Even as others heap praise on this football season because of two closely contested College Football Playoff (CFP) semifinals that, for a second remarkable year, included a team not among the usual suspects, I avert my eyes and hold my nose.
From my wizened perspective the season has been ruinous from preps to pros. Not even Texas Christian University’s presence, as Big 12 Conference runner-up, could save it. (I do take heart that the CFP selection committee chose TCU on the heels of having included Cincinnati a year ago, the first semifinalist from outside Power Five conferences. I was further heartened that TCU handed Michigan its big, bad Big Ten head to advance to the final, something that even perennial Big 12 champion Oklahoma had not been able to accomplish in four tries in the playoffs.) Even this welcome serendipity, however, failed to restore my lifetime of good feelings for the game.
Too much has happened, from the Cleveland Browns’ hiring of a reprobate sexual predator to play quarterback to Oklahoma’s conjoining with arch-enemy Texas in announcing they would be abandoning the Big 12 for the greener—green as in $$$—pastures of the Southeastern Conference. If that were not enough, Coach Lincoln Riley abandoned OU for—again—the greener cha-cha of Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, taking with him the Sooners’ quarterback among others.
Does football possess loyalty, honor, conscience or integrity?
If it does, it can’t be found among those who will do anything to win. Even the best place to find the value of the game—beneath Friday Night Lights—offers no guarantees and sometimes little solace. Though far removed in time and proximity from high school football days in Northeast Oklahoma, I continue to follow from afar my hometown high school, Nowata (Class 2A), and to a lesser degree two others in the county, Oklahoma Union (A), and South Coffeyville (8-man Class B). This past season they had a combined record of 2-28, with Oklahoma Union and South Coffeyville winless in 10 games apiece and 2-8 Nowata only able to beat a Hulbert, a winless smaller school, and to receive a forfeit from Caney Valley because game officials failed to show up.
All was not lost, though. While tracking these discouraging results, I was reading Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen by Joe Drape, who discovered the Redmen during the 2007 season on assignment for The New York Times. Drape, taken with the small, north-central Kansas town in the country’s geographic center, returned in 2008 to Smith Center, wife and small son in tow. These strangers from the Manhattan in New York, not Kansas, embedded themselves in this community that seemed to have fewer places to live than it had grain elevators.
Having grown up Midwesterners did not prepare Drape (Kansas City) and wife Mary Kennedy (Chicago) for a town with a Buckshot Inn where Drape stayed during his initial visit. It came replete with a warning sign above the bed: HUNTERS, PLEASE DON’T CLEAN YOUR BIRDS INSIDE THIS HOTEL ROOM. It was pheasant season, but Drape would soon discover many reasons that Smith Center was not for the birds.
Drape may have returned to Smith Center because he could sense a book demanded to be written—his ended up a New York Times bestseller. But it was Roger Barta, legendary football coach and those around him who were the heart of the draw. Drape recognized Barta as “someone worth examining more closely.” “Legends usually are,” Drape observed, “especially those who seem to stand for the right thing and are far away from the limelight.” But could this retired math teacher stand up to scrutiny? Or would Drape undress Barta, his star power exploding like a supernova? Hardly.
Barta proved as right and rich as dirt. He echoed Hillary Clinton’s borrowed African proverb about raising children, including those who play football. “None of this is really about football,” he told Drape. “. . . What I hope we’re doing is sending kids into life who know that every day means something. Sure, we like our football around here. But we truly believe it takes a whole town to raise a child, and that’s a whole lot more” than winning the games (323) and state championships (8) that paved Barta’s way to the National High School Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame and Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Make no mistake, though, Barta deserved a “Head Ball Coach” honorific as much as Steve Spurrier. He was adaptive yet both old school and inventive in a way perfect for high school players. He turned the Wishbone offense into a simplified version, the Barta-Bone. Not many pitches on the option play and virtually no passes. Just wearingly, smash-mouth tough. From junior high through high school Smith Center teams ran the Barta-Bone. They ran it so much that it became a bore—one that won championships and established records for most consecutive victories (79). His boys could run the Barta-Bone in their sleep and turn it into opponents’ nightmares.
His boys were respected as much for their conduct as young men as for the fierceness of their contact on the field. Drape haunted practices, coaches meetings, the entire school and more. By going into the fields at harvest and homes for supper— sometimes with families of players, other times those in the larger community that made Barta’s Boys “Our Boys”—Drape populated his book with those who revealed this special place: There was Watermelon Man—Morse Boucher—who hauled in a pickup bed full of good eatin’ during the grueling, blow-torch days of preseason practice. There was newspaper owner and editor—Jack Krier—who seemed to assign himself the most important story of any and every year, the football team’s season, faithfully documenting with word and photo.
Of course, there was Joe Drape himself, the “objective” observer whom Barta let capture every moment of the 2008 team that had the impossible task of following on the heels of a class of seniors who were arguably the best of the best Barta Redmen (1978-2012). They never lost. He recognized the insecurities and lesser talent of these boys but never shies away from even the most challenging moments such as those between running backs coach Mike Rogers and son Colt, a junior who was a two-time state wrestling champion (70-0) and his leading rusher. At only 5-foot-3 and 135 pounds, Colt, like every player, makes errors and is under a higher-powered microscope as a coach’s son. Colt takes his mistakes hard; Dad takes them harder.
In the end, though, Colt was still his boy, and he and Redmen would always be “Our Boys” to the Smith Center community that loves them. Drape may have taken his objectivity with him to the Plains and applied it as well and honestly as any journalist could. But in the book’s acknowledgements, he admitted the obvious. The Smith Center experience had made Redmen of him, Mary, and son Jack.
“WE ARE!” he concluded, “REDMEN!” How could they not be? How could anyone not be?