The Game Of the Year

It happened on a Friday night in Lepanto, Ark. There were record-setting individual performances,exhausting swings of emotion and an unexpecteddose of national fame. Yet almost no one saw it
December 25, 2006

JOSEPH PERIDOREcouldn't believe it. The senior looked at his coach, at the one finger he washolding in the air, and stared long and hard, hoping that the finger might growa friend, hoping that his coach would call for a two-point conversion. Afterall, East Poinsett County High always went for two; seven games into the seasonthe Warriors had yet to try an extra-point kick. Likewise, they hadn'tattempted a field goal because, as coach Dusty Meek put it, "you can't kicka field goal if you don't have a field goal kicker." In northeast Arkansas,among the cotton-farming towns of the Mississippi Delta, there weren't manykids who grew up trying 30-yard kicks. Open-field tackles? Sure. Throwing aball through a tire? You bet. But booting a football? Never.

Until now. Untilthis moment, four hours into the longest, strangest football game anyone aroundthese parts had ever seen-- the one that had seemed least likely to yieldfootage for SportsCenter. If anything, the meeting of EPC and Hughes High onOct. 13 in Lepanto, Ark., held less importance than any game in the state thatFriday: It was the All-Defeated Bowl. Neither team had a victory in 11 tries,and between them they suited up only 29 players--including a 5'3",120-pound EPC senior known as Goose, who in four years had never touched theball during a game. But the magic of sports is that there is always thepotential for great drama, no matter the stage it is played on.

Already therunning back for Hughes had scored a state-record nine touchdowns; EPC'squarterback had answered with five touchdown passes of his own as well as 835yards of total offense. There had been onside kicks and trick plays and now a72--72 tie in overtime, with the conversion still to come. The concession standhad closed up, the cheerleaders had long since gone hoarse, but 150 or so EPCfans dotted the stands on this brisk Friday night, and now they stood andstomped on the metal bleachers and turned to one another to ask the samequestion: Is Coach Meek really going to kick it?

He was. This gamehad gone on too long, his boys had fought too hard. Now was EPC's best chanceto win this thing, to salvage something from a lost season. And as Meek wouldsay later, "I knew Peridore would be fine. He's the type of kid, nothingfazes him. I don't think he gets nervous."

As he joggedtoward the huddle, the stadium lights glinting off his helmet and the throb ofthe crowd rattling inside it, Joseph Peridore--linebacker by choice,placekicker by necessity--steeled himself for what would be his first kick ofhis high school career, with one thought in his mind: I think I'm going tothrow up.

FIRST QUARTER,2:54 to play

Hughes leads6--0. Kendric Smith, the Blue Devils' senior running back and free safety, hasjust returned an interception 45 yards, and now, at the EPC 20, he takes thehandoff and bolts to his right. It is a play called 93 Wrong Way, designed tofool the defense into following the blockers to the left. It doesn't foolanyone, but Smith does. He jukes, breaks two tackles in the backfield, thenroars around right end and outruns three EPC defenders for a 20-yard touchdown,his first of the game. He then skips in for the two-point conversion, and it's14--0 Hughes.

Kendric Smith wasalways the fastest kid in the football games down at the park in Blackfish,Ark. When his family moved to Hughes, a small farming town 36 miles southeastof Memphis, all that changed was the playground--the other kids still chasedKen. By the time he got to high school, he was excelling at basketball andfootball. Only 5'8" but built like a blast furnace at 175 pounds, he candunk with two hands and run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds. He scored eighttouchdowns as a sophomore and 17 his junior year. His senior year he ran fortwo scores one week and two the next; as coach James Wright puts it, "Kenis our offense." Kendrick says Reggie Bush is his idol, but in style andsize he more closely resembles Barry Sanders. He runs as if chased by a swarmof bees, jerking and cutting and often reversing field, going five yards backto gain 10.

