Altee Tenpenny had one request moments after his ankle was shattered in a preseason scrimmage last year. The ESPN 150 tailback looked to his mother, Shenitta Shephard, and asked her to pray.
“It was real tough at first but we tried to stay strong and encourage him,” Shephard said. “We're a very praying family. That was the first thing he asked me to do when he injured himself. He said, 'Mama, pray. Mama, pray.' So immediately that's what we started doing.”
Faith has surely helped Tenpenny's family since the injury. Returning to full form has been a long, arduous process.
Initially, the standout from North High School in Little Rock, Ark., was supposed to return to the field in just a few weeks. That didn't happened. Then, perhaps for the playoffs. Again, Tenpenny wasn't ready. The ligament damage and fractured bone in his right ankle still wasn't healed. So when did Tenpenny finally feel he was 100-percent? Just six weeks ago.
“I started feeling more confident and started feeling like I could do more things,” Tenpenny said Saturday at the Nike Football Training Camp in Memphis, Tenn. “The process was kind of hard but I just had to keep my head up and pray. Just be patient.”
Perhaps the ankle was 100-percent before mid-April, but Tenpenny wasn't. His mother feels that confidence could have been the issue.
“Him getting back out there this spring has built his confidence, going to the combines,” Shephard said. “He knows what he's able to do. Sometimes he says he's not 100-percent but I think that's a mental thing he had to weigh out with himself.”
North Little Rock head coach Brad Bolding has seen his star keep his spirits up even when he was downed with the injury.
“Altee has tremendous structure at home,” Bolding told ESPN via email. “His mom and dad, Shenitta and Lee Shepherd, do an incredible job of keeping him grounded and on track. Like all of us there are ups and downs. He has an energy and confidence about him where his downs are few and far between and his inner drive makes those downs very subtle and hard to detect. Most important of all there is his faith in Jesus Christ, which he demonstrates daily.”
It must have been hard at times to tell if Tenpenny was downtrodden. He's much more likely to flash his trademark smile than shed a tear.
“He got it from his mama,” Shephard said proudly. “Smiles and dimples, he got from his mama. He's a great kid.”
Yet it's not his facial features that college coaches are interested in. They're more intrigued by his size, power and athleticism. That ability was on display in Memphis, where Tenpenny weighed in at 210 pounds and secured an invite to The Opening camp to be held in July in Beaverton, Ore. He recently ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds. His physical prowess was also evident when he shared some of his weight room numbers. He bench presses 315 pounds, squats 500 pounds and can power clean 320.
“He spent a lot of time improving on his upper body strength and size,” Bolding said of the time Tenpenny's ankle was recovering. “His legs are so powerful and strong that it really wasn't too big of a set back on his lower body.”
Tenpenny weighed 198 pounds last year at The Opening. He was a standout even though he was one of only three underclassmen invited to the elite event. He finished second in the Sparq challenge and was a favorite among the 150 campers. When he competed, his peers would chant his name loudly.
Tenpenny said there's a slight bit of pressure to do even better this time around. Then, there's the pressure he puts on himself to show he's fully recovered.
“I just like to compete,” he said. “Anytime I can compete and show the talent I'm blessed with, that's always good for me...I just want to prove that I haven't missed a beat since messing up my ankle. I want to prove I'm the same I was before the injury.”
Recruiters are not worried about the ankle. Tenpenny committed to Alabama in January, but that hasn't stopped college coaches from continuing to pursue him. He said Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Arkansas and Ole Miss are some of the schools pursing him the heaviest. Razorback coaches have told him openly that they'll continue to recruit him until he signs his letter of intent.
“There is some pressure here in Arkansas,” Shephard said. “ Even before he committed ... I said the ultimate decision is up to you.”
Tenpenny said the home-state school has a unique appeal. He's fond of Arkansas even though he's committed to Alabama.
“Everybody in Arkansas shows me love,” Tenpenny said.
Outside factors could also affect Tenpenny's decision. There are rumors that four-star tailback Derrick Henry from Yulee (Fla.) High School could end up signing with Alabama despite being committed to Georgia since July 2011. Subsequently, there's speculation that could then prompt Tenpenny to sign with Arkansas. Tenpenny isn't paying attention to all that.
“I try to stay away from the media stuff,” he said. “I try to keep my head focused on one goal and one goal only. That's to be the best player in the country.”
Regardless if he reaches that point, Tenpenny certainly has one of the best names in recruiting. Like Tenpenny himself, his name has an inspiring story behind it.
The big, tough football player is actually named after his great grandmother, who had asked her granddaughter to name a girl after her. Shephard couldn't quite do that, but she did the next best thing.
“I always told her, 'Now, grandmother I love you...But I can't name my little girl that. But my first son I'll name him that,' ” Shephard recalled. “Just so happened the year my grandmother passed, April of '94, I had Altee in December '94.
“At the time she was passing I didn't even know I was pregnant. She kept looking at me like she wanted to tell me something. Her namesake was here to take her place.”
Another prayer answered.