Football on a Smaller Scale
I had forgotten my life as a high school football player until a few weeks ago [in 2015]. In the library of Isothermal Community College I met a young man who was very upset that someone had stolen some items out of his car, including his clippings — clippings documenting his high school football career. I now weigh about 180 and think of myself as unusually fit, but he looked me up and down and asked “You played football?”
Indeed I did. Of course, I played six man football. Surely there are people who remember when schools too small to field a “regular” football team played six man ball. But for those too young too remember, six-man football is played with – I bet you guessed – six players. There are three down lineman and three backs, all of whom are eligible to catch a pass. The game is played on a field that measures 40 by 80 yards; field goals are worth 4 points, kicking an extra-point 2, and running or passing for the conversion 1. (This is because with only three linemen it is difficult to get a kick away, especially with any sort of accuracy.) And there are three other ways in which the game differs from the 11 man version. A team must gain 15 yards, not the usual 10, to earn a first down; a “clear pass” must be made in the backfield before the ball can cross the scrimmage line. And finally there is a “slaughter rule.” Anytime one team falls behind the other by 45 points the game is over. (This rule is not always followed however. Don’t ask how I know.)
In order to give this note the appearance of scholarship I will mention that it was Stephen Epler, a high school coach at Chester, Nebraska, who in 1933 modified the 11 man version of the game to create six man football. Apparently the first six man game was played in Hebron, Nebraska on September 16, 1934. And it spread rather rapidly. The first league play was by schools along the Nebraska and Kansas border in 1935. In 1936 a league was formed in North Dakota. In 1938 a six man football league was organized in Texas, and it continued to spread.
I do not know when six man football first appeared in North Carolina. But the first game to be played in Rutherford County took place on September 30, 1948 at Cliffside when Cliffside High School met Harris High School. And there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the new six man ball. Even before the first game, the sportswriter of the Forest City Courier wrote:
This six-man football league is the talk of the county at the present and everyone is anxiously waiting the opening kickoff on next Thursday afternoon when Harris High takes on Cliffside. They say this six-man business is so fast and exciting that the respective cheerleaders for the schools have not completed their handsprings following a touchdown before the lead has changed hands again.
It is perhaps immodest to add that Cliffside (my school) defeated Harris by a score of 40 to 6.
Such was the interest that on October 21 a night game was scheduled between Harris and Cliffside so that those working the day shift in the various textile mills could see the new game played. The game had to be played in Memorial Park in Forest City since neither school had a lighted field.
That first year there were only four teams in the six man league, and all were from Rutherford County. They were Cliffside, Union Mills, Harris, and Tri-High School in Henrietta. But in later years other schools from outside the county joined. In 1954 for example the schools competing were Cliffside, Union Mills, Gamewell (Caldwell), Oakhill (Caldwell), Tri-High, Hildebran (Burke), Drexel (Burke), Scotts (Burke), and Salem (Iredell). And six man ball was not just in the western part of the state. Six man football was played at Pleasant Garden High, near Greensboro, at Clarkton High, in Bladen county, and many other places.
But the end of the 50’s saw the beginning of the end of six man football — in Rutherford County and across the country. In 1959 the high schools in the southern portion of Rutherford County were consolidated into Chase High School which was big enough to field an 11 man football team. Over the nation the 1950’s were the high water mark for six man football. At that time nearly 30,000 schools played this brand of the game. Consolidation and migration to the cities has however brought about the demise of six man football. Or so I thought. Today there are still approximately 250 six man football schools, most of them in Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Montana and New Mexico. Some towns, in west Texas for example, are so isolated that consolidation is not a real possibility. Hence the schools remain small and maintain their small scale football.
It may even be that there is a six man football program or two in North Carolina. And if not, I dare say there soon will be. The recent growth of private, largely religious schools has created many small high schools where six man football would be appropriate. And as those children who are being home schooled ask for more and more access to those extracurricular activities we associate with high school, there will be even more opportunity for this smaller version of a favorite American sport — a brand of football that allows even a 140 pound youngster to think he’s a star.
Forest City Courier, September 30 and October 21, 1948
NEWS for North Dakotans: Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
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