Smack-dab in the heart of America, amid rolling fields of wheat and soybeans—in Smith Center, Kansas, to be exact—high school football coach Roger Barta glanced at his notes as he stood among the sea of players gathered before him.
It was 6:30 a.m. on August 18, 2008, the first day of practice for this edition of the Redmen and the 31st opening day of the season for Barta, 64, longtime coach and former math teacher at Smith Center High School. Barta wore a red T-shirt that puffed out over a beach ball–shaped belly, and a visor was pulled down low over his gray brush cut. Only the juniors and seniors—the veterans of the team—appeared happy to be up at this hour. Their jerseys showed off the ripped biceps and abdominal muscles they had sculpted as Redmen over the years.
He paused for a moment. When he resumed, he spoke with even more fervor to the 56 young men sitting before him. “One more thing, guys. We don’t talk about winning and losing. We talk about getting a little better every day, about being the best we can be, about being a team. And when we do that, winning and losing take care of themselves.”
Over the next four months, the Redmen went on to beat each and every one of their opponents, racking up another perfect season. As their coach, Barta has compiled a 289–58 record, eight Kansas state championships, and 67 consecutive victories. In high school football, it’s the longest active winning streak in the nation. Through it all, Coach Barta kept his word: Not once did he ever say that a game was do-or-die.
“None of this is really about football,” he had explained to me back in 2007, convincingly enough to compel me to move to Smith Center from New York City with my wife, Mary, and three-year-old son, Jack, for a year so I could write about him. “What I hope we’re doing is sending kids into life who know that every day means something.”
As a Kansas City native, I was fascinated by Barta’s success. I also needed help. I was a new father living in Manhattan, far from my Midwestern roots. I was having a hard time with the fact that my son had to trick-or-treat in an apartment building and that he never failed to exclaim when he set foot in my brother’s yard in suburban Kansas City, “Look, Daddy. Uncle Tom has a park!” Jack needed to discover grasshoppers and open spaces, and I needed to be reminded of how boys are turned into young men.
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“What we do real well around here is raise kids,” says Coach Barta, crediting the people of Smith Center with his team’s success both on and off the field. The parents in this tiny, close-knit town of 1,663 in western Kansas—only 166 students attend the high school, and the nearest Wal-Mart or McDonald’s is more than 60 miles away—raise their children almost as a communal enterprise. More than supportive, they are wholly engaged with their kids’ lives; the same family members who pack Hubbard Stadium on Friday nights for football games routinely turn out for the same kids’ school plays and concerts on Saturday nights and even the junior high school volleyball games on Thursday afternoons. Still, Barta is being modest about his influence.
To most kids here, Barta is not just a winning coach but also a tough-love mentor. During last year’s playoffs, for instance, star running back Joe Osburn was struggling with Macbeth in English class. Barta told him that either he mastered the Bard or his season was finished. Barta got the captains involved, and they took turns quizzing Osburn on his lines of Shakespeare. He pulled his grades up and kept playing.
Barta insists that the members of his team be well-rounded: One of his 2008 captains was Smith Center High’s salutatorian and played piano with the Chansonaires, a select choral group. Two other Redmen were the comic leads in the school play, which meant skipping the whirlpool after practice and heading straight to rehearsals. Last fall, on a Monday before the Redmen’s toughest playoff game, against undefeated La Crosse, Coach Barta could not hold practice because 11 of his players were singing in a concert. “When you tell kids there’s more to life than football, you have to show them you mean it,” he says.
Barta’s caring credo informs the thank-you notes the team sends to the grandparents of former Redmen who donate to the booster club each season. It’s found in the way the team handles the player trading cards that are collected and exchanged by Smith Center’s elementary school kids. The cards are more than an homage: All Redmen sign a contract vowing not to drink, smoke, or take drugs, and if a player breaks the oath, his card is yanked from circulation. He must then visit Smith Center Elementary and explain why. (So far, no player has ever had to make the walk of shame.)
“Roger likes everything about football,” says Barta’s wife, Pam. “But what he loves most are the practices, the camaraderie, and watching the boys learn a little more. He lets them know how much he wants them to succeed.”