If it took a village to raise Dunbar's Ali Culpepper, then Loretta Smith was that village. She became a devoted mom right from the birth of her son during her senior year at Northern High in Baltimore.
Initially afraid to let Culpepper play football when he was 6, Smith regularly walked him to practice at Mervo High from their home in the Northbrook Apartments. She joined the PTA at his elementary school, became a booster parent for the Northwood Recreation program, and worked concession stands at games.
Smith, now 35, became a licensed day-care provider within a year of high-school graduation and bought her home at age 27 -- all out of love for her only child.
"My girlfriends used to say, 'Why'd you spend so much time on that boy? He's just going to break your heart,' " said Smith.
"But while they were [running around]," she continued, "I was enjoying being a mother."
Her baby's grown up now -- a 5-foot-11, 206-pounder with "Momma's Boy" tattooed on his left biceps. Named for the famous boxer, he's also one of the nation's most highly recruited high school football players.
The National Recruiting Advisor, rankings of which appear in The Sporting News, rates Culpepper a preseason All-American and the nation's 13th-best running back prospect -- fourth among fullbacks.
His career totals are 4,189 yards and 38 touchdowns, with 45 receptions for 669 yards and five more scores. Last season, he had 1,831 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns -- three to help Dunbar win its second straight state title, 30-28, in overtime against Churchill.
"He's versatile, in that he's got a rare combination of speed, size and vision for a fullback," said Bob Burton, managing editor
of The Advisor. "A lot of the recruiters I've talked to like his ability to run, block and catch passes out of the backfield. I think he's one of the five best players in Maryland -- maybe the best."
Coaches are calling Culpepper, an All-Metro pick last season, "at the rate of about 10 per night," Smith said. Scholarship offers have come from Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Maryland, Syracuse, Rutgers, North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Duke, said coach Stanley Mitchell.
Academics, a stumbling block for some, are another hurdle cleared by Culpepper, who scored 910 on his Scholastic Assessment Test, carries a 3.0-grade average and still goes over homework with his mother.
"She's always asking about my schoolwork, and sometimes you get tired of it," said Culpepper, 17, whose tattoo initially angered Smith until she read it. "I give her a lot of credit for sticking by me all my life. She's been interested and involved in everything I do. She's a strong-willed woman."
It's a trait that's evident in Culpepper's on-field determination.
"Ali can be a punishing-type of runner. He's been carrying three and four guys in some games. He'll dig down deep, and in some cases, has played with pain," said Mitchell, whose star player also has nine sacks, five interceptions and two fumble recoveries as an outside linebacker.
Overshadowed in the past by teammates such as running back Reggie Boyce (Montgomery College-Rockville) and linebacker Tommy Polley (Florida State), Culpepper rushed for 237 yards and six touchdowns in the final two games of last season.
Moments after scoring his game-winning third touchdown against Churchill, Culpepper sacked the quarterback, preventing a potential game-tying conversion pass.
"When you see him step up like that, it gets the rest of the team up," said linebacker Carlrome Randel. This year has been tougher than others for Culpepper, who averages 127 yards a game, and 8.9 yards per carry. Culpepper is challenged with leading a team that's greener than the past two.
"I was more laid back in the past, but now I speak up. I'm not an in-your-face guy but more a person to encourage and make suggestions," said Culpepper.
"It has required patience and willingness on his part to wait for a young line to come around," Mitchell said. "He's giving 100 percent on both sides of the ball. He's a true leader."
Douglass of Prince George's County limited Culpepper to a season-low 97 yards and kept him out of the end zone in a 14-8 victory, but doing so required a mammoth effort by the Eagles' defense.
"Tough to tackle, a great combination of speed and strength -- you have to consider him one of the state's top backs," said Douglass coach Tom Glynn. "If he breaks one, there's not a whole lot of people who can run him down."
Culpepper ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at a summer football combine at the University of Maryland. He can bench-press 260 pounds five times.
"His grit, aggressiveness and determination set him apart from most ball players," said Archbishop Carroll coach Kenny Lucas, Dunbar's opponent this Saturday. "He's a Division I-A prospect -- easily."
But academics come first, and Smith is still keeping track.
"I want him to be somebody and make it, so I don't look back on or regret anything," she said. "We're not only mother and son, but best friends. And when I look at him now, I'm just so proud."
Culpepper game-by-game in '96
Here's how Dunbar running back Ali Culpepper has performed since the beginning of his senior season:
Opponent ........ Result .. Carries .. Yards .. TDs
Randallstown .... W 56-0 ... 11 ........ 119 ... 2
Douglass ........ L 8-14 ... 13 ......... 97 ... 0
Largo ........... W 32-19 .. 17 ........ 114 ... 2
Calvert Hall .... W 28-22 .. 15 ........ 167 ... 3
Poly ............ W 20-14 .. 15 ........ 138 ... 2
Totals .......... -- ....... 71 ........ 635 ... 9
Pub Date: 10/10/96