Smith Center is a small town (population: 1,931) located about four hours west of Kansas City and just minutes from the geographical center of the continental United States. What initially drew New York Times reporter Joe Drape to Smith Center is the high school football team: the Redmen have won 67 consecutive games, currently the longest winning streak in the nation.
In “Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen” (Times Books/Henry Holt; Amazon), Drape chronicles the season that he (and his wife and young son) spent in Smith Center during 2008. He writes about exchanging the fast-paced, urban stylings of New York City for life in a one-stoplight, Midwestern farming town. Wheat is the primary crop and the nearest McDonald’s is 90 miles away.
Swapping Wall Street for Main Street, Drape found himself rejuvenated by the experience. Smith Center, Drape writes, is a town where youth sports have become an integral part of a tight-knit community that values dedicated effort and teamwork. Led by Coach Roger Barta, the football team has provided years-long inspiration to the community; in turn, the community bonds together to nurture the kids. One example Drape cites: the players on the football team appear on a set of trading cards that are distributed to the kids at the elementary school. They must also sign a contract pledging to remain alcohol-, drug- and tobacco-free. If they violate that contract, their cards are revoked and they must explain to the elementary school students why they were booted from the team.
A Kansas native, Drape has worked at The Dallas Morning News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Currently, he is a staff writer at the New York Times. He is the author of “Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend” (Morrow/HarperCollins), a biography of African-American jockey Jimmy Winkfield and the winner of the Castleton Lyons-Thoroughbred Times Book Award, and “The Race for the Triple Crown: Horses, High Stakes and Eternal Hope” (Grove Press). He is also the editor of a collection entitled “To the Swift: Classic Triple Crown Horses and Their Race for Glory” (St. Martin’s).
SportsLetter spoke with Drape by phone from his home.
— David Davis