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An inspiring portrait of the extraordinary high-school football team whose quest for perfection sustains its hometown in the heartland
The football team in Smith Center, Kansas, has won sixty-seven games in a row, the nation's longest high-school winning streak. They have done so by embracing a philosophy of life taught by their legendary coach, Roger Barta: "Respect each other, then learn to love each other and together we are champions."
But as they embarked on a quest for a fifth consecutive title in the fall of 2008, they faced a potentially destabilizing transition: the greatest senior class in school history had graduated, and Barta was contemplating retirement after three decades on the sidelines.
In Smith Center--population: 1,931--this changing of the guard was seismic. Hours removed from the nearest city, the town revolves around "our boys" in a way that goes to the heart of what America's heartland is today.
Joe Drape, a Kansas City native and an award-winning sportswriter for The New York Times, moved his family to Smith Center to discover what makes the team and the town an inspiration even to those who live hundreds of miles away. His stories of the coaches, players, and parents reveal a community fighting to hold on to a way of life that is rich in value, even as its economic fortunes decline.
Drape's moving portrait of Coach Barta and the impressive young men of Smith Center is sure to take its place among the more memorable American sports stories of recent years.
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Joe Drape is a reporter for The New York Times and the author of The Race for the Triple Crown and Black Maestro. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, he previously worked for The Dallas Morning News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When he doesn't live in Kansas, he lives in New York City with his wife and son.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1Championships aren’t won on the field; they are only played there.—Team motto for the summer, June 2008There was nothing but blue sky, miles and miles of it, disturbed only by cotton ball clouds that drifted across a horizon as flat as a tabletop and tiled with the gold, greens, and yellows of healthy crops. A John Deere combine, all shiny metal and sparkling glass, groaned in the distance as it knocked, skinned, and sorted wheat on the first day of what was going to be an abundant and profitable harvest. It had been a perfect summer, and farmers here were looking at an average yield of fifty bushels per acre at a price of anywhere from nine to eleven dollars. Those were big numbers, thanks to another year of healthy rainfall that had kept the farm ponds fi lled.Across thousands of acres of western Kansas, the combines would be working into the night as the farmers tuned in to the Kansas City Royals– St. Louis Cardinals game on the radios in the cabs of the big machines. They would work around the clock over the next ten days, trying to bring in their harvest before a hailstorm or another calamity conjured by Mother Nature rendered all their hard work worthless. It was all hands on deck as eight- year- old grandsons and grown sons with desk jobs in Omaha or Topeka or Wichita came home and took turns driving the grain cart and bringing the crop in.Jay Overmiller, forty- seven years old, was inside his New Holland Combine, a $350,000 piece of machinery as vital to a farmer as an atom splitter is to a nuclear physicist. In many ways it was comparable: the computer screen told him the moisture of the grain— anything below 13 percent was good— and how many bushels of wheat he was getting per acre (fifty to seventy), as well as his fuel efficiency. Jay could even put the combine on automatic pi lot if he wanted, and close his eyes and listen to satellite radio. He also had about a half- million dollars’ worth of sprayers and tractors that he kept in immaculate condition. He had put a lot of money into these machines, but he still wasn’t sure whether he believed that farmers were about to become the new millionaires, as many fi nancial types predicted.”I don’t know what my net worth is day- to- day,” he said. “I’m at the mercy of the guys who don’t have the wheat in their hands determining how much what I’ve got in my bins is worth.”He had been up at dawn for the twenty- minute drive to his parents’ house, where his mother, Jean, had breakfast ready for him, just as when Jay was a boy. His oldest son, Willie, was meeting him there after he finished lifting weights at Smith Center High School. Willie would be a sophomore when school began— and a fullback on the Redmen even sooner, when preseason camp started in mid- August.”I’m one of those lucky guys who