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

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 unexpected dose of national fame. Yet almost no one saw it

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The ball is snapped, Peridore takes two steps and boots the ball hard, toeing it gracelessly, and for a moment London thinks he has it blocked. But the kick soars over his hand, over the helmets of his teammates and through the uprights. EPC wins it 73--72.

Talk about jubilation. "You'd have thought we won the state championship," says Mark 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 bicycling his legs. On the other sideline the Hughes players file off, consoled by the 10 or so fans who made the one-hour drive. It is a long bus ride back for Smith and his teammates, near the end of a long season that will only get longer. "Heartbreaking," says Smith, who not only set the state records for touchdowns but also finished with 425 yards, the third-highest total in Arkansas history. "It was heartbreaking."

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

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

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

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

The next week he gets calls from Arkansas State and Central Arkansas. Their coaches want to talk to the kid who scored nine touchdowns. Then a reporter from Newsday in New York City 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 for a game that Hughes lost. And that's the part no one can comprehend. "Everybody wanted to know the same thing," says London. "How does your running back score nine touchdowns and you lose?"

Wright can't quite believe it either. "I've been coaching for 38 years, and I've never gone 0-fer," he says. "Of course, the year that I do, now we have to get the attention." Still, he appreciates what Smith's record means to Hughes. The program might be dying, but it won't go quietly. "That might have been the last hurrah," Wright says, "but it was one hell of a hurrah."

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

The publicity doesn't change much at EPC. Kids don't suddenly come out for the team. The Warriors don't go on a winning streak, as they would in a Disney movie. There is talk of the talented junior high kids coming up next season, of how the program will regenerate. Still, going into the final game of the year, senior night against division powerhouse Barton High, EPC is 1--8. Some people at school joke that this promises to be such a blowout that they shouldn't even play the game.

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