By Kim West
With his entire coaching staff lined up behind him, his beaming parents by his side and his jubilant teammates crowded into Tanner High School’s media center, senior running back Hayden Stephens signed a national letter of intent to play for the Gulf South Conference’s Shorter University during Wednesday’s signing day ceremony.
Stephens, 18, is the first among Tanner’s seven-member senior class — which has won two Class 2A championships and posted a 52-3 record in four seasons — to earn a football scholarship, but head coach Laron White said he anticipates at least one or two more Rattlers receiving interest from college programs in the coming weeks.
White compared Stephens, who finished his career with 73 total touchdowns and 5,506 all-purpose yards, to Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith because of his determination and ability to take defenses by surprise with game-breaking plays.
“Hayden’s such a great runner, and he’s tough, quick and exciting to watch,” said White, whose favorite Stephens’ highlights were his 80 and 93-yard TD runs in the 2013 semifinals against Fyffe. “Fyffe was a great team and they were holding him all game, and he got hurt in the first half. But he came out and played in the second half … you can give it to him 12 times, and then all of sudden he takes off for a long one.”
The 5-foot-9-inch, 160-pound running back, defensive back and kick returner produced one of the most stellar senior campaigns in program history, rushing for 2,142 yards and 28 touchdowns, scoring on a kickoff return and an interception return and earning MVP honors in the state title game.
Stephens and his fellow seniors — Deshun Freeman, Baltazar “Tito” Rubio, Chris Townsend, Seth Smith, Blake Whitt and Shamaud Baker — guided a young Tanner squad from a season-opening loss to back-to-back 3A champion Madison Academy to five comeback victories in the 2A playoffs.
“We could have done two things — we could have given up after that loss, or we could have gotten stronger,” Stephens said. “And we stayed tough throughout the season and proved this year we had to work real hard for (the championship).”
Hello to the Hawks
Stephens, who has two state championship rings from football, one from track and an opportunity to win another this spring in the 100 meters, said he chose the Hawks because the coaching staff expects him to immediately compete for playing time in the backfield.
He also likes the music scene near the campus in Rome, Ga., and said he intends to major in music. Stephens, who is working two part-time jobs to pay for voice lessons, is an avid guitar player and learned to play about three years ago from his grandfather, Roger Whitt.
Stephens’ parents, East Limestone special education teacher Johnny Stephens and Tanner kindergarten teacher LeeAnna Stephens, and his three siblings, Landon, Kristen and Whitney, won’t have to travel far to watch the youngest member of the sports-loving family.
The drive is only about two hours from Tanner to Shorter’s campus, located in a sprawling city that is also home to Hayden’s great-uncle, Martin McElyea.
After several teammates finished taking snapshots and eating the refreshments brought by his mother, Hayden spoke about his teammates and credited his brother with spurring his development.
Landon is a former standout quarterback and multi-sport star at Tanner, and is now playing baseball at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa.
“One of my favorite things was learning, mainly from my brother,” he said. “I started as a ninth-grader when he was an 11th grader. He just taught me so much about being a leader, being mentally and physically tough on and off the field. He just made me a better person and football player.”