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Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains…

Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen

by Joe Drape

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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is the chronicle of one season for a high school football team in a small town in western Kansas. While that may not sound too enticing to some readers, there's in fact quite a bit going on in this book that elevates it into the category of pretty darn good sports literature. Even readers who don't have much interest in football, or high schools, or even Kansas may find a lot to like here.

Smith Center sounds like a fairly average rural farming community. What makes them stand out, however, is the Redmen, their local high school football team. When New York Times reporter Joe Drape begins telling their story, the Redmen are preparing to begin a new season, one they hope will end with the team's winning its fifth consecutive state championship title and maintaining an undefeated streak lasting just as long. There's some question, though, whether the current crop of seniors are good enough, and unified enough, to maintain the standards set by their predecessors. Is this the year when everything goes bust?

Joe Drape tells a good story, one that reminded me more than once of Stefan Fatsis' "Wild and Outside," about the impact of sports loyalties on small mid-western towns. "Our Boys" has that to an even greater extent, though, because the while the fabled Smith Center Redmen have a statewide reputation for fearsome football, they're still -- as Drape makes clear -- a bunch of kids. It'd be too easy to label this "a coming of age story," but there's certainly some of this here. It's also a look at the impact a good coach can have on a community, a school, and, again, a bunch of kids.

There are any number of ways a story could have gone adrift, and Drape has skillfully avoided them. There is a lot of football here, to be sure, but "Our Boys" is not a play-by-play almanac of practices and games. We get to know players, coaches, and families, but our look at them is respectful and appropriate, not voyeuristic. Best of all, perhaps, Drape resists the temptation to make "Our Boys" any sort of allegory about the crisis in family farming, the decline of the rural way of life, the tension between athletics and academics, or any of the other Big Issues you might expect a New York Times writer to flirt with. This is a story of a team and the community that surrounds and supports it. It's straightforward, well-written and insightful, and by the end of the season you might even find you have a bit of an emotional connection to the Redmen yourself. Nicely done. ( )
  Cascadian | Feb 21, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A Kansas small town with a big football story to tell. I personally love the game and as a parent of a son who played and learned so many life lessons from his coaches and the game itself, I had an idea of what to expect. It was a feel good story and if it didn't have real people and a real place tied to it, I would have considered it a work of fiction. It was too perfect at times, what school wouldn't love to have such a huge staff and great community support?
As far as the book istelf, at times it felt disconnected and more like underdeveloped glimpses leaving the reader to feel like they are reading scrapbook excerpts. But the passion of the story, the game and the people came through clear.
A feel good story for sure but if I hadn't committed to write a review, I would have put it down about halfway through. ( )
  harpervalley | Feb 15, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
If you read H. G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights and have been seeking another accurate and insightful analysis of the impact of high-school football mania on adolescent boys, their families, and a hometown, you will NOT find it in this book by New York Times sports writer Joe Drape, If you read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? and are expecting any attempt to see a relationship between the socio-political reality he documents and the school system of this Smalltown, KS, USA, you will be disappointed. Somehow I had hoped for a bit of both these perspectives; hence, readoing Our Boys was a ho-hum experience for me. If you grew up reading good sports stories by writers like John Tunis, filled with tension, genuine conflict, character development and growth, and at least a hint of social or moral significance, that's probably exactly what Joe Drape was hoping for when he decided to relocate his family to Smith Center, Kansas, for the duration of a football season. For whatever reason -- maybe the somewhat unexpected success of a not-ready-for-prime-time team, or his immediate and lasting admiration for the coach and his staff -- you don't get that kind of tension, conflict, or characterization.

If on the other hand, you are looking for a rah-rah, hip-hooray celebration of high-school fottball in Smalltown, KS, USA, wtih a fairly ideal set of coaches (as large a staff as most universities), an all-American-boy team of players (with only occasional, minor exceptions), civic pride that translates into all-out support, and -- well, of course -- another win-win-win season, then you've found what you're looking for. Our Boys is a book-length report of the sort you might expect to read in the Kansas City Star on a Sunday morning when there's not much news, say between the NCAA championship bowl and the Superbowl a month later.

Now I grew up in Smalltown, USA, and I've taught in high school, lived in West Texas, and spent a good bit of time in the heart of Kansas. I know where the real stories are -- the important stories involving high-school football players, stories that seek answers to critical questions: What about those schools that don't win championships, that even have losing seasons year after year? What about those kids in Smalltown, USA, who are good at music or writing or science or drama or 4-H, but NOT on the football team? (Oh, I forgot: they get to handle the PA system so they'll feel needed.) So the coach, we are told, is a silent Democrat in a conservative Republican community, and this is all taking place in the George-Bush era of corporate control and international chaos. Only background noise, right?

Our Boys is a so-so book, just as long as you aren't expecting too much. It's about winners, but it's an also-ran. As I made my way through it (I had agreed to write a review, so I couldn't just put it down, as otherwise I would have done) -- as I made my way through, I kept hoping the next chapter would be better (sorry, more of the same), and I kept saying to myself, "I wonder . . . I wonder how H.G. Bissinger might have written this story, or Thomas Frank, or -- yep -- even John R. Tunis. Or how the kids who handled the PA system might have written it, Hmmm."

