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‘Our Boys’ is a happier ‘Friday Night Lights’

In his new book “Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains With the Smith Center Redmen,” New York Times sportswriter Joe Drape captures the tale of a town where life isn’t just about football, despite its high school football team’s outstanding successes. Here is an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In his new book “Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains With the Smith Center Redmen,” New York Times sportswriter Joe Drape captures the tale of a town where life isn’t just about football, despite its high school football team’s outstanding successes. In Smith Center, Kansas, the community comes together to focus on one main priority: raising kids to be outstanding people. Here is an excerpt from Drape’s book.

“None of this is really about football. ... What I hope we’re doing is sending kids into life who know that every day means something.”

— Roger Barta, Nov. 7, 2007

We were sitting in a locker room that smelled like it had hosted a couple of generations of teenage boys, and Roger Barta was telling me about the high school football program he had built in this town that he loved: Smith Center, Kansas. He was 62 years old and wore a red T-shirt that puffed out like a tent over a beach ball–shaped belly. Coach Barta’s gray nylon shorts were baggy and hung down to his knees, concealing tree-trunk-sized thighs, his red visor accenting his gray brush cut and silver walrus moustache. His sunglasses hung from a rope and fell atop his stomach. He resembled the actor Wilford Brimley, especially when he spoke in his not-in-a-hurry-honey baritone. He was proof that inspiration comes in all kinds of packages.

Coach Barta was a legend in western Kansas, or so I was told over the course of a three-day visit in November 2007. I was here for the New York Times to write about his football team, the Smith Center Redmen. Just a week earlier, his team had scored 72 points in the first quarter of a game, breaking a national record set in 1925. He was amused that I was in his football complex, having told me the day before by phone (and with a chuckle) that Smith Center was harder to get to than one might think.

He was right. I flew into Kansas City, drove north for an hour to St. Joseph, took a left at Highway 36, and traversed the old Pony Express route for four hours through northern Kansas. When I checked into the Buckshot Inn in Smith Center, I was told I was lucky to get a room, seeing as it was the opening days of pheasant season and the town’s population of 1,931 had swelled with outdoorsmen from the big cities. When I dropped my bags inside, a sign above my bed carried the stern instruction: hunters, please don’t clean your birds inside this hotel room.

By the time I had driven down Main Street and parked in front of the Second Cup Café, I, too, was amused about being here in the heart of America. In fact, I’d soon discover that Smith County was the dead center of the continental United States and had a monument saying so 12 miles east of here, in Lebanon, Kansas. The county’s most famous contribution to Americana came in 1873, when Dr. Brewster Higley wrote a poem in a cabin here that evolved into the song “Home on the Range,” which is now a staple of patriotic songbooks as well as the state song of Kansas.

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam

Where the deer and the antelope play;

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,

And the sky is not cloudy all day.

Loyal football fans, but not crazedOutside, above Main Street’s wide sidewalks, loudspeakers piped in easy-listening music. “The Girl from Ipanema” was playing. Inside the Second Cup Café, every table was filled, as uniformed sheriff’s deputies mingled with shirt-sleeved businessmen, and a table full of ladies nodded their hellos to farmers in overalls and gimme caps. No one wore a tie. It was clear that everyone knew everyone here. Once I identified myself and my reason for being in town, the room seemed to relax, and the stories about “our boys” began to unfold. Everyone in the Second Cup, it seemed, had a son or nephew or grandson on the Redmen, but the tales they shared had little to do with their performance on the football field.

They spoke, instead, about the bubblegum cards traded over at the elementary school, with photos of the senior players and cheerleaders, each of whom signed a pledge to remain alcohol-, drug- and tobacco-free. If they break that promise, they must go to the elementary school to explain to the children why they were kicked off the team and their cards were revoked. The café patrons talked about the former players who were now lawyers and doctors in Kansas City and Denver, and how so many of them had worked two or three jobs — just like this current bunch — to save for college.

No one was denying that the Redmen played pretty good football out here on the plains. The current senior class had won 51 in a row, three straight championships, and had outscored its opponents 704–0. These seniors had never lost a game in high school, had not let a team score on them all year, and were just three games away from capturing their fourth consecutive championship. And, yes, the town was excited; in a couple of days folks would be taping blankets on the metal stands at Hubbard Stadium to secure their seats for the big playoff game against St. Francis.

I have lived and worked as a journalist in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina and have done my fair share of “Friday Night Lights” stories. These folks, however, appeared to be the exception rather than the rule for high school football fans. They weren’t crazed, and even though it had been a long time since the Redmen had lost, an overwhelming sense of sanity seemed to greet that prospect. No one wanted the team to lose, of course, but I did sense that when the inevitable occurred and the team lost, there would not be any tears or a collective gnashing of the teeth. No, it was enough for folks here that on a whole lot of Friday nights the Redmen were proof that hard work and accountability still meant something.

Winning doesn’t get boringBy all accounts, Coach Barta was the one who set this tone for Smith Center. In his 30 years as head coach, his teams had won 276 football games against only 58 losses, and he had had plenty of offers to move up and on. Instead, he stayed and watched dozens of his boys go on to play college football — including his only son, Brooks, who became a three-year captain at Kansas State and now was coaching high school football in Holton, Kansas.

The majority of his former players, however, merely continued their studies and became lawyers and farmers, doctors and newspaper publishers, teachers and coaches. He had coached the fathers of at least a half-dozen members of this team, and a dozen or so children of Redmen alumni were in the pipeline in Smith Center’s elementary and junior high schools. For 30 years, his teams had followed the same schedule, were taught the same lingo, and ran the same offense and defense from seventh grade to senior year. Coach Barta valued execution over innovation even if practices became monotonous for his boys.