Smith issoft-spoken and tacks Sir or Ma'am onto the end of each sentence when talkingto adults. "He's a good kid, and I can't say that about all of them,"says Charles Patrick, the school's athletic director. It's easy to imagine hima local hero, idolized by little boys, back-slapped by old men and swooned overby young girls, as small-town sports stars so often are. But there's not muchfanfare in town these days. Like many farming communities in the area, Hughesenjoyed a boom during the '60s and '70s. The dark, rich Delta soil was perfectfor growing cotton, soybeans and rice. Jobs were plentiful; on Saturday nightsMain Street was jumping.

Then interestrates rose. All those tractors, bought on the promise of a greener tomorrow,became steel albatrosses. A severe drought and new technology--better machinesmeant fewer jobs--forced the town to change, slowly at first. The populationdipped, as people left for work in West Memphis or Forrest City.

To drive throughHughes now is to see a husk of a town. Main Street is littered with boarded-upbuildings and stray dogs. The busiest place is Poor Boy's Liquor, down by wherethe railcars used to run from West Memphis to Helena. The median householdincome is $18,333, and nearly four in 10 people live below the poverty line.Smith lives with his mother, grandmother, sister and a cousin, Kevin Brown, ina four-room house in a rundown part of town known as Cowan Street, where frontyards are pocked with furniture, windows are covered with tinfoil and everythird house is falling down or looks as if it might.

Smith spends muchof his time at school. During football season he practices from 2:30 p.m. to4:30 p.m., then works out with the basketball team until 7:30. He and Brown, a6'5" forward and Hughes's best basketball player, walk home together. Bothdream of going to college; while a number of Division I schools are looking atBrown, Smith has had a harder time attracting recruiters because of his height."I'd like to leave," Smith says. "I want to see how things areoutside Arkansas, go out into the world."

He's not alone.There's not much left to be proud of in Hughes, though for years the town couldcount on its sports teams. The boys' basketball team won the state championshipin 2001. The football team has been to the playoffs the last five years. Thisseason, though, you could feel the life seeping out of the program. Fewer kidsin school, fewer kids coming out for football. Enrollment in grades K through12, as high as 1,600 in the 1970s, slipped to 1,000 by 2001, then 800, 700 and,this year, only 550. "Town's dying," says Wright, the coach. "Won'tbe that long until we ain't got a football team."

It's a stretch tosay they had one this year. Only 22 kids came out for football, and by the timethe Blue Devils faced EPC, they were down to 16. Six of those were sophomores,and only one, sophomore tackle Lucas London, weighed more than 220 pounds."We have more cheerleaders than we have football players," says Smith.Coming into the game against EPC, Hughes was 0--5; if the Blue Devils didn'twin this game, they weren't going to win any.

SECOND QUARTER,5:27 to play

Things aren'tlooking good for EPC. The Warriors are down 34--14 on their home field, andSmith has run for four touchdowns. But now, an opportunity: On second- and-goalfrom the nine, EPC's junior quarterback, Brett Hardin, drops back and floats aball into the left corner of the end zone, where sophomore Carson Tyler--whosedad, Steve, was known as "the fastest white guy in Arkansas" back whenhe played receiver at Lepanto High, and once had a tryout with the USFL MemphisShowboats--snags it. As always, the Warriors go for two, and Hardin hits Tylerin the end zone.

Ben Gordon, a6'2", 260-pound lineman, sends an onside kick squirreling to the left side.It's the fourth time tonight Meek has tried the strategy. His logic: "Ifigure if I kick it to their running back, he's probably going to bring it backto the 50. This at least gives us a chance to get the ball."

On this occasionit works, and EPC takes over at midfield. A few plays later Hardin heaves adeep ball down the left sideline into single coverage for a TD, and, just likethat, it's 34--28.

Brett Hardinlooks as if he's straight out of the '50s. The handsome, 5'10" quarterbackhas a blond flattop, a powerful right arm and more than a few female admirers.He plays baseball (he's the team's star centerfielder) and has been startingfor the football team since he was a sophomore. He can bench 300 pounds and isan honor roll student.

