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By Ernie W. Webb III
On Christmas 1991, I eagerly tore open a present from my Uncle Bob and Aunt Kathy. As Californians and owners of a hardware store, they always sent great gifts – “high-class” See’s Candy and clothes you couldn’t find (or afford) in the Midwest.
Imagine my disappointment when I opened the box to find a book. I mean, really? A book? I didn’t care that the book was about football.
For the next six months, it collected dust on a shelf in my room. Finally, on a smoldering hot and insanely boring summer day, I picked up the book and looked at the cover, which featured three football players holding hands as they walked onto a football field.
In the 20 years since, I’ve read “Friday Night Lights” at least 10 times. Not until I read “Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen” did I have a similar experience with another book.
Written by Kansas City, Mo., native and The New York Times sports writer Joe Drape, “Our Boys” follows the 2008 Smith Center Redmen, a traditional small-school power in north-central Kansas.
“I’ve done my share of ‘Friday Night Lights’ stories as a sports writer, and I did not want to do that kind of book,” said Drape, who recently finished his fifth book, ‘Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country and Football at West Point.’ “When I discovered what Smith Center was about, the community, I knew I’d found my next book.”
Drape discovered Smith Center while on assignment. In 2007, Smith Center scored 72 points in the first quarter of a playoff game, a national record. Sent to the Plains to write about the record, he walked into a town oozing Americana.
“One of the first things he (Smith Center coach Roger Barta) said to me is, ‘We don’t talk about winning and losing. What we do really well here is raise kids,’” Drape said. “I’ve worked with a lot of coaches, high school, college coaches. A lot of them say that, but this was really genuine. I knew this was a great story.”
A great story for Washburn and its iRead program because it’s an experience many of us here share. Like thousands of students and alumni, I went to high school in a small Kansas town – Burlingame.
We didn’t achieve Smith Center’s success – winning five consecutive state titles is virtually unheard of – but there were coaches and teachers who continue to influence our lives to this day.
“The kids work hard and are dedicated. We’re trying to raise men here. I’m happy that comes across in the book,” said Barta, who’s won eight state titles. “It takes a community to raise kids, and this is a good community with great support.”
Sounds a lot like Washburn.