Monday, December 17, 2007

A Most Incredible Sports Story

As I’m travelling around the USA, I’ve found that virtually every town is very proud of their local sports teams, as they should be. The lessons learned in these competitive arenas are some that will often become major “life lessons”. I’ve not written much about these local teams because they are so similar from town to town. But today I want to tell you about one that is totally incredible. It’s about a small town football team in Kansas that outscored their opponents 710-to-ZERO during the regular season and went on to win a fourth straight state championship, not losing one game during that four year span. But more on their exploits tomorrow, let me tell you about the town and their incredible coach first.

When you Google “Smith Center”, the first entries that come up are for the Dean Smith Center at the University of North Carolina, but if you continue to search, you’ll find Smith Center, KS (population 1,931). Smith Center is the county seat for Smith County, a very rural county in north-central KS with only 4,024 residents. During the 1990’s it lost 20% of its residents and is down almost 40% since 1970. The average age is 49.5 (22nd highest in the USA), 13 years higher than the country’s average. There are twice as many people over the age of 65 than there are of school age. It also has the highest percentage of residents over the age of 85 in the entire country. This is a county that has unfortunately gone over the “tipping point” of their population and is going to struggle mightily to just survive.

The one bright spot for Smith Center is its football team. For the past 30 years, Roger Barta has taught high school math and coached the local high school football team. With only 154 students, half of them girls, there aren’t a lot of athletes to pick from. But, Coach Barta has over 65% of the boys in the school on his football teams and during his 30 years has achieved a 276-58 record.

Every player on the Smith Center team must sign a pledge to stay alcohol, drug and tobacco free for as long as they are a member of the team. If he fails, he has to go to the elementary school and stand before the youngsters to tell them that he’s messed up. The grade school kids are instructed to take their football card of that player, which every student receives at the beginning of the year, and tear it up. That trip to the grade school hasn’t happened in over a decade.

Coach Barta’s most important message to his teams isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about the game of life. His senior quarterback, Joe Windscheffel told ABC News, “He tells us how to be a man, and then he shows us too.” Mark Simoneau, Smith Center’s only professional football player, an eight-year pro linebacker with the New Orleans Saints told the NY Times, “As good of a coach as Coach Barta is, he is a better person. He treats you like gold.”

Tomorrow, I’m going to blog on the incredible record of Smith Center. It baffles me how a team can run only 6 plays (3 left and 3 right) and pass less than twice per game but was able to accomplish what they did this past season.

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