A Trip to Smith Center, Kansas

In "Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen", New York Times sportswriter Joe Drape writes about Smith Center, Kansas and the town's football team that's won 5 straight state championships and is on a 67-game winning streak.  The following is an excerpt.

No one was denying that the Redmen played pretty good football out here on the plains. The current senior class had won fifty- one 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 Red-men were proof that hard work and accountability still meant something.

By all accounts, Coach Barta was the one who set this tone for Smith Center. In his thirty 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 ju nior high schools. For thirty years, his teams had followed the same schedule, were taught the same lingo, and ran the same offense and defense from seventh grade to se nior 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 ninety 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.”

This program aired on September 4, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.


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