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Although Justin Smith and Kevin Kelly are now part of the Duncan High School staff, they remember their days at Empire well.
They were both members of the 1989 Bulldog team that played for the Class A state championship. The two came to Empire last Friday to meet with this year’s Bulldog team before the first-round playoff game against Crescent.
“We talked about the opportunity they had and to take advantage of it, to do something special and enjoy the ball game,” Kelly said.
The 1989 team was the last Empire team to host a playoff game before last Friday’s contest. Smith was a junior and Kelly a sophomore at the time. Kelly was a senior on the 1991 Bulldog team, the last Empire team to win a playoff game before Friday’s 46-13 win over Crescent.
Smith remembered the 1989 run well. The Bulldogs hosted Sayre in the first round and won decisively, 49-7. Empire then headed to Texhoma for the second round.
As Smith recalled, “We made the trip to Amarillo (Texas) and stayed there overnight. It was a big deal for us.”
A bigger deal was Empire coming home with a 14-7 victory in blizzard conditions.
The Bulldogs faced Crescent — the same school Empire faced last Friday — in the third round and won 49-7. Smith noted that the Tigers were the No. 1-ranked team in the state that season.
While that victory was huge, Smith said the biggest game may have been the semifinal matchup against Maud. The Bulldogs trailed 28-7 in the third quarter, but rallied to take a 31-28 victory. Smith particularly remembered the crowd, which he estimated to be as many as 4,000 people.
“You had moms putting blankets on the bleachers the Monday before the game to save their seats,” he said. “A few local farmers drove their tractors to the field, and in the bucket of their tractors, they had a couch. They then sat in the couch while it was in the bucket.”
Empire met Ringling for the state title. As Smith remembered, “It snowed the night before, and they scraped it off the field. We played on a Saturday night and the field was frozen.”
He added Ringling had size up front and their players were able to push them on the ice, leading to a win for Ringling. Still, Smith said that Bulldog team was a special one.
“We had a great bunch of seniors — 17 of them,” Smith said. “It was probably close to a record amount of seniors for an Empire team.”
Kelly said the Bulldog players, from freshmen to seniors, had played together since their youth football days. As a result, they were all close. He and Smith had been friends since Kelly was in kindergarten and Smith was in first grade.
“We got to play with a bunch of our best buddies and be successful,” Kelly said. “For a Class A team, we were a really special team.”
He and Smith agreed that this year’s group of Bulldog players is similar to the 1989 group.
“It’s a group of kids who have stayed together,” Smith said. “They play with a lot of heart and figured out how to win.”
The two now work for Duncan schools — Smith is the Duncan High School principal and Kelly is a DHS teacher and the wrestling coach. But they enjoy keeping tabs on the Empire Bulldogs and were more than happy to talk to the players when Empire coach Tony Roberts asked them.
“I played at Empire and coached there for four years,” Smith said. “We went 0-10 a couple of those years. To see the tradition back at Empire is a really big deal. I told the kids that, after Duncan, they are the next score I check out.”
Kelly said Empire may be a small community, but many people are taking an interest into how far the Bulldogs can go.
“I told the kids that a lot more people are following them than they think,” he said. “I told them to just enjoy the opportunity. I’d give up anything to suit up for (Empire) again.”