This season hasbeen hard for Hardin, as it has been for the whole team. For years EPC was afootball power, ever since Lepanto and Tyronza, the school down the road, wereconsolidated in 1986. Under the previous coach, Mark Courtney, EPC ran a spreadoffense, which helped Marcus Monk, now a receiver at the University ofArkansas, set school records before graduating in 2003. Two years ago theWarriors won the 3AA Conference title; last season they repeated.

Then Courtneyleft, and EPC hired Meek, who had been the offensive line coach at StuttgartHigh, a 4A football school 140 miles to the southwest. He brought with him amodern approach--binders, scouting reports, game plans--as well as a devotionto discipline. Gone were Courtney's lax two-hour practices. Meek expected kidsto practice hard for four hours on Tuesdays, to wear ties on game days and tostay at school during the five-hour break between the last bell and the startof games. Many of the kids walked. Last season the team had 33 players. Thisyear the Warriors started with 25, then 20 and by the Hughes game 15, most ofwhom had never played a down for the varsity. "After the first player quit,they just kept going," says Hardin. "I guess they had better things todo. I guess they didn't like the discipline."

Lepanto hasn'tchanged much in the last 50 years. It's still the kind of place where youngboys grow a mustache as soon as puberty allows, where it's not the law thatevery man of driving age own a pickup truck but it seems that way, where wholefamilies show up at EPC games dressed in matching camouflage hunting gear.Unlike Hughes, Lepanto is not reeling, though it's by no means flush. Themedian income is $22,590, and school enrollment and town population are holdingsteady--"and for a Delta community, that means you're ahead of thegame," says school superintendent Mickey Pierce. There's still a big crowdon the first weekend of October for the Terrapin Derby, when Greenwood Streetis shut down so a thousand people--and a few dozen confused turtles--cantraverse it. There's also the weekly Lepanto Auction and the catfish fry at theHarvest Grill Diner. Tradition runs deep in Lepanto, and for years no traditionwas bigger than Friday-night football.

That's changingthough. In Lepanto, as in many small towns in the South and through middleAmerica, football's hold on the younger generation has loosened. "They allwant to get a vehicle, or play video games," says Gary Williams, EPC'sprincipal. "No one's got time for football." The outside world calls;thanks to improved roads, kids in Lepanto can quickly drive 30 miles up to therelatively brighter lights of Jonesboro on weekends. Sure, there are still carsparked in the school lot grease-penciled with go warriors #1, still pep ralliesbefore big games, but football is no longer sacred.

Meek knewbringing in a new system meant he might struggle his first year--but he didn'texpect this. Twenty years ago no one could have imagined an EPC team fieldingonly 15 players. With a roster thick with underclassmen and thin on bulk, Meekhad to rely on Hardin all season. Coming into the Hughes game, he was theteam's leading rusher, passer and kick returner, and EPC was losing by anaverage of 33 points. Hardin might have suffered the most--with his athleticismand skills, he's hoping for a shot at playing in college. "Coach alwayssaid that if I were a little bit taller, he could write me a ticket to anyschool," Hardin says, "but it's hard to get noticed when you're0--6."

SECOND QUARTER,2:53 to play

Up 40--28, theHughes players are experiencing a rare feeling: confidence. Smith has run for a54-yard touchdown, a 52-yarder and now a 28-yarder, his fifth TD of thegame.

What makesSmith's success tonight even more impressive is that EPC knows the run iscoming. The Blue Devils have yet to pass; in fact, they have put the ball inthe air no more than a dozen times all season. "People ask me, 'Coach, whydon't you throw the ball,'" Wright says later. "I say, 'Two reasons: Weain't got no one who can throw it, and we ain't go no one who can catchit.'"

Instead, Wrightruns a single-wing offense, a relic from the smashmouth days of high schoolfootball in the 1940s and '50s. Imagine 11 kids lining up in a clump and thenrunning around as if they've been put in a blender. On every play thequarterback makes a 360-degree spin as he makes (or fakes) a handoff, whiletackles run one way and a decoy runs the other. By Meek's estimation, Wright'sthe only coach in the state of Arkansas who still runs a true single wing.

