The Smith Center Redmen might just be the best little high school football team in America. The story of how they got there is even better. It begins in a tiny Kansas farming town, a dozen miles from the continental center of the lower 48 and smack in the middle of nowhere.
"The nearest McDonald's is ninety miles away," one of the players tells New York Times reporter Joe Drape on his first visit. A quick look around tells him prep football is one of the few industries left.
But as we discover along with Drape in his fourth book, "Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen," business has never been so good.
When the current crop of Redmen report to training camp to begin two-a-days next week, they arrived as holders of a 67-game unbeaten streak -- the longest active streak in the nation -- and five straight Class 2A championships. Only the last of those titles was up for grabs when Drape pulled up stakes in Manhattan, and with his wife and young son in tow, relocated to Smith Center -- pop. 1,931.
"What I found was the bright side of 'Friday Night Lights,"' he said over the telephone Thursday.
"It was less about football and more about how hard work, patience and love can lift a community. ... It's in a quote I started one of the chapters with, about how people around Kansas can always recognize a Smith Center kid -- because he's polite, confident and tough. It's about the way people in a small town in the middle of America want the world outside to view them."
Drape is hardly a soft touch. He casts an unflinching eye at the shuttered businesses in Smith Center and wheat fields in the distance and sees the same worrying trends that are emptying out small towns everywhere: a graying population stubbornly clinging to a fast-fading way of life -- in this case, farming -- even as its kids stream toward opportunities offered by bigger cities in every direction. What he marvels at is how the fate of the Redmen still binds every member of the community to each other year after year.
"These folks ... 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," he writes. "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."
There are no secrets to the Redmen's success beyond coach Roger Barta, who taught the fathers and brothers of many of the kids who pass through the program and still treats each campaign like a growing season. The planting is done in junior high, where Smith Center's kids begin learning the "Barta-bone" offense, a simplified version of the Wishbone that features one of four ball carriers in the backfield running between the tackles on nearly every play.
The Redmen rarely pass because Barta values power over deception and execution over innovation. Like a farmer patiently nurturing his crops, his goal is to make the kids just a little tougher and better with each practice. But that's the short version of why there's always plenty of talent and experience to harvest by the time the state playoffs roll around.
"You know how you tell a kid something a hundred times, and one day the light goes on? Well, that's why the coaches in Smith Center got into the business and stay there. When you get down to it," Drape added, "that's what really makes the place special -- not the football, not even all the success, but that everybody is focused on taking care of their kids -- and each other's -- one day at a time."
Drape saw that devotion everywhere the year he spent living in town -- at the Second Cup Cafe every morning, at the practices he attended with his son Jack, every afternoon, and more than a few Friday nights. It didn't matter whether he was sitting in the Redmen's cozy little stadium, freezing, or in the warmth of a school bus piling up hundreds of miles traveling to away games.
As the season draws to a close, he finds himself no longer just an observer; he's as invested in seeing the Redmen get the streak and the state title as everyone else in Smith Center.
"It was a profound experience. Maybe it had something to do with having a young kid, or because it's easy to forget what a noble profession teaching is ... but yeah, I finally tossed impartiality out.
"At some point," Drape recalled, "I said to myself, 'This is my team. These are my guys. They're 'Our Boys."'