A metal warehouse borders the Odessa High School football field, and on a drizzly afternoon this week, it served as a meeting spot for players and coaches before practice. Senior tailback Kobe Hardin was one of the first to arrive, and he plopped down on a weight bench with his girlfriend beside his shoulder.
The rest of the Bulldogs — set to play Aurora (Mo.) in a Missouri Class 3 state semifinal game on Saturday — trickled in shortly thereafter. But they bypassed Hardin, instead mockingly giving attention to Krysten Smith, the only female in the room.
“Man,” Hardin said, gritting his teeth. “I’m about to chew these kids out.”
Hardin and Smith have been dating for 10 months, and that’s the primary reason he’s suited up in football gear, on the outskirts of the field, the star of an offense that scores 40 points per game.
Hardin has 31 touchdowns this season, even though he had never played a down of high school football prior to this season. He finally decided to join the team in 2015.
To keep the girl.
Maybe it wasn’t quite an ultimatum, but Smith’s father says he strongly suggested Hardin needed to join the football team if he planned to continue dating his daughter. And Hardin obliged.
“Of course I was serious, and I think he knew I meant it,” Steven Smith said, laughing as he recalled the story. “He never tested me on it.”
Hardin, meanwhile, points out that he was considering trying out anyway — sacrificing his lifestyle as a year-round baseball player — but Odessa football coach Mark Thomas had heard his football rumors before. Hardin actually checked out football equipment before his junior year, Thomas says, but then he never showed up to a practice.
There was more on the line this time.
“I wanted to impress her dad. I wanted to impress her,” Hardin said. “I wanted to impress everybody, I guess.”
Steven Smith was so confident in his persuasion skills that he told people over the summer that Hardin would play football in his senior season.
In Odessa, a town of 5,220 people east of downtown Kansas City, word spreads quickly. Thomas was in the grocery store when he heard the news. Asked what he thought of the possibility, he rolled his eyes.
“Can’t fool me again,” Thomas said. “But then you wonder, ‘What if?’”
Hardin’s potential was obvious. He is physically gifted, and on the baseball field he exhibited a combination of speed and athleticism. Thomas envisioned Hardin as a part-time linebacker, who could earn a few snaps.
Steven Smith saw the potential, too, and his motivation to put Hardin on the football field traced back three decades. Smith played football for Thomas at Odessa from 1985-87 and has missed only a handful of the high school’s football games since graduation.
“I live for Odessa football,” he said.
It’s a family tradition, and Krysten is just as big an Odessa football fan, too. But she’s upped the ante.
She wears a red T-shirt on Friday nights, packed with glitter and the No. 22 and “Hardin” stripped across the back. In white paint, she plasters the number on her cheek.
“Everyone knows it’s my lucky shirt,” Krysten said. “Everyone knows I have to wear it every game — so we’ll win.”
The Bulldogs have lost only once this season — to Class 4 Harrisonville. They’re one of four teams remaining in Class 3, and over the past two weeks, they’ve knocked out the past two state champions in the classification.
Hardin has rushed for at least 200 yards in eight games. This, after he started the season as the scout-team running back.
“There was a significant learning curve because he just didn’t have the experience, but he’s such a smart kid that everything just made sense to him,” Thomas said. “After about three weeks, we realized we couldn’t keep him off the field.”
Things move quickly. Hardin is beginning to wonder if he might have a future in football. He took a visit to Missouri Southern earlier this fall.
For what it’s worth, Steven Smith is pushing for Hardin’s football career to continue.