The Blue Devils'offense has its limitations against bigger teams because their line gets pushedaround, but against EPC's undersized defense it's working almost flawlessly."There were times where we're thinking, Oh, we got [Smith] stopped,"says Meek. "And then, all of a sudden, this white jersey pops out, and it'slike, Where's he coming from?"

Hughes's offensemay be clicking, but its defense is another matter. Hardin runs for anotherscore, closing the gap to 40--34 at halftime. The halftime whistle blows, andthe Blue Devils jog off the field, their coach bringing up the rear. As usual,he is limping and cussing.

James Wright hasbeen around football the better part of his life. At 66, he's been coaching for38 years, the last nine at Hughes. He won a state championship with Rison, wasa runner-up with Lakeside and Gould, and also coached at Marked Tree and Fouke.Short and stubby, he has a blocky head that's covered by a faint swirl of whitehair and eyes that look as if they've been squinting for the last 40 years.He's easygoing and has a host of self-deprecating sayings. For example: "Mywife's smart--'bout the only dumb thing she ever did was marry me."

Wright doesn'tunderstand why the kids don't want to come out. "When I was growing up, ifyou didn't play football, you weren't anything," he says, echoing thelament of Gary Williams at EPC. "You couldn't get a date. You had to playfootball."

You can tell he'slost some of his passion. Part of it is his right knee. Five years ago he toresomething while trying to get out of the way of a halfback sweep.

Each summer hemeant to have surgery, but he never got it done, so he carried crutches in hiscar and dragged that leg when he walked. (He is scheduled for surgery thisweek.) He has thought about making this his last season, just teach next year,but there's not enough money in the school budget for both a history teacherand a football coach.

Wright, who livesin a big brick house on the eastern edge of town, is often asked if, like manylongtime residents, he plans to leave Hughes. "Why?" he says. "I goto the pharmacy, and he knows what I take and everything my wife takes. I go tothe grocery store, and if I forget a check, they charge it to me. Go to thebank, and they give you anything. I know all the cops; all the kids know me.Why would we want to leave when everybody knows us?"

THIRD QUARTER,4:12 to play

Smith does itagain. EPC had stopped him on three consecutive plays, then he broke off a53-yarder on fourth-and-seven to make it 54--40. Again Coach Meek feels thegame slipping away. And again Hardin answers. He runs for a touchdown (EPC getsstuffed on a two-point try) and, after the Warriors grab the onside kick (theirthird recovery in eight tries), drives the team again. All night Hardin hasbeen reading the corners, running a play called 94 in which the inside receiverruns a flag and the outside receiver runs a hitch. If the corner comes up,Hardin throws the flag; if he doesn't, he throws the hitch. This time he zips ascreen pass to Bucky Chamberlin, a tall sophomore receiver, and now it's54--52.

Hardin jogs tothe sideline for a short breather--as safety, QB and return man, EPC kickoffsare the only time he comes off the field--and is greeted enthusiastically by ashort, slight player in oversized shoulder pads who has tucked pads into hissocks to give the appearance of calves. Hardin gives him a high five, and inreturn senior Gus Johnson whops Hardin on his helmet, then lets out acelebratory whoop.

Dusty Meek grewup watching games in Lepanto, then went on to play linebacker for the teamafter it became EPC. His senior year, 1995, he was class salutatorian, and theWarriors won their first conference championship. Now, a decade later, he'sback. Although the losing has worn on him, Meek looks young for 28, with kindeyes, short dark brown hair and a wide face. He prides himself on beingprofessional, on building a program the right way. Before the season he boughta host of signs for the locker room, among them: THOSE WHO EXPECT TO WIN HAVEALREADY BEGUN TO CONQUER and TRADITION NEVER GRADUATES.

Williams, theschool principal, backs Meek, but neither Williams nor anyone else disputesthat it's been a rough year. "Everybody at school makes fun of us for notwinning," says Chamberlin, the sophomore receiver, "but I don't thinkthey understand how hard it is to win with 15 players."

