Life Coach Roger Barta

By Joe Drape from Reader’s Digest September 2009

Life Coach Roger Barta

Photographed by Tamara Reynolds

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.

Barta began with basic instructions: Shower to avoid staph infection. Drink lots of water. Perfectly fine advice. But what Coach Barta laid out next was the essential game plan—life lessons that many people consider his greatest strength. “Someone here is the best football player on the team, and someone is the worst,” he said. “It’s time to forget about that. Let’s respect each other. When we respect each other, we’ll like each other. When we like each other, we’ll love each other. That’s when, together, we’ll become champions.”

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.

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.”

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)