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The Winning Streak That Lit Up The Plains

More than a hundred years ago, Ambrose Bierce defined an academy as "a modern school where football is taught." He was prescient. Football has become the most popular sport, in terms of participation, among students. An engine of aspiration, it can turn a varsity letter into a college scholarship. Even more importantly, boosters boast, the game instructs stars, scrubs and spectators about competition and cooperation, dedication and discipline. And so, if you want to understand American values, you'd better know something about football.

High schools, journalist Joe Drape demonstrates, are the best place to start. In Our Boys, he follows the Redmen of Smith Center, Kan., (population 1,931) on their quest for a fifth-consecutive undefeated season.

A celebration of small-town values, Our Boys does for football what Hoosiers did for hoops. "It's about the journey," coach Roger Barta says. Although they live in the fifth-poorest county in the state, Barta wants his boys to "dream big." Playing the game is easy, he proclaims, "but living for others is a lot harder."

Drape reveres Barta as a soft-spoken bear of a man, "with a touch of Yoda-like wisdom." He manages, just barely, to rescue him from sainthood and sanctimony. If they perfect the proper techniques, Barta tells his players, the risk of injury will be substantially reduced. "In fact," Barta counsels, "it's 31 times safer to play football than it is to drive a car." Because Barta had been a math teacher, Drape suggests, tongue firmly in cheek, no one doubted his veracity: "He would utter similar absolutes without really knowing — or caring — if they were 100 percent true."

Barta's most difficult challenge, Drape demonstrates, in the most emotional sections of an often emotional book, involves repairing the relationship between Colt Rogers, the Redmen's running back, and assistant coach Mike Rogers, his dad. Barely 5-foot-3 and 135 pounds, Colt is a classic overcompensator, while Mike tries too hard to prove he isn't playing favorites.

During the season, life in Smith Center got a little more exciting. The "Bladder Fills Club" at the Second Cup Cafe talked about Redmen football in the mornings and at night. Cafe owner Lynn Pickel and her all-woman staff "followed and fed" the players — and seemed to know, before anyone else, who was injured and who was in Coach Barta's doghouse.

A Midwesterner himself, Drape captures the fervor and sincerity of gung-ho localism. And, shucks, it's infectious. For Smith Center citizens, "being there" for the young men in the community really is a joy and a responsibility.

Who knew, Drape asks, that Christmas lights on a forklift in a gravel parking lot on the night of the state championship "could light up the plains of Kansas and warm the hearts of its people?" Well, the folks in Smith Center know it. And, so, too, will readers of Our Boys.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glenn C. Altschuler