This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.
Most small-town athletes are big fish in a small pond. Their triumphs and failures may be common knowledge, but usually only within a certain geographic area.
But a few years ago, the high school football team in Smith Center, Kansas, got a taste of what it’s like to have a much bigger audience when journalist Joe Drape profiled the team for the New York Times.
When the story ran in November 2007, the team was riding a 51-game winning streak in pursuit of their fourth consecutive state championship. They would achieve that and more, winning a fifth state championship and coming heartbreakingly close to a sixth as they compiled a streak of 79 consecutive victories.
Drape’s story about the astonishingly successful team from north-central Kansas resonated with NYT readers. He followed up with a best-selling 2009 book, Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen.
But as much as readers thrilled to every Smith Center victory, it was the lessons about determination, drive and accountability that really struck a chord with Drape’s wider audience.
The driving force behind those lessons was Smith Center football coach Roger Barta, who tallied more than 300 wins over a 34-year career. For Barta, though, the wins came second to the message—something he made clear in Drape’s original article:
“None of this is really about football,” [Barta] added. “We’re going to get scored on eventually, and lose a game, and that doesn’t mean anything. What I hope we’re doing is sending kids into life who know that every day means something.”
It’s a testament to the strength of that message that when Smith Center finally lost a game—the state championship, in overtime—the team was able to walk away with their heads held high.
Like so many other great sports stories, Our Boys was never just a story about a good football team. It was a reminder about what sports, at their best, can be: an opportunity to instill the kinds of values that define the promise of America.