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The Game Of the Year
CHRIS BALLARD
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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JOSEPH PERIDORE couldn't believe it. The senior looked at his coach, at the one finger he was holding in the air, and stared long and hard, hoping that the finger might grow a friend, hoping that his coach would call for a two-point conversion. After all, East Poinsett County High always went for two; seven games into the season the Warriors had yet to try an extra-point kick. Likewise, they hadn't attempted a field goal because, as coach Dusty Meek put it, "you can't kick a 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 many kids who grew up trying 30-yard kicks. Open-field tackles? Sure. Throwing a ball through a tire? You bet. But booting a football? Never.

Until now. Until this moment, four hours into the longest, strangest football game anyone around these parts had ever seen-- the one that had seemed least likely to yield footage for SportsCenter. If anything, the meeting of EPC and Hughes High on Oct. 13 in Lepanto, Ark., held less importance than any game in the state that Friday: 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 the ball during a game. But the magic of sports is that there is always the potential for great drama, no matter the stage it is played on.

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

He was. This game had gone on too long, his boys had fought too hard. Now was EPC's best chance to win this thing, to salvage something from a lost season. And as Meek would say later, "I knew Peridore would be fine. He's the type of kid, nothing fazes him. I don't think he gets nervous."

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

FIRST QUARTER, 2:54 to play

Hughes leads 6--0. Kendric Smith, the Blue Devils' senior running back and free safety, has just returned an interception 45 yards, and now, at the EPC 20, he takes the handoff and bolts to his right. It is a play called 93 Wrong Way, designed to fool the defense into following the blockers to the left. It doesn't fool anyone, but Smith does. He jukes, breaks two tackles in the backfield, then roars 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's 14--0 Hughes.

Kendric Smith was always 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 southeast of Memphis, all that changed was the playground--the other kids still chased Ken. By the time he got to high school, he was excelling at basketball and football. Only 5'8" but built like a blast furnace at 175 pounds, he can dunk with two hands and run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds. He scored eight touchdowns as a sophomore and 17 his junior year. His senior year he ran for two scores one week and two the next; as coach James Wright puts it, "Ken is our offense." Kendrick says Reggie Bush is his idol, but in style and size he more closely resembles Barry Sanders. He runs as if chased by a swarm of bees, jerking and cutting and often reversing field, going five yards back to gain 10.

Smith is soft-spoken and tacks Sir or Ma'am onto the end of each sentence when talking to 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 him a local hero, idolized by little boys, back-slapped by old men and swooned over by young girls, as small-town sports stars so often are. But there's not much fanfare in town these days. Like many farming communities in the area, Hughes enjoyed a boom during the '60s and '70s. The dark, rich Delta soil was perfect for growing cotton, soybeans and rice. Jobs were plentiful; on Saturday nights Main Street was jumping.

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

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