Last year, New York Times sports reporter Joe Drape left his job and his city to live with his wife and son in a tiny town in Western Kansas and watch high-school football. In Our Boys, Drape follows the Smith Center Redmen as they try to maintain a winning streak that is now at 69 victories the longest current high-school streak in the country. He spoke to Aileen Gallagher.
What did you miss about New York while you were gone?
The possibilities and the energy of the city. The restaurants. I lived across from a grain elevator for eight months. My options were grilling outside or the Second Cup Café.
Anything you didn’t miss?
How hard everything is, how walking down the street becomes like fighting a river. The struggle for community it was easy to be part of the community there. I probably know more Smith Center people than I know in my building. I liked having a car; I forgot how joyful that is.
The kids in the book surely loved football, but they didn’t seem singularly focused on it, like kids are on the East Coast.
In a small school, you do everything. You have to be in the choir and the school play and on the team. There’s no specialization. That’s more East Coast, and suburban. No travel soccer teams. They played everything for the simple fun. Going and playing something for two hours is just fun.
Granted, the book is about football. But women were sparse in this portrayal of Smith Center.
That’s my shortcoming there. The book focused on football, which is men. To me, it was neat seeing how important moms’ unconditional love was to these kids.
I’m just going to plead guilty. I probably should find a girls’ team with that success because women buy 80 percent of the books anyway.
You mention a few times in the book that if the Redmen lost a game it would lead to a completely different narrative. Is it easier to write about a winning team than a losing team?
Losing teams have more news, but it’s more fun to write about winning teams. Winning is an uplift. Winning sustains interest. When they lose and they will lose it’ll be one of their finest moments of their community. This isn’t Friday Night Lights.
Does it ever get boring to watch a team steamroll opponents game after game?
It does. That’s why there’s only two games in the whole book with play-by-play. You root for the kids.
This team has been running the same wishbone offense for years. How is it that no one’s been able to beat them?
What it really comes down to is Smith Center is better prepared and tougher. They’re going to out-hit you till you give up. It really is that simple. They’re just well coached.
The Redmen coaching staff figures prominently in Our Boys, as do all the adults in Smith Center. What did you learn there about being a father?
To pay attention. Love, patience, and hard work are as old-fashioned as you can get. You do have to take time with them. I’m more aware, since I’ve been back, of community, and how important that is.
I came from a place where everyone knew who you were. I’m noticing now, even in the second year of preschool, a general wariness of becoming the way I came up. It takes more of an effort. That’s what I’m trying to work on.