By Jonathan Deal
Two years ago, after just beating Class 3A No. 1 Madison Academy, Hayden Stephens was speechless. Stephens, a junior then, scored the game’s only touchdowns in his first start for Tanner and was ecstatic in his first-ever postgame interview.
Since then, the running back has carried the ball nearly 600 times, scored more than 50 touchdowns and won two state championships.
“We ran him practice against that starting defensive line as a sophomore and that helped him get better,” said Tanner offensive coordinator Austin Marsh. “He had speed and that ability to get in space, but he developed the ability to break those arm tackles. He worked hard in the weight room to get where he is.”
Stephens’s hard work has paid off. After being already selected to the All-State team earlier this month, the senior is the News Courier’s 2013 Offensive Player of the Year.
“Going into the season, we didn’t have another proven guy, so we knew he was going to get the ball,” said Tanner head coach Laron White. “I’m just glad he stayed healthy and was able to get all those carries.”
Stephens finished his senior season with 276 carries for 2,142 yards and 28 touchdowns, averaging 7.8 yards per carry. Stephens also had 10 kick returns for a 33.4-yard average and one touchdown.
“He has a lot of natural instinct,” said senior offensive lineman Seth Smith. “He’s ready to grind when he comes down to it. When he gets that handout, he knows that every yard he gets is going to be well earned and he’s ready to fight for it.”
Stephens put up big numbers last season, but split time with All-State senior Fred Rich. This season, Stephens was the featured running back that Tanner leaned on to get through a tough playoff run.
“A lot of last year, even up until the third round of the playoffs, I was just playing one half,” said Stephens. “This year, it was a fourth-quarter game in all the playoff games. “There were kind of some scary moments, but we handled it all pretty good.”
Stephens and the rest of Tanner’s seniors finished their careers as the winningest senior class in school history.