As a four-sport varsity athlete, Malachi Stephenson faces plenty of demands on his time.
The positive approach the Red Bank senior starts each day with undoubtedly helps him make the best of his opportunities.
"Every morning I wake up with a smile and tell myself today is going to be a good day," Stephenson said. "Growing up in an orphanage, we woke up every day at 6 in the morning and would start the day with a Bible study. After that, we would just go out and have fun. It is easy to have fun and wake up with a smile when you have Jesus in your life."
Stephenson was born in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, and he grew up loving soccer, a sport that kept him and his friends running around outside from sunrise to sunset. He also looked up to professional player Sadio Mané, a Senegal native whose charitable acts have helped build a new school and hospital in his hometown.
At the age of 3, Stephenson met a young lady named Wendy Lee Maisch who worked at the orphanage. She was one of Malachi's sponsors for Forever Family and would visit him often.
In September 2018, Wendy and her husband Jon Stephenson would make three new full-time additions to their family as they became parents to Malachi, along with his older brother Merrick and younger sister Esther. They moved from Africa to the United States, starting a new chapter of their lives in Nashville.
Two years ago, the Stephensons moved to Chattanooga, and Malachi, one of seven siblings, enrolled at Red Bank.
"When I first got here, I was a little shy and sat down and didn't talk to anybody," he said. "But in that first week at Red Bank, everyone came up to me and was being friendly and asked my name and what position I played. I really have made some great friends here through sports, and we have great coaches. Red Bank is a great school."
Sports is always in season for Stephenson, who plays football in the late summer and fall, wrestles in the winter, and juggles soccer with track and field in the spring.
He's the starting kicker and punter for the football Lions, but he also enjoys playing defensive back and wide receiver.
"I didn't know a whole lot about football to begin with, but it has become my favorite sport now," Stephenson said. "Since I was a sophomore, I looked up to the people ahead of me. We had Jaden Baccus on our team last year, and he was a great guy and humble. I am trying to follow in his footsteps and leave my own footprint here before I leave."
Stephenson has been a natural on the soccer field, where he scored five goals in a stretch of six games last season.
"To be honest, I thought I could play more sports than I do now," said Stephenson, a state qualifier in wrestling his first season as a sophomore. "Playing four sports is more than just about having fun, but they also teach you life lessons. For example, wrestling is like life. When you are out there, it's like the real world. You can't blame anyone else. You have to fight through whatever ups and downs you are going through and be tough."
When the Lions open their 2023 football schedule with Friday night's home game against Tyner, last year's TSSAA Class 2A state champion, Stephenson will be among 17 Red Bank seniors aiming to leave their mark after last year's team came within a win of reaching the Class 4A BlueCross Bowl state final.
"Malachi is such an infectious young man with his personality who always carries a positive attitude," Lions football coach Ted Gatewood said. "What really sets him apart is he truly finds joy in every opportunity he has to do something. He gets better every day out there and does everything to the best of his ability.
"He cares more about other people than anything else. That is so refreshing to see in a young man. That comes from the way he has been brought up, but also from the young man of faith that he is."
Gatewood has seen the difference that Stephenson's spirit of contagious optimism has on those around him.
"Malachi wakes up in the morning with a smile because every day is a gift," Gatewood said. "He truly embodies the fact that every day is a gift, and he lives it that way. He is a very special young man. He cares about being a positive part of this school in every way that he can."
Stephenson hopes to go on to play sports in college, but when his high school days are over, there's no doubt he'll be missed at Red Bank.
Every morning Stephenson walks through the front door to the same greeting from Coach Gatewood: "Good morning. How are you today, Malachi?"
Stephenson's response is the same every time: "I am amazing. Feeling good. All day."
Contact Patrick MacCoon at firstname.lastname@example.org.