have coffee every morning with Mom and Dad,” Jay said.For the next fifteen hours, and over the next ten or so days of the wheat harvest, the Overmillers would choreograph an intricate ballet performed by giant farm machinery and aided by chutes and ladders as they farmed their three thousand acres. Jay bumped along in the combine until its lights started flashing, signaling to Willie that it was almost full of wheat. Willie then pulled alongside with the grain cart as Jay swung the chute overhead and let the wheat fall into the cart— neither one of them slowing down a bit. Willie took the load to Bill Overmiller— Jay’s dad, his grandfather— who waited on a gravel farm road with a truck. Another chute completed the transfer. Bill took the wheat to a bin, where a conveyor ladder sucked and dumped it once more.As soon as the wheat harvest was over, the countdown to Smith Center’s football season began in earnest. Jay had played for Coach Barta’s very first team in 1978 and had been one of the town’s early stars. He loved the game and was eager to watch Willie, as well as his younger boys, Trevor and Gavin, grow up under the coach’s tutelage.When Willie was in fourth grade, he asked Jay to build a regulation goalpost in the field in front of their home. Jay borrowed Coach Barta’s rulebook and constructed a goalpost to specifications. It rose in front of the family’s white barn with fifty yards of soft, manicured grass rolled out before it. The field had hosted pickup games ever since for Smith Center’s boys, from ages four to fi fteen. The goalpost looked as if it belonged here among the wheat and milo and soybeans every bit as much as the silver grain bins and turning windmills. Jay had taught Willie as much as he could; now it was the coach’s turn. He hoped Coach Barta would still be around when Trevor, thirteen, got to the high school, and yes, even eleven- year- old Gavin.At least he got Willie to him.I was eager for football season, too, and was in town to find a place to live as well as to reintroduce myself to as many Redmen as I could find. Like most small towns on the plains, Smith Center had struggled to retain its population. In 1900, more than 16,300 people inhabited Smith County, a number that had slowly dwindled as advanced farming techniques made human labor less necessary. As much of a marvel as it was to watch three generations of Overmillers bring in the wheat, precision farming also had run off too many folks who did not have the financial wherewithal to make the transition.It was the “dirty thirties,” as the old folks here still call it, however, that had sent people fleeing from Smith County in torrents. It was beyond dry, and dusty when tons upon tons of topsoil were blown off barren fields and carried in storm clouds for hundreds of miles. Southeastern Colorado, southwest Kansas, and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas became the epicenter of dust storms. In 1932, fourteen of them were recorded on the plains. In 1933, there were thirty-eight. By 1934, it was estimated that 100 million acres of farmland had lost all or most of the topsoil to the winds. In the early spring of 1935, there had been weeks of dust storms, but the cloud that appeared on the horizon on Sunday, April 14, 1935, was the worst. Winds were clocked at sixty miles per hour, and “Black Sunday” introduced a new term to our national lexicon: the Dust Bowl.On the same day that dust was swirling along America’s Great Plains, Hugh Hammond Bennett, an adviser to President Franklin Delano Roo se velt, was preparing to testify before Congress about the need for soil conservation legislation. Mother Nature seconded his argument when a dust storm rolled from the heart of America into the nation’s capital.”This, gentlemen, is what I have been talking about,” Bennett would tell Congress.It was a theatrical fl ourish, and Congress, indeed, passed the Soil Conservation Act. But it was too late to reverse the damage inflicted on places like Smith County. By 1940, the county had lost more than a third of its population, as only 10,582 remained. It has been hemorrhaging population ever since; today about 4,500 people live in the county, and over the years clothing and sporting goods stores, dry cleaners, and all major manufacturing have disappeared. Smith County’s annual per capita income is only $14,983, which makes it the fi fth poorest of the state’s 105 counties.Good economic news is still hard to come by. More than fifty people had recently been laid off at Peterson Industries, which manufactures trailers and campers and is Smith County’s second- largest employer behind the school district. Thirty- six miles west of here in Phillipsburg, the Brooke Corporation, an insurance and fi n
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