It's tough on theparents, too. Cody Brown is a senior, a big kid with a goatee, and this wasn'thow he expected his final year to play out. His grandfather owns Fat Daddy'sBBQ, the red roadside truck where $6.50 gets you a BBQ plate and a Coke. Hismom, Karen, runs it on Fridays but makes sure to close by 6 p.m. to get to thegame. She says all the losing hasn't changed how the boys play. "They'regoing balls to the wall out there," she says.

Whatever levitythere has been for EPC usually traces back to Gus Johnson. Gus, or Goose as hecalls himself, is 5'3" and weighs 120 pounds with a full stomach. Hedresses but never plays. He does, however, engage in elaborate stretchingroutines during games--that is, when he's not excitedly yelling and pointing atthe crowd. Johnson is developmentally delayed; everyone in town just calls him"special." "He's one of those kids, always happy, always got asmile," says Meek. "Football's probably one of the only times he getsinto a regular environment with the other kids, because he has the special-edclasses."

In four yearsJohnson has missed one day of school, and that was for a funeral. He has beento every junior high game as a fan and seen every varsity game from thesidelines. In practice he goes through all the blocking and tackling drills. Onthe scout team Meek lets him play safety, where he's least likely to gethurt.

Against Hughes,Goose was as animated as ever. He pointed to Mark Hardin, Brett's father, whousually returns the salute from the stands, but for once his eyes were on thefield. "It was different," says Mark. "We knew this was our onlychance." On the sideline Meek knew it too. It's one thing to rebuild aprogram and take some lumps, another to preside over the first winless seasonin school history. He paced, frowning.

FOURTH QUARTER,3:36 to play

After 118combined points the Warriors take their first lead of the game, at 66--60, on aHardin touchdown toss. Though the game is 3 1/2 hours old, fans are not leaving... and more are arriving. Some locals got word of what was happening, and theydrove over, cheering as they climbed into the bleachers.

The celebrationis short-lived: Soon after, Smith sweeps left to tie the score at 66--66. Overthe loudspeaker an announcement is made: "Kendric Smith has just scored hiseighth touchdown of the game. That ties the Arkansas state record."

The score staystied, and the two teams head into overtime--in which each team gets four downsto score from the 10-yard line. Hughes gets the ball first. Smith runs once,twice, three times and finally, on fourth down, wriggles through the right sideof the line for his ninth touchdown, breaking the record. Hughes goes for two,running 93 Wrong Way again, but this time Smith is stopped short, gang-tackledout-of-bounds. It's 72--66.

On EPC's thirdplay in overtime, Hardin scores on a two-yard run--he's now accounted for 10touchdowns running, returning or passing--and the Warriors players prepare togo for two. Except there's Meek, on the sideline, calling for one. Suddenly,it's Joe Peridore's moment.

Four hours ofplay and it comes down to this. Lucas London, the big tackle on Hughes--a kidwho volunteered to be team manager in the fourth grade, who has yet to win avarsity game--takes his place on the line. "I figured if I could just getto the middle, I might get a hand on it," London says. If anybody couldblock the kick, it would be the Blue Devils' biggest player.

The ball issnapped, Peridore takes two steps and boots the ball hard, toeing itgracelessly, and for a moment London thinks he has it blocked. But the kicksoars over his hand, over the helmets of his teammates and through theuprights. EPC wins it 73--72.

Talk aboutjubilation. "You'd have thought we won the state championship," saysMark Hardin. Parents run onto the field, EPC's cheerleaders hug the players,and Gus Johnson looks as if he's trying to walk on air, leaping and bicyclinghis legs. On the other sideline the Hughes players file off, consoled by the 10or so fans who made the one-hour drive. It is a long bus ride back for Smithand his teammates, near the end of a long season that will only get longer."Heartbreaking," says Smith, who not only set the state records fortouchdowns but also finished with 425 yards, the third-highest total inArkansas history. "It was heartbreaking."

Meek doesn't gethome until 1 a.m. because the papers kept calling him at the school's footballoffice, and they couldn't quite believe what they were hearing. He spent 45minutes on the phone with the Jonesboro paper, and Nick Walker from theArkansas Democrat-Gazette had to call back--"Just to double check," hesaid. "All of this happened in one overtime?"

