Videos & Speeches

There are certainly so many serious issues that we face in this country, and so many tragedies have occurred. I was on the floor earlier this week paying tribute to the lost lives in Connecticut and two police officers killed in the line of duty in Topeka, KS, this week and the death of our colleague-certainly serious issues that we face now awaiting the House to pass legislation in regard to the cliff.

This is perhaps a lighter subject. I want to pay tribute to something that’s such a great tradition in our State of Kansas and really across the country. Football is something that is important to communities across my State. On Friday nights, each fall of each year, thousands of Americans, they gather at their local high school football fields to cheer on their favorite teams. This tradition has stood strong for decades on the Kansas prairie, but it’s especially true in a little town not too far from my hometown, in the town of Smith Center.

There are few if any high school football fans in our State who are unaware of Smith Center's reputation. Coach Roger Barta and his Redmen football team have won more than 320 games and eight state championships; five of them in a row. They are even known here in Washington, DC.

A few years ago, when they were on their 79-game winning streak, people would come to me and ask me if I had ever heard of Smith Center, KS. And I would say: Certainly. Yes. What’s the story? And they had read on the sports page that Smith Center had scored 74 points on another team in the first quarter. It turned out to be my hometown of Plainville. 74 points in the first quarter-this is an amazing team.

But under the leadership of Coach Barta, the Redmen football team has set State and national records. That 79-game winning streak is a remarkable achievement, and it caught the attention of the New York Times. A New York Times sportswriter, in fact Joe Drape, moved his family from New York City to Smith Center, KS, and lived there for an entire school year to chronicle the team's achievements and to write about the community. He tells their story in his best-selling book called ``Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains.''

There are many reasons for this team's success that would, in fact, bring a New York Times reporter to this small town, but I think the community of Smith Center would agree with me that perhaps the greatest reason behind their success is their head coach-Coach Roger Barta. The coach's 323 victories place him among the top 5 coaches in all time Kansas football on the list of wins, and in 2007 he was named the Gatorade National Coach of the Year. But this season, after 35 years of coaching, Coach Barta announced he is ready to hang up his whistle and retire.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in several pregame coin flips with Coach Barta and his team over a number of seasons, including their 2009 State title game. Each time, I watched a very talented and sportsmanlike football team and a very spirited set of fans from Smith Center and across the region. Yet all the success this team has enjoyed on the field is not what makes them so remarkable. The truly exceptional work being done on the plains of Kansas is the development of character in the boys of the Smith Center football team. It is the respect the athletes learn to have for their teammates and the opponents on the field. It is the integrity the boys are expected to have both on and off the field. And it’s the hard-working spirit they take with them when they graduate.

As a member of the Redmen football team, the athletes are not expected to just excel on the field but in the classroom and the community as well. From school plays to school concerts, the Redmen do more than simply play football. And Coach Barta serves more than just to coach football-he serves as a role model and mentor for young men and the community.

I remember the story in the book that says when one of the team members violates a team rule-young fourth grade students in Smith Center, KS, have a player card, and that football team member who violates a rule has to go to the fourth grade member and explain his error in violation of the team rule and apologize to the fourth grader.

Coach Barta's wife had this to say about her husband's commitment to the Redmen: “Roger likes everything about football, 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.”

In the book about the Redmen, the writer Joe Drape extols the virtues we in America hold so dear. Humility, sacrifice, and unwavering commitment are all the characteristics that are exemplified by the Redmen and their fans.

But perhaps Coach Barta's greatest legacy as he leaves the coaching field in Smith Center is within the Smith Center city limits: former Redmen who left town for college or work but eventually returned home.

Broch Hutchison, one of the Coach Barta's former players, is now an assistant coach and he had this to say about working alongside Coach Barta: “We all had opportunities, 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 kid's lives like Coach Barta, we want to do it in our hometown.”

This attitude exemplifies the teaching, coaching, and parenting philosophy of rural America. Our populations are dwindling and our communities are aging, but our commitment to raising responsible children and preparing them to be successful in life is something that will never leave us. I am thankful that Coach Barta and his staff understand this, and I am proud to come from a part of the country that remains committed to that way of life.

Coach Barta summed it up best when he said this about his coaching philosophy: “What we do really well around here is raise kids…None of this is really about football. What we're doing is sending kids into life who know that every day means something.”

Congratulations to Coach Barta for his outstanding achievements over the last three decades. But most importantly, thank you, coach, for your investment in the lives of young men from Smith Center. Their lives are forever changed because of you.