|U.S. Paralympian Blake Leeper, a native of Kingsport, Tenn., and a distant cousin of Coty Sensabaugh handles the sword during the 12th Titan ceremony before the Titans defeated the Jets 38-13.|
Leeper, a distant cousin of Sensabaugh, was the honorary 12th Titan before Tennessee hosted the New York Jets on Sunday. The U.S. Paralympian ran through the tunnel, met Sensabaugh at midfield for a hug, hoisted a sword and drove it into the middle of the field as the crowd at LP Field cheered. He then did what he does best and sprinted toward the south end zone, drawing more cheers.
The native of Kingsport, Tenn., is a bi-lateral below-the-knee amputee who has competed in and won medals at multiple track events, including silver in the 400 meters and bronze in the 200 meters at the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Leeper has been using prosthetics since childhood, but didn’t let that stop him from living an active lifestyle. He said the encouragement he received from Sensabaugh when the two played in youth basketball leagues was a big key.
“I had to deal with the situation at birth, and my parents had to make a decision on how they wanted to treat ‘this child,’ ” Leeper said. “It was a hard decision for them, and of course, I had to make a decision on whether I wanted to feel sorry for myself or do I want to keep up with the kids. Having Coty in my life was huge because he never treated me different.”
Leeper said Sensabaugh’s treatment of him served as a guide for other young people on how to treat someone who wasn’t the same as them, and Sensabaugh said he isn’t surprised by the levels of success that Leeper has attained.
“I would say the drive in his heart is what makes him so special,” Sensabaugh said. “Ever since I’ve known him, since we were little kids, he’s always had drive and heart. He’s never looked at his situation as something that’s held him back. He was always competing with everybody, no matter what. In sports, he’s never let his situation hold him back.”
Sensabaugh hasn’t been able to see Leeper run at a competition because of their divergent schedules, but he did race with Leeper in the 100 meters before Sensabaugh’s senior season at Clemson. Sensabaugh is one of the fastest Titans, but Leeper prevailed.
“I beat him out of the starting blocks because my start is naturally faster than his but once I reached top speed, I started gearing down, and he doesn’t really reach a top speed,” Sensabaugh said.
Leeper’s weekend in Nashville also included attending Saturday’s walk-through practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park.
“All the guys were really nice to me. They treated me like I was part of the team,” Leeper said. “It was huge. I have a disability and some people feel a certain kind of way toward you, a little bit uncomfortable, but these guys here at the Titans are amazing gentlemen. They gave me big hugs and we talked it up as if I’ve been around for years.”
Leeper said he draws inspiration from seeing Sensabaugh make it to the highest level of football and uses it in his training at the U.S. Paralympic facility in San Diego. He moved to California about three years ago and his dedicated workout regimen limits his opportunities to go back to his hometown.
“If you want the goal, you have to sacrifice for it. The award makes it so much sweeter,” Leeper said. “Coty understands that, and he’s gotten to an elite level. I consider him a brother, and seeing his jersey and how the people and fans respond to it is great. He’s a hard worker. I feel like I get my work ethic from him, and seeing the results of his work ethic, really motivates me to go back and train harder.”
Sensabaugh is equally inspired by Leeper.
“It’s great seeing somebody that I know so well and know what he’s been through to make it to this stage in life and have the impact he’s having on people,” Sensabaugh said.