny’s steadfast commitment to Alabama is a glaring reminder of its present status.
As one poster on a local message board noted on Jan. 3, 2012, “If your goal is to be big inside the state you stay in the state. If your goal is to [be] big in the whole country, you go to alabama [sic] in football or kentucky [sic] in basketball. That’s how it is until we bring a crystal football to fayetteville. [sic]”
And that’s the problem. A program perpetually flirting with contender status needs bigger, faster and better players to finally break through to the top and become a perennial power. Yet those players, like Tenpenny, are already going to programs that broke through long ago. For schools like Arkansas, it’s a Catch-22 that somehow, some way, must be solved one flip at a time.
It appears, however, it will not begin with the flipping of North Little Rock’s #22, Altee Tenpenny. On Wednesday morning, Feb. 6, he announced he would honor his earlier commitment and signed a letter of intent to play football for Alabama.
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