Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

December 2, 2009

Streaking in Kansas

Joe Drape went to Smith Center to follow a high-school football powerhouse and found a remarkably healthy town-team relationship.

Tom Flynn

Step one in enjoying Joe Drape's Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen is acknowledging that Hoosiers didn't really happen. Since its release in 1986, the movie has taken on the patina of a documentary, thanks largely to some similarity between the movie's fictional Hickory High team and the real 1954 Milan High School basketball team. In the film, Gene Hackman's squad overcomes all odds to clinch the Indiana state schoolboy title. Great stuff, but fiction.

Joe Drape. Photo by Heather Johnson.
"Redmen fans have been given so much, and they're appreciative of it. They like the journey."

Joe Drape. Photo by Heather Johnson.

With that behind you, you're set to be impressed by Joe Drape's Our Boys, the real story of a small-town team that had done the remarkable by winning 54 straight football games. The Redmen of Smith Center, Kansas (population 1,931), coached by Roger Barta, established that streak coming into the 2008 season, but the graduation of 12 seniors, who'd never lost a game, endangered the run of success.

Joe Drape initially reported on the Redmen for a New York Times story in 2007 and was so moved by what was going right in Smith Center that he took a considerable leap of faith, uprooting his family from New York City to return for the entire 2008 season and see if the Redmen would continue or fail in their effort to best the state's record win streak of 66 games.

Gelf Magazine spoke to Drape by phone about being a fish out of water in rural Kansas, lessons on child-rearing from Archie Manning, and throwing out storylines in the writing process. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: I opened the book trying to see if I could find just what made the football team in Smith Center not good, but perfect. There are tens of thousands of football teams in the country, and thousands of good ones, but only a few approach achieving what the Redmen have done. While you were living in Smith Center, could you distill one or two things that drove the team to perfection? Was it coaching?

Joe Drape: It's the whole deal. They've seen a couple generations come through there now under Coach Barta. There are different challenges every year. No kid and no team is alike. This is a group of coaches who really, truly love what they do. And it's not just the football part of it. It's the whole impact that they have on these kids. It's really a process. The players are kids and they are going to screw it up 100 times, and they're not going to do what you want them to 100 times. But the 101st time, you see that light bulb go off and it's very gratifying.
Frankly, before I got there, they were so good that at times there wasn't a great deal of coaching going on in some of the 2007 games. But these guys are career educators, and it's what they wanted to do when they were growing up. They are great teachers.

Gelf Magazine: Beyond the coaches, what's the impact of the parents and the town?

Joe Drape: The community goes hand in glove with the success. First of all, this is a place where hard work is ingrained through generations. I got there during the wheat harvest and was blown away that you have these families out there until one in the morning with the lights on, bringing in the wheat. There would be nine-year-olds working with 85-year-old grandfathers. There would be sons and brothers out there together. Everybody knows if you don't get the wheat in and a hail storm hits, you could lose $1 million in 10 minutes. And when one family finishes their harvest you go to the next family. They're really incentivized to say, "We're all in this together." That's the base that these coaches get to work with—hard-working kids. And these are kids for whom playing football for a couple of hours is really fun. They work their tails off.

Gelf Magazine: I had to wonder with the streak going on so long if it's grown too important and means too much to the team and the town.

Joe Drape: No, you've got this incredibly sane place. People love their football and they want to win, but they are the same folks that go watch the volleyball games; they care about the kids and they don't take it too seriously. It's not like Friday Night Lights. [Editor's note: For more from Drape on Friday Night Lights and its author, see Drape's Vital Stats.] When the Redmen lose, it's going to be one of the greatest moments in that town's history. The fans will come down, they'll circle up, and they'll give them a round of applause. They know it's coming. They've been given so much, and they're appreciative of it. They like the journey. These different teams and personalities over the years getting matched together—the whole town has grown up on that.
It's all about what we're going to do and there, perfection breeds perfection. These guys got down 7-0 early in a game against Norton Community this year, and nobody panicked. Everybody thinks they're going to win. And they've had a 14-12 game in 2009 and it was the same thing, nobody panicked. There is this sense that "we're Redmen because we're really good and we can only beat ourselves." They introduce their offensive scheme in middle school and they take that all the way through. Everybody's going to play on the team, and that is the rule. That's the unwritten rule. They're such good teachers and they just have a better football IQ than most teams.
The players have great football expertise and they're normal, good kids. In a small town you've got to do everything. They're in the school plays, they're in the school choir. They've got to do it all. You can't specialize. You can't play travel team, AAU. You do it all and you focus on what's in front of you.

Gelf Magazine: Yeah, I've experienced the view of youth sports as pre-professional training. A lot of parents want to specialize their children so they have the best shot at a single sport, rather than playing several.

Joe Drape: Absolutely, and I'll tell you something. Archie Manning told me—I was doing a story on Eli and I was down there—"You know, I never let my kids play organized football until they were in high school, and that's partially because when I was growing up that's what I did. We'd play in a sandlot and we'd get everybody together and get a baseball game going or a football game." A lot of times today youth sports are for the parents; they're not for the kids any more.
Nobody in Smith Center second-guesses the coaches or says, "So-and-so should be playing." Basically [Coach Barta] has been there long enough, and he's won long enough, and he's stressed the fundamentals of being a good person enough, that nobody says, "My kid should be playing," because the best guys are in there. He says on the first day of practice, "I don't care if your Dad's a board member or what; the best guy's going to play." When he has the first meeting with parents, he tells them the same thing. The whole community gets behind him. He makes it easier by being a good guy and teacher.

