It is hard to make sheer, utter dominance likable, let alone something you can relate to.
What makes Joe Drape's new book "Our Boys" -- about the sheer, utter dominance of the Smith Center Redmen in western Kansas -- so amazing is that he not only makes them likable...
...He offers them up as a template for all teams in any sport -- not just about how to construct a winner on the field, but how to navigate a bunch of teenage boys into adulthood off the field.
Drape -- whose main job is as horse racing guru for the New York Times, but whose incredible article about Smith Center back in 2007 inspired the book -- embeds in Smith Center for the year, the 2008 season.
But not him alone relocating from New York City. He takes his wife. He takes his 3-year-old son (whose exploits, briefly noted throughout the book, are as compelling of a symbol as anything).
And what he finds feels cinematic -- it is sort of like "Friday Night Lights," but it is blissfully free of dysfunction. The coach isn't a maniac; the boosters are friendly; the kids aren't self-entitled. (If anything, the players' challenge is to rise to the level of the stud class that preceded them.)
It is sort of like "Hoosiers" (a comparison I have seen in the last week or so), but Hickory/Milan was the consummate underdog -- Smith Center is the juggernaut of the state.
But they don't do it by professionalizing the experience for the kids. And the ultimate lessons about family and joy of the game make winning feel like the product, not the goal.
If there feels like a lack of conflict -- though no lack of drama over whether the team will fulfill the monumental pressures to extend the school's winning streak -- it is only because that's the point:
Great sports stories don't have to be about screaming coaches and preening players, mostly bringing the drama on themselves.
Sometimes they can simply be about a way to approach the game -- and life -- that feels remarkably reasonable... even if the results are entirely unreasonable.
Drape tells a great football story -- but you will want to dig into the book (and question your own approach to sports expectations) for the off-field philosophies imparted by Coach Barta.
Get the book here. And learn more about the author here.