Joe Windscheffel, the quarterback and the only Redman ever to start four years, summed it up best. “I can tell you what we’re going to do Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and what time we’re going to do it,” he said. “It gets a little boring sometimes, but winning never does.”

It was Windscheffel who showed me the town on my first visit and gave me a glimpse into the rituals and mores of the community. He took me to the garage behind his parents’ house near the high school, where the Redmen gathered every hour that they were not in school or on the football field. It was their club house, thrown together about how you would expect teenage boys to create a club house: threadbare carpet, a sofa and easy chair cadged from a neighbor, a Ping-Pong table and Carrie Underwood poster front and center, a television equipped with an Xbox and a DVD player, and country music bouncing off the walls even when no one was there.

He and I drove past the Jiffy Burger with its gravel lot filled with pickup trucks and stanchion out front proclaiming, the hottest spot in town. We cruised the Pizza Hut, which also was filled with pickup trucks, and down Main Street to the Looking Glass, a brick-front beauty parlor that sits next to the post office on Court Street. On warm nights, Joe explained, he and his classmates would circle their trucks in front of the Looking Glass, unload couches, and plug a television into an outlet on the side of the building to play video games. Their moms and dads and aunts and uncles would stop by to talk about the game or about bringing in the soybeans, or were just there to check on their kids.

“The nearest McDonald’s is 90 miles away,” Joe told me. “When you live in a small town, you make your own fun. You also remember that everyone is watching you.”

Later that afternoon in his office, Coach Barta was telling me something that I have heard for years from some of the biggest names in college sports, guys who make millions of dollars a year and are featured in television commercials and write motivational books. Coaches talk a good game, especially in the college ranks, where they have to persuade Momma and Daddy to send Junior to their programs. High school coaches, on the other hand, tend to come in three varieties. They are either slick, rah-rah sorts; profane hard guys; or overwhelmed and learning on the job. Coach Barta was none of the above. He was a bear of a man but plainspoken with a touch of Yoda-like wisdom on his tongue.

“What we do around here real well is raise kids,” he explained. “In fact, we do such a good job at it — and I’m talking about the parents and community — that they go away to school and succeed, and then pursue opportunities in the bigger cities.”

Then he crossed his arms and propped them upon his stomach, and distanced the game of football from what he believed was his true mission in life.

“None of this is really about football,” he said. “We’re going to get scored on eventually, and lose a game, and that doesn’t mean anything. What I hope we’re doing is sending kids into life who know that every day means something.

“Sure, we like our football around here,” the coach concluded. “But we truly believe it takes a whole town to raise a child, and that’s worth a whole lot more.”

After I returned to New York and published my story, I found my thoughts frequently returning to Smith Center. I am a native of Kansas City, Missouri, and though I have not lived there in 30 years, I have always counted myself as a Midwesterner. My visit to north-central Kansas had validated that view.

I had also clicked with the school’s principal, Greg Koelsch, and its athletic director, Greg Hobelmann, as well as Coach Barta. I understood their plain speaking and recognized in the young Redmen’s “yes, sirs” and “no, sirs” an upbringing much like my own. They struck me as people who woke up each morning intending to make whomever they came across have a better day. Quite simply, I liked them. Coach Barta, too, was someone worth examining more closely. Legends usually are, especially those who seem to stand for the right thing and are far away from the limelight. Coach Barta had already retired from teaching math at the high school, and there was a sense around town that he might quit coaching very soon. He hadn’t told anyone his plans, and the consensus was that when the time came, he would end his coaching career with the suddenness of a game-day decision. Coach Barta had built a successful football program, a revered tradition, and, I suspected, a thoughtful worldview out on the plains of Kansas.

He had touched scores of lives. How? And why? I found these questions were worth pursuing.

‘It’s about the journey’I also was a new father; my son, Jack, was 2 years old and was a happy little resident of Manhattan. So was I. Still, it bothered me that he had to trick-or-treat in an apartment building and when we returned to the Midwest for visits, he would see my brother’s yard and say, “Look, Daddy, Uncle Tom has a park.”

Meanwhile, the Redmen had won their championship, sweeping through the playoffs for their fourth consecutive state title. Their winning streak now stood at 54 games. One more perfect season meant that Smith Center would own 67 consecutive victories and five straight titles, both of which would be records for the state of Kansas.

The pressure was going to be enormous, especially on a rising senior class that had not played many meaningful downs in their high school careers. In fact, it did not take long for me to hear about the doubts that surrounded this group of young men, who had not accomplished much on the football field and who failed to inspire confidence in the Smith Center faithful. In 2007, most of them had played late in the second halves of games, when the Redmen usually had a 50-point lead and their opponents were in a hurry to go home.

My wife, Mary, was a Chicago girl and counted herself a Middle American. We thought, why not try to revisit our Midwestern roots? Who doesn’t need help raising children? Maybe a season of small-town living might show us a better way. Even if this merely was a midlife crisis, it might be an interesting one.

When I told Coach Barta that I intended to relocate to Smith Center and write a book about the town and the Redmen’s 2008 season, he chuckled as he had during our first conversation by phone.

“You know, Joe, we lost 12 seniors and we’re really not going to be very good,” he said, not altogether convincingly.

When I responded that if they lost, it might be better for the book’s narrative, the coach in Coach Barta, the part that didn’t like losing, flashed ever so slightly.

“I don’t see how that can be,” he said.

There was a long pause.

“I do tell our boys it’s about the journey,” he conceded.

I could hear the smile in his voice.

“We look forward to seeing you back here,” he said, “and I promise you’ll have the run of the place.”