Growing up in Plainville, an hour away, Barta learned the art of mentoring from his own high school football coach, Al Hargrave. “He kind of raised us like his own kids,” says Barta. “When we were in high school, he had us coach Little League teams. When we were in college, he’d have us come back and coach American Legion. He was probably the first teacher who taught me that the way to make an impact on a kid was to love him and treat him with respect.”
When a back injury ended Barta’s playing career, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a college student. One summer, he took a job in the Kansas oil fields, hoping it might be his ticket out of academe. It took him a single rainy day of being stranded on an oil derrick to know. “I almost froze to death,” he says. He looked around at his co-workers, who were aged beyond their young years. “They were missing fingers and teeth. I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
He returned to Fort Hays State to earn a mathematics degree and went on to get a master’s in math education at the University of Georgia. Today, Barta and his assistants spend as much time helping players figure out what they want to do with their lives as they do on the intricacies of game plays.
“Coach understands we can be a little isolated out here,” says lineman Cody Tucker. “He knows we’re hard workers, so he tries to open us up to bigger possibilities.”
Each summer after the sixth grade, virtually every boy and girl in the Smith Center school system spends at least four days a week in the weight room as part of an off-season conditioning program for all school sports. The physical workouts lead to social bonds that extend through senior year of high school: On the eve of every football game, the Redmen eat together in the school cafeteria or on the road. They take the field in pairs, holding hands. They ride the bus home together after away games.
For tangible reasons, in other words, Smith Center Redmen win a lot of football games, often against teams from bigger schools, with a combination of the intimacy of a family and the ferocity of a combat unit.
Coach Barta has sent dozens of his players on to the college gridiron; one, Mark Simoneau, is a linebacker for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. But perhaps Coach Barta’s greatest legacy lives within Smith Center’s 1.2 square miles: former Redmen who left town for college or work but eventually returned home.
Dr. Justin Overmiller, 30, once a team quarterback, got his medical degree from the University of Kansas and joined a family practice back here. John Terrill and Dave Mace, trust officers at the local Peoples Bank, also played for Coach Barta. Terrill is the voice of the Redmen for Smith Center’s cable channel; Mace is one of its statisticians. Last fall, the two men watched their oldest boys, Trenton and Kalen, respectively, help lead the Redmen to a 13–0 season and another state championship. The men will stay here this fall, and two more after that, as Kale Terrill and Brandon Mace, sophomores this year, absorb the same lessons their brothers and fathers did.
In fact, the sidelines of any given Redmen game are dense with Coach Barta’s former players, sons of the Kansas plains and the Redmen magic. Barta’s assistant coaches—Mike Rogers, Brock Hutchinson, Tim Wilson, and Darren Sasse—played for him at one time, with the exception of Dennis Hutchinson, Brock’s father and Barta’s top assistant for 31 years. Each has turned down opportunities to be head coach for high school teams elsewhere to remain at Smith Center High. The school motto, “Tradition Never Graduates,” lives on.
“We’ve all had opportunities,” says Brock, 34. “But this is where we’ve learned to love one another and work hard and build a community. If we can have an impact on a kid’s life like Coach Barta and my dad had on us, we want to do it in our hometown.”
It wasn’t until after we returned to New York City that I understood the impact Smith Center had had on both Jack and me. My son was a fixture in the locker room, on the sidelines—in the whole town, really. The Redmen were his first real role models.
Before the Redmen’s championship matchup with Olpe at Fort Hays State, Brock Hutchinson asked them to bow their heads. “You play this game today because you live in Smith Center, Kansas,” he said, “in a community that loves you and watches over you. Each one of you was born to be Redmen.”
A few hours later, after Smith Center had defeated Olpe 48–19 and broken the Kansas state record for consecutive victories, the Redmen’s “circle up” began, in which players, coaches, and townsfolk gather on the field or in the locker room to hold hands and give thanks—not for winning or losing but for having this time together. The Fort Hays State locker room was not conducive to circling up; still, the old men and little children of Smith Center kept pouring in to be with their boys.
By this time, the Redmen were “our boys” too. Mary, Jack, and I had gotten to know their families. We had ridden their combines, visited their hog farms, shared their meals. I spotted Jack across the room. He grasped the hands of the water boys as if he’d been circling up all his life.
Coach Barta asked his son, Brooks, 39, to address the team. Brooks is now a high school coach in Holton, Kansas; he’s won more than 100 games and two state titles. “I imagine you heard many times last year about how to carry this experience in football to other aspects of life,” Brooks began. “Relationships, academics, jobs, families. These things require the same commitment, sacrifice, preparation, toughness, and hard work. All of us will have opportunities to experience the same kind of success over and over. We have to make good choices about the people we surround ourselves with, and commit to sharing our own experience with others.”
I watched Jack watch Brooks. I watched Coach Barta listen to his son. I looked at the rows of fathers holding the hands of their boys. And I understood at that moment that Coach Barta is more than just a helluva football coach.
He is a teacher—a first-rate one.
Joe Drape, a sportswriter for the New York Times, is the author of the just-published Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen (Times Books/Henry Holt)