Last night I met a family from the heart of Kansas, another Smalltown, KS, USA. I referrred to this book I had been reading about the football champions from Smith Center. They're literate, articulate, responsible, knowledgeable citizens. They didn't know what I was talking about. They never heard of the Champions. Much less a book written about them that a New York Times eporter spent a season researching and writing. I suppose some champions are also-rans.

The copy editors obviously didn't think of this as a championship book either. Perfectionism was clearly not one of their goals. For that -- well, you'd better go back to the Kansas City Star. ( )
  bfrank | Feb 4, 2010 |
Our Boys is the story of a high school football team from Smith Center, Kansas. It tells the stories of the players, coaches, and different community members. As I was reading, I felt like I knew these people.

This book really touched me. Perhaps it is because I'm a teacher, or maybe because I am a football coach's wife. Or maybe because Smith Center seems to do everything with their boys that I wish my community did with our boys.

Our Boys is more about life lessons than football lessons. And isn't that really what we should be teaching them? ( )
  JenSay | Jan 1, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Simply put, this is a wonderful book about values, small town life, and helping young people become solid citizens. It follows a high school football team in Kansas as it pursues another championship season and approaches an all-time winning streak. However, this is a not a typical narrative about a season in the life of a football team. Although it proceeds chronologically, there is very little suspense in a traditional manner of a sports book - we know from the title that the team again goes undefeated. Mr. Drape avoids describing whole games in too much detail, instead highlighting the key moments where a lesson is learned or a relationship is altered or some event occurs where you witness the growth of a player or coach.

The book is full of memorable characters, beginning with the head coach. You can see he takes his charge seriously in not only teaching the game itself, but instilling values and sportsmanship in his players. The assistant coaches, the players, and the good people of Smith Center are all portrayed crisply - usually in a positive light, but as real people with their occasional flaws and weaknesses.

Mr. Drape has a fluid style of writing that is easy to absorb. He described people, places, and situations well, without ever falling too much in love with his metaphors or wordplay. Even though he moved to Smith Center for a year to live the experience, he lets the characters drive the story, and he and his family never become disproportionately important to the narrative.

I highly recommend this book. It is enjoyable to read and inspirational on a number of levels. Based on my experience with "Our Boys," I would be happy to read Mr. Drape's other works because of his writing style, even if the subject matter didn't immediately interest me. ( )
  cjcombs | Nov 18, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
This is the story of a championship season, but it’s really a grainy chronicle of pep talks and pep rallies, injuries and ignominies, game films, mind games, agonizing encounters with the blocking sled, livestock shows, movies at the Center Theater, haircuts at Paul’s barbershop, cinnamon twists from Pizza Hut and the rituals of the soybean harvest, all washed down with strawberry soda.
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None of this is really about football...What I hope we're doing is sending kids into life who know that everyday means something.
-Roger Barta, November 7, 2007
Championships aren't won on the field; they are only played there.
- Team motto for the summer, June 2008
Together we are champions.
- Roger Barta, August 18, 2008
You ask anyone in western Kansas, and they'll tell you that they can recognize a Smith Center kid.
-Morse Boucher, August 22, 2008
We have two very big things going for us, and the first is Roger. It's not just the winning. It's his philosophy - it's inclusive. He gets the whole town invested. The other thing is that people around her really, really like football.
-Greg Koelsch, August 30, 2008
To Mary and Jack,

who make me believe

that there is no place like home
First words
We were sitting in a locker room that smelled like it had hosted a couple of generations of teenage boys, and Roger Barta was telling me about the high school football program he had built in this town that he loved: Smith Center, Kansas. (Introduction)
There was nothing but blue sky, miles and miles of it, disturbed only by cotton ball clouds that drifted across a horizon as flat as a tabletop and tiled with gold, greens, and yellows of healthy crops.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805088903, Hardcover)

An inspiring portrait of the extraordinary high-school football team whose quest for perfection sustains its hometown in the heartland

The football team in Smith Center, Kansas, has won sixty-seven games in a row, the nation’s longest high-school winning streak. They have done so by embracing a philosophy of life taught by their legendary coach, Roger Barta: “Respect each other, then learn to love each other and together we are champions.”

But as they embarked on a quest for a fifth consecutive title in the fall of 2008, they faced a potentially destabilizing transition: the greatest senior class in school history had graduated, and Barta was contemplating retirement after three decades on the sidelines.

In Smith Center—population: 1,931—this changing of the guard was seismic. Hours removed from the nearest city, the town revolves around “our boys” in a way that goes to the heart of what America’s heartland is today.

Joe Drape, a Kansas City native and an award-winning sportswriter for The New York Times, moved his family to Smith Center to discover what makes the team and the town an inspiration even to those who live hundreds of miles away. His stories of the coaches, players, and parents reveal a community fighting to hold on to a way of life that is rich in value, even as its economic fortunes decline.

Drape’s moving portrait of Coach Barta and the impressive young men of Smith Center is sure to take its place among the more memorable American sports stories of recent years. 

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:08 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Offers an inspiring portrait of the extraordinary high school football team whose quest for perfection sustains Smith Center, Kansas, its hometown in the heartland.

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