For a briefperiod Hughes football matters again; Hughes matters again. For a brief periodthese kids are heroes. It doesn't matter that Kendric Smith lives on CowanStreet, that Brett Hardin is undersized, that there will be no playoffs foreither team. For one moment what happened on a football field in Lepanto is themost important thing in this little corner of the world.

Smith beginsgetting calls from friends and family that night. Over the weekend he starts torealize the magnitude of the record, but it doesn't fully set in until Mondaymorning when Brown, his cousin, nudges him. "Wake up, Ken," Brown says."Look at this."

And there on theTV is footage of Smith from the EPC game, taken by a Jonesboro TV station. Noton local TV, on ESPN. "Hey, congrats to Kendric Smith," the anchor issaying. "You hear about this one? He's a running back out of Hughes HighSchool in Hughes, Arkansas. Friday night he scored nine touchdowns includingone in overtime." Smith can't believe it.

The next week hegets calls from Arkansas State and Central Arkansas. Their coaches want to talkto the kid who scored nine touchdowns. Then a reporter from Newsday in New YorkCity calls, wanting to impose a Friday Night Lights narrative on Smith's feat.Kids come up to him in the hallways at school, want to shake his hand, all fora game that Hughes lost. And that's the part no one can comprehend."Everybody wanted to know the same thing," says London. "How doesyour running back score nine touchdowns and you lose?"

Wright can'tquite believe it either. "I've been coaching for 38 years, and I've nevergone 0-fer," he says. "Of course, the year that I do, now we have toget the attention." Still, he appreciates what Smith's record means toHughes. The program might be dying, but it won't go quietly. "That mighthave been the last hurrah," Wright says, "but it was one hell of ahurrah."

Over in Lepanto,Brett Hardin sees the ESPN footage too. He first gets calls, then letters andcards from his distant relatives. People are in awe. "My friends down inMarked Tree were mad," says Hardin. "They're like 8--1, the best teamaround, and we're getting all the attention."

The publicitydoesn't change much at EPC. Kids don't suddenly come out for the team. TheWarriors don't go on a winning streak, as they would in a Disney movie. Thereis talk of the talented junior high kids coming up next season, of how theprogram will regenerate. Still, going into the final game of the year, seniornight against division powerhouse Barton High, EPC is 1--8. Some people atschool joke that this promises to be such a blowout that they shouldn't evenplay the game.

It is a frigidOctober night, and the fans who arrive with blankets and hot chocolate arethere out of dogged loyalty; by halftime it is a rout, Barton up 41--14. At theend of the third quarter the game is over for all practical purposes. The EPCband plays just to keep warm, boys in the stands practice their duck calls,students slip off into the night.

Those who doleave early will wish they hadn't. Down on the EPC sideline, word of somethingunusual begins to circulate: Goose is going into the game. With 5:55 remainingin the fourth, and EPC down 58--14, Meek grabs Johnson by the shoulder pads."All right, Goose, you're going to get the ball, and when you do, I wantyou take it straight to the house, you understand me?" Johnson nods, thenjumps up and down, waving his arms to get loose.

It takes a secondfor the crowd to realize what's happening, but when they do, a murmur goesthrough the stands. Goose is in!

The ball issnapped, Johnson takes the handoff at his own 25 and starts running ...straight to the sideline, right at the EPC coaches, who worry he might sprintstraight out-of-bounds. Instead, slowly but surely, he begins making a widearc, turning up field. Of course, he's running a sweep! And then he's off,chugging down the sideline, a convoy of EPC blockers in front, a host of Bartondefenders running alongside, somehow knowing how fast they have to run to makeit look as if they might tackle Goose. (The Barton coach had heard about GusJohnson, that this was his final home game.)

Goose hits the50, the 40, then the 30, and now the crowd is up and yelling, the EPC subssprinting after him down the sideline. As Johnson charges into the end zone theP.A. announcer roars as if he's Telestrating the apocalypse:"TOUCHDOOOOWWWWN, WARRRIORRRS! GUS JOHHHHHHNSON ON THE CARRY!"

