Dave: Today we’re talking about the book selected as the 2012 Kansas Read, “Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains With the Smith Center Redmen” by Joe Drape. It follows the Smith Center Redmen football team during the 2008 season on their quest for a fifth consecutive state championship, and the nation’s longest winning streak at 67 games. Drape is a writer for the New York Times, and actually moved his family to Smith Center while he was putting the book together so that he could get a feel for what it was like to be a part of the community.
Nate: It’s interesting to see how important the football team is to Smith Center. It’s woven into the fabric of the community, is a source of pride for everyone there, and is a privilege for the young boys in the town to be a part of. I’m not from Kansas originally, but where I grew up in Indiana there were a lot of small towns similar to Smith Center with high schools and athletic teams that were closely tied to their communities. So the book really struck home with me in terms of how close a small community can become to a traditionally successful high school program. I think it’s like that throughout many small towns in the Midwest.
Dave: I know when I lived in Brown County many years ago, the football team, and games, were very important. They were always events in the town. But what has set Smith Center’s football team apart from other programs throughout the Midwest seems to be the leadership and mentoring of their head coach, Roger Barta. His philosophy is simple: “Respect each other, then learn to love each other, and together we are champions”.
Nate: It seems almost comically simple, but that philosophy, combined with the expectation of doing your best, and leading an exemplary lifestyle have yielded amazing success. After reading this book, I read Lou Holtz’s autobiography, and it was interesting to see how similar his and Coach Barta’s philosophies are. Simple, but effective.
Dave: The other thing that is refreshing about the book is seeing small town kids who are working hard, not just on the football field. A lot of these guys go home after practice, or on the weekend, and work on the farm, or go to a job. They aren’t the spoiled athletes we’ve gotten used to seeing in our society. They’re just small town kids with a strong work ethic.
Nate: And football is passed down, many times from father to son. It was interesting to see how many kids on the team had Dads who had not only played at Smith Center, but who had played for Coach Barta. Most of the guys on his staff are former players, and there is a real sense of how important the Smith Center football family is, in terms of the former players keeping ties to the school.
Dave: A perfect example of that is Mark Simoneau, who played at Smith Center, then Kansas State, and eventually made it to the NFL. A bunch of Smith Center players, coaches, and fans went to Kansas State for an event and had a chance to meet Simoneau. Drape relates in his book that Simoneau not only said hi, but spent considerable time with them asking about the team, the school, and the town. It was clear that his time at Smith Center, and on the football team was very important to him, and he would never be too big to take time to talk to the Smith Center folks.
Nate: Coach Barta told Drape something along the lines of, “We’re not in the business of turning boys into good and successful football players, we’re in the business of turning boys into good and successful young men”. This philosophy, and a respect for this philosophy by Coach Barta’s former players is evidenced in the book.
Dave: It’s worth noting that Mark Simoneau really is the exception when it comes to Smith Center football players moving on to big time success on the gridiron after graduation. Most of the guys that come through the program aren’t the most talented, but they work hard in the weight room, on the practice field, play as a team, and win games.
Nate: Drape conveys in the book that most of the boys on the team are happy to play football on the next level at junior colleges, or at Sterling College, and understand that the likelihood of the big universities knocking on their doors is pretty slim. But for many of them, having the opportunity to play at a small college is a dream in itself. One of the players on the 2008 team received the opportunity to play at Sterling College and was the first member of his family to go to college.
Dave: It really struck me reading this book that it still would have been a good story even if the football team hadn’t been going for the state record of consecutive wins and a fifth straight state championship, because the book went beyond the results on the field. Drape shows the attitude, the lifestyles, and the priorities of the kids, the coaches, and the town, and paints an interesting picture of a small town.
Nate: At the same time, it’s also interesting to note that when Drape called Coach Barta to ask if he could follow them for the season while they were attempting to achieve all of these milestones on the field, Barta told him that was fine, but that the team might not win all their games. This was because the senior class that had provided Smith Center with its four consecutive state titles had graduated, and he really didn’t know if the incoming senior class would step up and show the same kind of attitude, work ethic, desire, and love the previous class did.
Dave: True. That made it fun to watch the maturation of the incoming seniors, and the way they slowly became a team, because at the beginning they weren’t a very close knit bunch at all. But by the end they were as much of a team, and loved each other as much as any other team Coach Barta had probably ever coached. You’re right, though, at the beginning of the season, there was no guarantee they were going to go undefeated and win a state title.
Nate: They had a couple of close games they had to fight through. But they managed to win those games, they continued to improve, and they finished the season undefeated.
Dave: Another part of this story is that the author, Joe Drape actually went out to Smith Center initially to cover the national story in 2007 when Smith Center scored 72 points in the first quarter against Plainville. I’m sure that Drape was expecting to find a win at all costs coach, in the Vince Lombardi mold.
Nate: But instead he found a coach who was actually embarrassed that had even happened, and doesn’t like to talk about it to this day.
Dave: Right. And that was part of what intrigued him so much about Coach Barta and the Smith Center football program, and led him to bring his family out to Smith Center for a year and write this book.
Nate: So, who do you think would like this book?
Dave: Well, we’ve made it pretty clear that this is a book that transcends football and the results on the field. It’s a book about life, and how hard work can bring success no matter what you’re doing. I think it would be a good book for anyone to read, but especially young people.
Nate: I completely agree. Likewise, sports and football fans would certainly enjoy it, but I think it would also be a good book for anyone in Kansas or the Midwest to read, or anyone wanting to know about the way life is in small town America. I think it’s a book that says a lot of positive things about how to live, and would appeal to a wide audience.
Click here for more information about Kansas Reads, as well as a listing of the many programs we will be having here at the library in the next month connected to “Our Boys”. The programs include an author talk by Joe Drape on February 6 and a visit from Roger and Brooks Barta on March 4!