To drive through
Hughes now is to see a husk of a town. Main Street is littered with boarded-up
buildings and stray dogs. The busiest place is Poor Boy's Liquor, down by where
the railcars used to run from West Memphis to Helena. The median household
income 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, in
a four-room house in a rundown part of town known as Cowan Street, where front
yards are pocked with furniture, windows are covered with tinfoil and every
third house is falling down or looks as if it might.
Smith spends much
of his time at school. During football season he practices from 2:30 p.m. to
4:30 p.m., then works out with the basketball team until 7:30. He and Brown, a
6'5" forward and Hughes's best basketball player, walk home together. Both
dream of going to college; while a number of Division I schools are looking at
Brown, 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 are
outside 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 could
count on its sports teams. The boys' basketball team won the state championship
in 2001. The football team has been to the playoffs the last five years. This
season, though, you could feel the life seeping out of the program. Fewer kids
in school, fewer kids coming out for football. Enrollment in grades K through
12, 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't
be that long until we ain't got a football team."
It's a stretch to
say they had one this year. Only 22 kids came out for football, and by the time
the 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't
win this game, they weren't going to win any.
5:27 to play
looking good for EPC. The Warriors are down 34--14 on their home field, and
Smith has run for four touchdowns. But now, an opportunity: On second- and-goal
from the nine, EPC's junior quarterback, Brett Hardin, drops back and floats a
ball into the left corner of the end zone, where sophomore Carson Tyler--whose
dad, Steve, was known as "the fastest white guy in Arkansas" back when
he played receiver at Lepanto High, and once had a tryout with the USFL Memphis
Showboats--snags it. As always, the Warriors go for two, and Hardin hits Tyler
in the end zone.
Ben Gordon, a
6'2", 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: "I
figure if I kick it to their running back, he's probably going to bring it back
to the 50. This at least gives us a chance to get the ball."
On this occasion
it works, and EPC takes over at midfield. A few plays later Hardin heaves a
deep ball down the left sideline into single coverage for a TD, and, just like
that, it's 34--28.
looks as if he's straight out of the '50s. The handsome, 5'10" quarterback
has 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 starting
for the football team since he was a sophomore. He can bench 300 pounds and is
an honor roll student.
This season has
been hard for Hardin, as it has been for the whole team. For years EPC was a
football power, ever since Lepanto and Tyronza, the school down the road, were
consolidated in 1986. Under the previous coach, Mark Courtney, EPC ran a spread
offense, which helped Marcus Monk, now a receiver at the University of
Arkansas, set school records before graduating in 2003. Two years ago the
Warriors won the 3AA Conference title; last season they repeated.