GUY RAZ, host:
As the sun went down last night, the lights came up at the high school football stadium in Smith Center, Kansas.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Unidentified Man: Counter to Truitt(ph) Coleman. He's in the secondary for race, there we go. He's got on the slide line, 20, 15, 10, 5, touchdown, Truitt Coleman.
RAZ: That's running back Truitt Coleman scoring in Smith Center High's 59 to nothing shutout of rival Plainville. It was Smith Center's 68th, 68th consecutive victory.
Joe Drape, a sports reporter for The New York Times, was there last night. And Joe, what was that scene like?
Mr. JOE DRAPE (Sports Reporter, The New York Times): You know it was great. There's always a lot of pressure to keep that streak alive. And but more than that, it was their first game of the season, so the whole town was turned down. Everybody just was ready for a great season.
RAZ: Now Joe Drape, we should mention, is not just a traveling sports writer who dropped in for the game. Last summer he moved his wife and young son to Smith Center, a town of 1,600 people that sits at the geographic center of the continental United States. They spent eight months living there and the result is in bookstores now. It's called "Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen."
And Joe Drape is with us from Manhattan, Kansas. Welcome to the show.
Mr. DRAPE: Guy, thanks for having me.
RAZ: How did this start? What caught your eye about Smith Center, Kansas?
Mr. DRAPE: You know, in 2007 I saw a little brief in the newspaper about this football team, the Smith Center Redmen scored 72 points in the first quarter, which was a national record.
I'm a Kansas City native and I like stories in the Midwest, so I wanted to come back and, you know, let's see what this team was about.
RAZ: Because you're living in New York City.
Mr. DRAPE: Yes. And, you know, I'm living in New York City at the time. But there was something about this town that really struck me. First time I started talking to folks, they always talked about our boys at the high school. And they didn't talk about them as individual achievers. They didn't talk to me of just this football players.
They were talking about how they did at the Future Farmer of America, who was in the school play, and it really struck me as a different place. And when I went over and talked to the coach, Roger Barta, the first thing he said to me was, you know, this isn't about football. This is - what we do around here real well is raise kids.
RAZ: And we should reiterate, we're talking about a high school team that has won 68 straight football games. This is a national high school record.
Mr. DRAPE: You know, 68 straight, five straight championships. They play very good football. But what really appealed to me is the philosophy of the coach and the town, and it's basically very simple. It's every day we're going to get just a little bit better, and we're not going to worry about what's going on outside our locker room. We're going to worry about what goes on right here.
And, you know, he lays it out on the first day of practice. He says, guys, somebody in here is the best player and somebody here is the worst player. Those are the facts of life, and it's always going to be like that in anything you endeavor to do.
RAZ: Tell us a Little bit about Coach Roger Barta. You describe him as a Wilford Brimley type of character. He's not a stereotypical high school coach. I mean, he's not a screaming, you know, nail-spitting angry man. What is he like?
Mr. DRAPE: You know, Coach Barta has a very soothing voice, which he never raises. He never speaks about winning or losing. He's got a little bit of Yoda in him. You know, he talks about respect, liking and loving each other.
(Soundbite of laughter)
The first half-hour of any practice is a meeting that has nothing to do with football. You know, I was at practice Wednesday and it was about the first dance coming up, and let's, you know, let's treat these young women like the ladies they are.
RAZ: Hmm. You focused on the starting running back. His name is Colt Rogers. He's a small guy, five-foot three, 135 pounds, and yet he's the star on this team.
Mr. DRAPE: He is the star, and he is an undefeated wrestler - three times straight champion. He's an incredible competitor. And what was interesting is his dad also played for Coach Barta at Smith Center, and he is now a coach and a teacher at the school. And his dad played at KU, and he's probably six-three, 240.
RAZ: Colt Rogers expressed some frustration over his size and the fact that major universities were not necessarily interested in recruiting him. Does he know what he's going to do after he graduates?
Mr. DRAPE: He could wrestle. He has tons of scholarships for wrestling. But he really wants to play football. So he's going to have a great season. He's going to hope that somebody notice that he plays bigger than his size and his want-to is far bigger than anybody larger than him. And he's a smart kid.
RAZ: Joe Drape, there's an old saying among sportswriters, which is: no cheering in the press box. You're familiar with that, of course. But you developed a different kind of relationship with this coach and with this team.
Mr. DRAPE: I came down here just to write about the team and the town, you know? I was prepared for them to lose. I was prepared to be objective. But over the course of the season, as I got to learn more about these young guys, you know, I was there every day, so I was part of the furniture and it became a dialogue. And I saw how they went from a very unconfident bunch - a group who was scared of their own shadow - to young men.
So, you know, three-quarters of the way through the season, I had to admit, look, these are my boys, too. And I wanted them to win all their games. And I wanted them to win the championship, and it wasn't for the book. It was because these guys had worked hard, and they had grown, and they had really pushed themselves become young men. And I thought they deserved it.
RAZ: Joe, this is obviously a legendary program, football program, certainly in Western Kansas and known nationally. Has the team produced, you know, any well-known professional players?
Mr. DRAPE: Mark Simoneau is playing for the New Orleans Saints right now. The coach's son, Brooks Barta, was a three-time All-American in Kansas State. In fact, Braydon Wilson will start at fullback today for Kansas City.
So he has produced tremendous football players, but he's produced better men. The town doctor was his quarterback in 1999. The guys at the bank, the three officers at the bank played for him. You know, he's got lawyers from here to Chicago.
RAZ: Joe, obviously, there have been comparisons made between your book and H. G. Buzz Bissinger's book, "Friday Night Lights," which is about football a team in Odessa, Texas, during the 1988 football season. That book, of course, became a movie and then a TV series.
Were you worried, I mean, at all, writing this book that some people would say, well, this has already been written about?
Mr. DRAPE: People have been rewriting templates since Shakespeare. He came up with all the plots. You know, I was more engaged in the story that I thought was the bright side of "Friday Night Lights," and that told us something about a community that loves its children, that'll do anything in the world for its children. It's about a coach in a - actually, a group of coaches that are there to make better men, and they do it the old-fashioned way, which is love, patience and hard work.
RAZ: That's Joe Drape. He is a sportswriter for The New York Times and author of the new book "Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen."
Joe, thanks so much.
Mr. DRAPE: Guy, thanks for having me.
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