Created almost 90 years ago, Six-Man football provides pigskin alternative to small towns and thrives under the Friday night lights across the Heart of Texas
In rural Bosque County, we either live in them or near them – tiny towns struggling for survival as the life blood of the often-shrinking neighborhoods and sprawling ranches surrounding them. They may congregate for church year-around, but one thing ties them together and brings each town to life every fall like no other time of the year – Six-Man Football.
In the heart of football-crazed Texas, gridiron purists claim the six-man game does not represent “real football.” But for schools simply too small to field a standard 11-man team, this wildly-unique, high-scoring, fast-paced version of the pigskin game not only keeps football alive, it provides a revered experience shared by the entire community, giving student-athletes a chance to play and residents a chance to cheer for them.
At the six-man level, student-athletes tend to be a little slower, a little less-skilled than their counterparts on larger campuses. Players don’t specialize in one sport because their schools need them for basketball in winter, then baseball or track in spring. They rarely get recruited by major colleges, but they play football for the love of the game. And it shows in the way they play the game on the field.
There’s nothing else quite like the excitement of six-man football. After all, when two teams can combine for nearly 200 points, you know things can get real crazy, real quick. And in Bosque County, five of the area’s eight high schools – Cranfills Gap, Iredell, Kopperl, Morgan and Walnut Springs – play six-man football split up between two districts in Class 1A, Division II.
Developed by Nebraskan Stephen Epler at Chester High School in 1934, six-man football provided an alternative means for small high schools to field a football team during the Great Depression.
The first six-man game played in Texas – where the sport remains highly popular, especially in small Central and West Texas high schools that lack enough players for the 11-man version – was on September 29, 1936 between Sylvester High School and Dowell High School at the high school football field in Rotan.
In 1938, Prairie Lea High took on Martindale High School in a six-man football game played as a demonstration game to see if the Texas UIL would adopt it as a sanctioned sport, which they did. By that spring, about 55 schools were playing the game, which doubled by 1939.
This season, Texas will field at least 218 six-man football teams, and this does not even count schools in other high school leagues, or schools playing “outlaw schedules” – schools whose enrollment is too large to play six-man football in a league-sanctioned district, but nevertheless continue to organize a six-man team as opposed to an 11-man team.
Everyone knows football rules in Texas. Even in the smallest of towns, football remains a way of life. Some small towns struggling to survive and keep its schools open rally around its six-man football team. Created almost 90 years ago, six-man football has built a relatively small but radically loyal following attracted to six-man by the high scoring and the character of the people who played and followed it.
So what makes six-man football different from 11-man football?
First of all, six-man is played on a smaller field – 80 yards long instead of 100, 40 yards wide instead of 50 – in a smaller amount of time with 10-minute quarters. All six players are eligible to run or catch the ball. There must be two exchanges instead of simply the snap from center, meaning the back who receives the snap can’t run beyond the line of scrimmage.
The distance for making a first down is 15 yards. Point after touchdown (PAT) kicks are worth two points while running or passing for a conversion is worth one. Field goals are worth four points, but neither field goal attempts nor punts are terribly common. Onside kicks, which must cover 15 yards to be recovered by the kicking team, are commonly used since kickoff returns can turn into touchdowns with one or two solid blocks.
While some rosters can get larger, there’s usually a core of seven or eight players who play most of the game on offense and defense. The offensive schemes six-man and 11-man teams ran weren’t always that different. Back in the 1960s and 70s, 11-man football was very run-heavy with formations like the Wishbone, Wing-T and Pro formation. Now, not so much.
While 11-man seems to be moving on, six-man teams continue to stick to an offense centered around running the football. Many coaches like to run a lot of tight sets that include unbalanced or stacked lines in order to keep hammering the ball downfield and creating more space. That in turn helped six-man football gain the reputation of being able to play very quickly.
Given so much room to maneuver, mobile quarterbacks would dominate, so Epler required at least one exchange — maybe a handoff or pitch — before the ball could be carried across the line. No such restrictions were placed on passes. Regardless, the amount of open space often results in plays that appear to be stopped for short gains turning into long touchdown runs when a ball carrier eludes a tackle and reverses to the unoccupied side of the field.
The offensive play count for a six-man game is drastically lower than that of an 11-man game. Some 11-man teams will total an offensive play count in the high 60s or low 70s, where a six-man team might have less than 20. That is because a lot of the time, six-man scoring will happen on kickoff returns, punt returns or have one play drives.
Playing defense in six-man consists of a lot of man-to-man coverage. Even though the field is 20 yards shorter, each defender still has a good amount of space to cover. If a running back gets loose then one defender has the responsibility to take him down or it’s six points. In 11-man football, it’s more of a case of each defender covering his assigned area.
Also, 11-man will always play four quarters of football, while six-man will not – often shutting down at halftime. One thing six-man football is known for across the state and the nation are high-scoring games. It is not out of the ordinary for teams to score 50-60 points a game.
Consequently, six-man football also holds a mercy rule where if one side is up by 45 points or more, the game is called at halftime. Coaches and players alike are big fans of the 45-point mercy rule on account of injury prevention and not wanting to get beat by an absurd amount of points.
While six-man and 11-man football may seem further apart than they actually are, the two are to this day playing its part to further promote the game of football in a state that thrives on what happens on the gridiron under the Friday night lights.
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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