Gelf Magazine: How are they doing now?

Joe Drape: They're still undefeated, but the next three games will be a challenge. Plus they just got reclassified and moved up from 2A to the larger 3A school group next year. They're going to be good, but the thing that's going to be harder next year is when they get in the playoffs they're going to be playing good teams for five weeks. You have to play at a high level and you don't get a breather to blow somebody out by 59-0.
Editor's Note: Smith Center lost, 20-12, in overtime, to Centralia in the Kansas state Class 2-1a championship game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, ending the Redmen's winning streak, the longest active one in high-school football, at 79. Drape was there and wrote an essay about it for the Times. "Hell, I thought they were going to crush them, frankly," Drape tells Gelf. "But they were living dangerously all year. They had four close games." His prediction about fans' reaction was more spot-on: "As soon as the fumble was recovered, Smith Center people were up, with a standing ovation for both teams. The way everyone is taking it is, it was a hell of a ride and a great game, and if they were going to lose, this was the way to go. The sun will come up tomorrow."

Gelf Magazine: What about the offense? There aren't a lot of tricks or misdirection.

Joe Drape: No, it's a roll-over-you-and-win offense. Barta doesn't even let his quarterback run much until late in the season.

Gelf Magazine: Moving out to Smith Center after all their prominent seniors were gone took some nerve. Were you expecting certain players to be the focus when you were heading out there?

Joe Drape: I knew those 2007 guys were gone, but still I got there just at the right time. As a journalist and newspaper guy, you don't get to do this much—that is, having the total immersion. And when you take your time, that's the way to do a story like this. When I got out there, I had a hunch Marshall McCall (a team captain and running back) was going to be an intriguing character because he was such a good kid, but he wasn't dynamic and leadership didn't come naturally to him. But he was smart enough and he wanted to be a leader and so he worked at it. And we really hit it off, rapport-wise. He's a bright kid. We should all have, when we're working on our writing projects, a bright kid who can explain things and is comfortable enough to do that. He's one of the guys who's coming up in December to see our family in New York.
Mike Rogers and his son [running back] Colt Rogers were naturals because all of us have played with or for our dads or watched a kid who's played with or for his dad. [Lineman] Justin Nixon was a story because he was a phenomenal talent who was unsure of himself.
So, as for storylines, I threw out the storylines. I didn't sit down and write the book until after the season was over. I took notes, I listened, I let it formulate in my head, and then basically the first week in December, I wrote the first sentence and I was able to—and I'm not a terribly fast writer—turn in a first draft in mid-February, and that's with the holidays and traveling around in there, in between. The last book I wrote, Black Maestro, I spent four and a half years on.

Gelf Magazine: I grew up outside New York and I now live in metro-Baltimore, so part of my interest in the book was gaining a glimpse into small-town Kansas life.

Joe Drape: The one thing that was not planned was the storyline about my transformation and my family's transformation. It was really genuine. I'm a newspaper guy and I first thought, "Nobody wants to read about the guy from New York, a fish out of water." And you know, I was so taken with Smith Center and my reaction, my wife's reaction, and young son Jack's reaction, that it really was powerful. I decided I needed to dose out a little bit of that at a time. I didn't want to swamp the story, but I wanted to stop every once in a while and say where I stand personally. I was really uncomfortable doing that at first, but it was in the final draft that I added the most. I think I did it the right way because I could tell by the reaction from readers, from when I go talk to people, that that's what they're most curious about.

Joe Drape with the Redmen

Joe Drape with the Redmen. Photo by Sally Drape.

Gelf Magazine: Speaking of your experience with a small town and its football, I see you went to Southern Methodist, so you're not a stranger to big-time football…

Joe Drape: I was there two years behind Eric Dickerson and Craig James. I saw the best football money could buy.

Gelf Magazine: Looking at Our Boys in the context of what happened at SMU [players were paid under the table], it must have been a nice change to compare what was going wrong at SMU to what's going right in Smith Center.

Joe Drape: And truly, in all things. I started on the news side—I've done hurricanes, earthquakes, Hugo, the Jim Bakker trial, plane crashes—and I moved to sports in '93 because I was at the Atlanta paper and the Olympics were coming and they wanted a new news guy. They wanted a news nut to cover sports, and I'd written about the Hornets' first year in the NBA and demonstrated I had some affinity for sports. But increasingly, ever since I've gotten into this—I had a story in this morning on drug cheats in horseracing, I'm out here at the Breeder's Cup— my news diet is basically negative journalism, bad news. It's talking to coaches who are lying to you. I didn't get soured on it, but you start thinking, "Isn't there more to this?" I've gotten to go South Africa with the fall of apartheid and watched them put together an Olympic team. I've gotten to go to Russia during Glasnost and watched them do some things. And this by far has been the most profound and fun and rewarding experience professionally and personally. There's nothing better than sitting there on a Friday night on the sidelines and watching kids play. It's a good deal.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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