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From the Coaches Bookshelf - Heartland Heros© More from this issue
The Smith Center (KS) Redmen became one of the most interesting high school football stories of recent years when they put together a 79-game unbeaten streak over six years before finally losing in last seasonís Kansas 2-1A championship game.
Author and New York Times reporter Joe Drape spent the 2008 season in Smith Center and documented the Redmenís undefeated season and their sixth consecutive state title. In his book, Our Boys, now available in paperback, he paints a vivid portrait of the town, the team and their leader, Coach Roger Barta.
“It’s a great day to be a Redman, isn’t it guys,” said Coach Barta.
It was a statement rather than a question. It was 6:30 a.m., and before him were fifty-six bleary eyed high school students ready for the first practice of the season, and of the day. They would be coming back at 6:00 p.m. The freshmen sat on the cement floor of the Hubbard football complex, while the upperclassmen had stools propped in front of their lockers. Each of them wore gym shorts and white practice jerseys and held their red Smith Center helmets in their laps. The freshmen had concave chests or jiggled with baby fat. Some were battling acne for the first time. About a half-dozen of them tried to telegraph their fierce intentions (or hide their fearful thoughts) by cutting their hair into Mohawks. Unfortunately, they were shaped like tails that made them look more like skunks than warriors.
The sophomores, too, were still going through puberty and had narrow shoulders and coat-rack frames. They were not as wide-eyed as the freshmen, but the perplexed looks on their faces and the furtive glances that passed between them betrayed the fact that they did not quite consider themselves football players.
Only the juniors and seniors appeared comfortable, even happy, to be up in the morning dark for the first day of football practice. They had gotten here early and cranked up the stereo so that metal music reverberated throughout this cinderblock building. Their wrists and ankles were taped, and they wore sleeveless form-fitting undershirts to show off the ripped biceps and abdominal muscles they had sculpted over their years in the Redmen weight-lifting program. They looked eager to hit the practice field. They embraced the ritual that was underway on high school practice fields all over the nation: preseason training camp, two weeks of twice-a-day practices.
Training camp is meant to forge camaraderie through communal misery. There is a reason coaches and broadcasters fall back on metaphors about war when they talk about football – no matter how inappropriate they sound in this day and age.
Coach Barta paced in front of the blackboard. There were some X’s and O’s on it, but mostly it was filled with commonsense admonishments.
Everyone must shower to avoid Staph infection.
Drink Water: You want clear urine. If yellow, drink more.
This locker room was Coach Barta’s classroom, and the practice field was his laboratory, as it had been for longer than he wanted to remember. He was both God and Buddha here – at once almighty and, he hoped, the guide to a lifetime of serenity and higher purpose. He had a few notes jotted down on a piece of paper. It did not matter that he had lived through thirty previous opening days of training camp. He still had butterflies. Every one of his teams was different, and, as he preached to his players, Coach Barta enjoyed the journey that began here each August. And for the past four years that journey had been completed at the end of November with his kids hoisting the Kansas state 2A championship trophy aloft.
“OK, everyone grab their helmets, and let’s read it together,” Coach Barta commanded.
The Redmen turned their helmets backward in their laps and read in unison the warning label required to be there by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.
No helmet can prevent all head or any neck injuries a player might receive while participating in football. Do not use this helmet to butt, ram, or spear an opposing player. This is in violation of the football rules and such use can result in severe head or neck injuries, paralysis, or death to you and possible injury to your opponent.
Coach Barta let the ominous words sink in with his players.
“Now you guys know that being out here, you are taking on an assumption of risk,” he said. “This is a rough game, you know that. It is a game where violence is allowed. But if you guys listen to the coaches in here and really try to use proper technique, you’re going to be OK. In fact, it’s thirty-one times safer to play football than it is to drive a car. You know that, right?”
He let that fact linger out there in the silence. No one doubted its veracity because Barta had been a math teacher. He was a coach first, however, and over the course of the season he would utter similar absolutes without really knowing – or caring – if they were 100 percent true.
From the book Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains With the Smith Center Redmen by Joe Drape, published in paperback last month by St. Martin’s Griffin. Copyright ©2009 by Joe Drape. Reprinted by permission of Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.
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