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A Trip to Smith Center

We stand in a lockerroom that will soon be invaded by seventy teenage boys.  Right now, though, the only thing stirring is a conversation in the room next to the main lockerroom.  We look in and find an assistant coach lying on the concrete floor with his head propped by two pillows.  Seated beside him is a writer from the New York Times.  The two talk a familiar talk…the way old friends talk.

Yes, football in Smith Center is a little different these days.

If you don't know the essential story, the Redmen extended the nation's longest current winning streak by winning their 68th consecutive game Friday, 59-0 over Plainville.  Embedded in the streak are five 2-1A state championships.  In 2007, they scored a national record 72 points in a quarter (against ever-suffering Plainville).  This year, Smith Center again tops Varsity Kansas's 2-1A rankings.

The 72-point quarter got the attention of the national media.  Articles appeared in Sports Illustrated, ESPN.com and on the front page of the New York Times.  The Times article was written by Joe Drape, who was so charmed by the town and so impressed with coach Roger Barta that he moved his wife and young son there from July to December of last year.  Out of that experience, he authored "Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen."

It's at this point that I urge you to watch the story we aired on KSN, available here on Varsity Kansas.

"Our Boys…" debuted last week on the New York Times bestseller list (#26 in hardcover nonfiction).

So how has it changed this community of fewer than two thousand people?  Best I can tell, it hasn't.

Last Wednesday, Joe Drape comfortably walked about the practice field while the Redmen went through their drills.  Never did a head turn.  He said hello to several of the players.  To them, he is just "Joe."  To them, "Our Boys" is just a great book.  Their focus is on their task at hand: football.

It's all Roger Barta, of course.  Of all the life lessons he coaches, humility comes first.  His "aw shucks" demeanor seems to be more than an act.  The players act the same.  It is apparent that they do more than just respect their coach; they love their coach.

The practice was efficient and performed by rote.  Barta, Drape writes, favors "execution over innovation."  The players have the same routine from practice to practice.

We wander the practice field freely.  The photographer with me, Scott Dietz, is from WaKeeney, where Barta coached before coming to Smith Center in 1978.  Those two could not stop swapping stories, even during practice.  I wonder if the video will get shot at all by the time Barta and Dietz finish shooting the breeze.

I visit with Morris, a regular at practice.  He tells me the Redmen won't be seriously challenged until the third week of the season when they play Norton.  Then, he says, they will have four tough games in a row.

At 5:50, Morris shakes hands with me and says he must leave.  His wife will have dinner on the table at six.  He will not be late.

Not much later, we bid our farewell to Roger (I can no longer call him anything else) and his staff members, all who all treated us like Kings.  Our final farewell is for Joe (who I also can no longer call anything else), who was gracious with us and read passages from his book.

We pull on to Roger Barta Drive.  Our first stop, Jiffy Burger, is just a couple football field lengths away from Hubbard Stadium.  As we wait for our cheeseburgers, I savor what draws Joe Drape come to Smith Center.  The town and its people are so…comfortable.

I asked Joe if he has thoughts of moving permanently to Smith Center.  He does, but says it is impractical.  Both he and his wife work in New York and, well, Smith Center is more than three hours from the closest airport.

Joe and I also talked about his son Jack, who I would guess to be four years old.  While waiting for practice to start, I had watched Jack play with some boys who were a few years older.  They let Jack tackle each of them, and then exchanged high fives with him.  The four boys later watched in amazement as yard line numbers were being painted on the football field.

As we got into the truck with our white sacks containing double cheeseburgers, I couldn't help but feel a little sad for Joe Drape.  Next week, he will be back in New York and, I suspect, his thoughts will be in north central Kansas.  But I also suspect that the Drapes will be back one day, back to stay, when it's time for Jack to be a member of the Smith Center Redmen.

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