In the standssome are crying, others are laughing. Mark Hardin is pointing at Goose, who foronce doesn't see him because he's getting mobbed by cheerleaders. The EPCplayers are jumping and high-fiving. Sophomore wide receiver Bryant Woodsonsays to no one in particular, "Man, I'll remember that for the rest of mylife."

He's not the onlyone. EPC loses 58--22, but nobody cares. Johnson is carried off the field,people slapping him on the back. Assistant coach Josh Hill can't stop smiling."That made the whole season bearable," he says. In the locker room Gusstruts around, jersey off, in just his pants and those giant shoulder pads, andwhat he keeps saying, over and over, is "Can't nobody stop theGoose!"

Since it's theWarriors' final game, they pile their jerseys in the middle of the floor, as ifbuilding a mesh funeral pyre. Johnson doesn't comprehend the magnitude of themoment for his fellow seniors, doesn't understand that there is somethingprofound and melancholy about the end to any boy's high school career, anunspoken understanding that, for most of them, sports will now change in afundamental way--from being the watched to doing the watching. Big Cody Brown,the senior tackle, understands this, and he breaks down in tears.

One by one, theyfile out, saying their goodbyes to one another. Goose is escorted out by hisolder brother, Jeff, who announces, "We're going to go home and watchSportsCenter because Gus is going to be on it all night." After thankingcoach Meek for a good season, Brett Hardin leaves with his dad.

Fifty miles away,in Hughes, Kendric Smith and his teammates are doing the same thing, turning intheir jerseys, heading home, moving on from football.

The paths of theboys from EPC and Hughes will continue to diverge, but the 30-odd kids andtheir two small towns will remain linked, at least in the Arkansas record book,by one night and by one game that wasn't supposed to matter. "It's funnyabout kids that way," Wright, the Hughes coach, would say later. "Theycan be getting their ass handed to them on the field, week after week, and itdon't matter. To them, it's all about that next Friday. Who knows what canhappen on that next Friday?"

HARDIN WANTS A FOOTBALL SCHOLARSHIP BUT SAYS,"IT'S HARD TO GET NOTICED WHEN YOU'RE 0--6."

SMITH'S IDOL: REGGIE BUSH. HIS STYLE: HE RUNS AS IFCHASED BY A SWARM OF BEES.

"TOWN'S DYING," SAYS WRIGHT. "WON'T BETHAT LONG UNTIL WE AIN'T GOT A FOOTBALL TEAM."

"AFTER THE FIRST PLAYER QUIT, THEY JUST KEPTGOING. I GUESS THEY HAD BETTER THINGS TO DO."

"EVERYBODY SAID, HOW DOES YOUR RUNNING BACK SCORENINE TOUCHDOWNS AND YOU LOSE?"

"THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN [OUR SCHOOL'S] LAST HURRAH,BUT IT WAS ONE HELL OF A HURRAH."

PHOTOPhotographs by Gary Bogdon BRETTHARDIN PHOTOPhotographs by Gary BogdonKENDRIC SMITH TWELVE PHOTOSCOURTESY EPC (SCREEN GRABS)EAST POINSETT COUNTY HIGH VERSUS HUGHESHIGH WAS ABOUT MUCH MORE THAN ITS AMAZING FINAL SCORE OF 73--72. PHOTOPhotographs by Gary Bogdon AIRFORCE
Hardin threw for five TDs and had 835 yards in total offense.
PHOTOPhotographs by Gary Bogdon GROUNDCONTROL
Smith set a state record with nine rushing touchdowns.
PHOTOPhotographs by Gary Bogdon AM IBLUE?
Hughes was inexperienced, undersized and undermanned this year.
PHOTOLARRY SHELLEYRED OR NOT EPC started the season with 25 players and finished with just 15. TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Gary Bogdon COACHESCORNERED
Meeks (left) and Wright are worried about their programs.
PHOTOPhotographs by Gary Bogdon GOOSEBUMPS
When Johnson scored, some fans laughed and others cried.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)