Whatever Altee Tenpenny decides he will let a large group of people down. Think about that for a minute. Deliberating over a decision you know is going to disappoint thousands. Then think about making that decision at the tender age of 18. Most of us at that age struggled to decide what to wear each morning let a lone making a life altering decision with media and coaches pressuring and disgruntled fans waiting to pounce.Alas, that’s what Tenpenny, a North Little Rock star, and other prized recruits across the country face as National Signing Day approaches Feb. 6. Tenpenny, one of the top running backs in the country, is committed to Alabama, but has visited Arkansas and appears to be considering flipping his commitment.
Bielema and his staff have swarmed Tenpenny, including last week when they visited NLR High School, the Tenpenny home and the running back’s work place. Various media outlets have chronicled this barrage, and fans have discussed the prospects of Tenpenny’s change of heart on message boards and airwaves.
On sports talk radio Monday, one caller whose wife allegedly teaches at North Little Rock High, said Tenpenny and a group of friends have worn ’Bama jerseys to school every day. Another caller shrugged off that revelation, and guaranteed that Bielema’s late push is working. Whatever the prediction, the Tenpenny decision is a hot topic lately. Hog fans know landing Tenpenny could aid in Bielema’s reconstruction of the U of A program.
So while the pressure mounts, the young Tenpenny is listening to pitches, fielding questions from reporters and comparing notes with his parents. While his NLR classmates hang out with friends and watch movies, Tenpenny prepares to make the biggest decision of his young life, knowing that he will face backlash, possibly by fans in his home state.
The longer I’ve covered the football recruiting process the more I’ve seen how it affects the players. I saw the toll it took on Warren receiver Bret Smith as he decided to go to Tennessee. Weeks of message board threads and sports radio talk finally caught up with the Bradley County talent. The night before signing day he was physically ill. He woke up on that Wednesday set to sign with Arkansas, he even informed the Hogs coaching staff allegedly, but ultimately he signed with the Vols.
A few years later, programs from across the country flocked to Central Arkansas to recruit a star running back named Michael Dyer. Dyer started as a freshman, so the hype started early. As his sophomore season ended he had the full attention of message board posters, and sports talk show callers. Dyer seemed to enjoy the spotlight, and his interviews were subject to criticism. Especially when the summer before his senior season it looked like he was headed to Auburn.
The only time I really argued with my buddy Shawn Arnell on the air was when he accused Dyer of “toying with Hog fans.” I claimed that a grown man shouldn’t hang on an 18-year-olds’ every word. The adult is supposed to be the bigger man. I urged Shawn and the listeners to think about Dyer being their son. How would they feel about perfect strangers hurling insults? The negativity got out of hand with Smith, and it spiraled out of control with Dyer and word of his commitment to Auburn.
I was one of the first reporters to do a major piece on Dyer, as I wrote a feature story during his sophomore season at Little Rock Christian. Two years later I spent six hours in a car with him, as we traveled to Fayetteville from Little Rock and back for a photo shoot. He was pleasant, good-natured and easy to talk to. It was then, without him telling me directly, I realized he had silently committed to Auburn.
While he was a bit more outgoing than he was two years prior, he wasn’t brash or cocky when I encountered him. However, as his senior year moved on he made comments on camera and on a cell phone camera that drew the ire of Hog fans. The face time caught up with him, but I don’t blame Dyer, whose football career is on hold after missteps at Auburn and Arkansas State. He is a kid who grew up with adversity and instability. He dealt with the media scrutiny about as well as any kid in those circumstances would.
With the emergence of social media, message boards and recruiting services, the elite recruits are faced with the kind of fame and pressure that very few young adults can handle. The media coverage some of these recruits get is more than some NFL starters receive. Reporters were constantly calling Dyer for six months and TV interviews (some of them live) started hot and heavy during the summer before his senior year.
Of course some kids aren’t going to say the right things. They are going to appear cocky, and they are going to let it go to their head. What do you expect? It’s not fair, but it’s the price a prospect pays along with the perks of recruiting trips and a full ride. When it’s good it’s good, and when it’s bad, it’s really bad.
The focus isn’t going away and most likely will get worse. Media outlets realize that fans want recruiting news and will pay for it. Unlike ever before, fans are interested in news year-round. It’s almost like a season of its own. However, the die-hards set themselves up for major disappointment. Players commit to other schools or don’t live up to their star ratings that are sometimes dolled out by a writer who has never picked up a football.
Like everybody else, I anticipate Tenpenny’s decision. Unlike, most though, I feel sorry for him he’s got to endure the pressure and scrutiny. I have little doubt it had a negative affect on Smith and Dyer they still deal with. Hopefully, Tenpenny can find peace no matter what happens.