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Doing the right thing

Nate Smith and his father, Pat, second from right, after the then-11-year-old made his shot from 89 feet. AP Photo/Brendan Burnett-Kurie

The puck was three inches wide. The hole in the plywood was three-and-a-half inches wide. The kid and the stick were 89 feet of ice away. It was about like trying to throw a key into a keyhole from across the street. The prize was $50,000. Might as well been $1 million.

So when 11-year-old Nate Smith made it, why in the world did he give the money back?

Read this and feel better about the world:

There was a charity hockey game to raise money for the youth hockey program in Faribault, Minn., the town where Sidney Crosby played his high school hockey. In the stands was a 48-year-old soybean farmer named Pat Smith and his identical, hockey-loving twin boys, Nick and Nate, from nearby Owatonna.

Before the game, Pat and Nate bought a $10 raffle ticket for a $50,000 intermission shot. They had to put somebody's name on the ticket, but Nate had just gotten his wrist out of a cast, so they wrote "Nick Smith" on the back.

Just before intermission, Nick wanted to go outside and play with some buddies. "If they call my name," Nick kidded Nate, "you take the shot."

Right. As if that's going to happen.

They look so much alike and play so much alike, who would know? And, besides, it was Nate who put Nick's name on the ticket in the first place when he could've just as easily put his own name on it, right? What was the harm?

People often mistake them for each other anyway. "From behind, even I can't tell them apart sometimes," Pat says. For fun once, in second grade, Nick went into Nate's class and Nate into Nick's. Nobody was the wiser -- until Nick's teacher started handing out a test. That's when Nate panicked, stood up and announced, "I'm not Nicholas!" before he ran back to his own room.

Back to the hockey rink. You've already guessed what happened next: Nick's name was called. No Nick. So Nate and his bad arm went down on the ice and lined up the preposterously difficult shot. Nate's dad and another parent were behind the goal, watching. Nate let it fly.

"Wow," said the other parent, "that's right on line!"

"I lost [sight of] it," Pat said. But the crowd's whip-crack roar let him know what happened. It slid perfectly, impossibly through!

Nate started going bonkers at the other end of the ice, high-fiving and pogo-sticking. Pat was laughing. Fandemonium ensured. The crowd noise only grew louder. Somebody outside took Nick by the shoulders and said, "Your brother just won $50,000!!!"

A man from Odds On Promotions came and gave them a paper to sign and said the check would be delivered a few days after that and, wow, just, congratulations!

"Is it really ours?" the kids asked their dad.

"Guess so!" he said.

"I was going to buy a new hockey stick," Nate said. "And give some to my brother, maybe. Like, $1,000. And give some to my school. And our hockey association."

Nick was hoping to buy his first laptop. They both needed new bikes.

Their dad was thinking: "Fifty grand? Five kids, one daughter in college, one in high school? This is really going to help."

But when they all got home that night, something didn't feel right. After the kids went to bed, Pat and his wife, Kim, had the same little mosquito buzzing their consciences.

But why? The money would've been paid by a monstrous out-of-state insurance behemoth, since the youth hockey association had taken out a policy. Who worries about monstrous out-of-state insurance behemoths?

The next morning, the parents were about to tell the kids they were going to have to give the money back when the boys floored them with their own announcement. They didn't think they should take the money. "What if our friends ask us about it?" Nick asked.

It was settled then. They all decided that having to lie about it just wasn't worth $50,000. "We kept thinking about signing that paper [saying Nick had made the shot]. It just felt wrong," Pat says.

That morning, he called the man in charge and told him what had really happened. Yes, his boy who had made the shot signed the back of the ticket, but he'd signed his brother's name. Wrong kid.

That's a lot of soybeans to eat.

"It probably would've come out eventually," shrugs Pat.

The boys were disappointed, yet relieved.

"I'm glad we did the right thing," Nate says.

As a dad, you look for teachable moments for your kids, but this is the most expensive one I've ever heard of. Bravo. Smith Family for Senate.

"It's just easier," Pat says. "And I hope it's a lesson that can stand for all the boys' decisions for the rest of their lives."

This all happened back in August and the Smiths soon found out something they didn't know. When a farming family that could really use the money turns down the money because of their own morality? That's news. That gets rewarded.

Odds On Promotions, which ran the event, gave the Faribault and Owatonna youth hockey associations $10,000 each.

Crosby's school, Shattuck-St. Mary's, paid for the boys to go to a three-week hockey camp.

The Minnesota Vikings heard about it and brought the whole family to a game, let them hang out on the field, put them in a VIP box.

The Minnesota Wild brought them onto the ice during an intermission and set up another shot -- this one into a foot-wide hole from five feet away. And Nick shooting instead of Nate. He made it. The prize wasn't $50,000 this time, but it was a new Polaris ATV, which the boys got when they turned 12 on New Year's Eve.

All of which proves righteousness has its own rewards.

"But," adds their dad, "we really did want to be on ESPN."

Hey, Boss, you still reading?


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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "Monday Night Countdown," "SportsCenter," and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.

Feel like taking a detour from sane sports? Try Rick's latest book, "Sports from Hell."