- Jeff Miller
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Richland Springs and Cherokee are tiny towns located at opposite ends of Texas' San Saba County on the northern edge of the state's picturesque Hill Country.
The county, which is almost the size of Rhode Island, has a population of about 6,000. Work and play for many residents consist of ranching and hunting. There's room for both among the live oaks, mesquites and cedar trees, though rural towns in the state continue to lose folks who move to the big cities looking for work.
Cherokee and Richland Springs have high school enrollments of fewer than 100 students each, which qualify them to play a hybrid of football that has become a staple in many communities in western and central Texas -- six-man.
Both schools' six-man accomplishments are displayed on large wooden signs erected in front of the schools -- each institution houses kindergarten through 12th grade. Those signs also identify each football program's place in six-man social status.
Richland Springs has won state championships in three of the past four seasons, including 2006 and '07. As of their Oct. 24 win over Rochelle, the Coyotes (two syllables, please; don't pronounce the "e") haven't lost a regular-season game since 2001, and they won a mythical national championship last season.
The sign in front of Cherokee also boasts three state titles, all won during the 1970s. Cherokee is now officially among the smallest of the small, placed in Texas' Division II of six-man football. (In 2006, the governing body of state high school athletics, the University Interscholastic League, ruled that high schools with fewer than 66 students should compete in their own six-man section.) In an unincorporated town of about 175 with one blinking traffic light, Cherokee has 52 high school students. About a third of the enrollment comes from a nearby children's home. The senior class numbers 11.
The Cherokee Indians haven't reached the playoffs in four years, even with the realignment, and opened this season with two losses. But they won the next five, and the five rows of wooden stands that make up the home side of the football field are beginning to fill again under first-year head coach Michael Brand.
Things are going so well that Brand ran out of the little tomahawk helmet decals that he awards for outstanding play.
"I told them before the season they were capable of making the playoffs," said Brand, who was Cherokee's lone assistant coach last season, "and now they're starting to believe it."
At a place like Cherokee, just about everyone does more than one job. Brand also teaches junior high math and elementary school P.E. Sara Thomas is the Indians' mascot and sings the national anthem (without wearing the mascot head, of course). Dixon Seider teaches the computer course, is the yearbook supervisor, runs the press box Friday nights, and provided a fitting Indians proverb during the pep rally held the afternoon before Cherokee's recent 52-16 win over Brookesmith:
"A single arrow is easily broken. But 10 in a bundle are not so easily broken."
Or even six.
There's a saying in Texas that if you weren't born here, you got here as soon as you could. That's pretty much what happened with six-man football. It was the brainchild of a Nebraskan named Stephen Epler, who in 1934 devised a way for boys attending small, rural schools to play football. Six-man reached Texas four years later and is played primarily in rural communities throughout the West and into Canada.
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 (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. PAT kicks are worth two points while running or passing 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 many rosters can reach 20 or more players, there's usually a core of seven or eight who play most of the game on offense and defense.
"You have to be pretty fast, and you've got to have a lot of endurance," said Cherokee sophomore Jesse Perez, in his third year living at the children's home.
Junior Duncan Roberts is a burly outdoors kid who has been hunting since he was 3. At 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, he's the Indians' starting center and also was their leading receiver against Brookesmith with two touchdown catches. Roberts begrudgingly admitted he might have been open a few other times.
Between hiking, blocking and getting open, "There's a lot to remember," Roberts said.
Six-man has built a small but loyal following. Austin resident Granger Huntress began rating six-man teams 15 years ago as part of a graduate program in mathematical statistics and now operates the Web site sixmanfootball.com. Texas author Carlton Stowers followed the team at Penelope for the 2005 book "Where Dreams Die Hard." And Lubbock native Alan Barber recently finished a documentary called "Six Man, Texas" that focuses on Aquilla's unlikely march into the 2000 playoffs
Huntress, who has even been invited to help the UIL hand out championship trophies, said he was first attracted to six-man by the high scoring and the character of the people who played and followed it.
"They took me in, adopted me, because I cared," he said.
Brand immediately experienced the hospitality of the six-man community last summer when he took over the Indians after just one season as the team's assistant coach and a veteran head coach gave him a copy of his playbook.
"Here, take it," the coach told Brand. "Just don't sell it to anyone in my district."
Devotion to the Coyotes covers all age groups in Richland Springs, which has a population of about 350.
Elementary school youngsters recently wrote good luck notes to the team, some of which are posted outside coach Jerry Burkhart's office. The following was written by Bryce:
You are good At Foot ball and I think you can beat them. You are the best and you are the best COYOTES.
Then there's Pearl Cantrell. She turned 100 last March and attends most home games -- though her bronchitis makes it difficult for her to spend much time outside. Since some Coyotes fans like to drive up close to the field in their trucks and watch from there, the school designated one primo parking spot for Cantrell -- reserved with a hand-printed cardboard sign -- and she watches from her car with the windows rolled up. She let a friend take her to last week's game, but said she often makes the drive herself.
The Richland Springs booster club operates a souvenir trailer to keep fans stocked with the latest window stickers, caps and T-shirts ("3 out of 4 looking for more"). Seating on the home side at Coyote Field is coveted, and some fans stake an early claim by placing a blanket or seat cushion in the stands a few hours before kickoff.
In the recent 56-6 victory over Robert Lee, the Coyotes ran up 431 yards on 32 plays to the Steers' 195 on 41.
If the Coyotes feel the pressure of all the state titles and the regular-season winning streak, it doesn't show.
"Every year since 2004, we've had something new, something for the first time," said senior Andrew Fowler, who hopes to study mechanical engineering at either Notre Dame or Texas A&M. "We get used to it."
Junior Haustin Burkhart, son of the coach, is this year's spread back (doing most of the passing) after being a receiver last year. His preference for six-man is stated simply enough: "It's kind of easier. There aren't as many people in your way."
Indeed, 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.
Six-man players don't often play college football. The most fabled six-man product in Texas is Jack Pardee, who played at little Christoval in the early 1950s before starring for Bear Bryant at Texas A&M and playing and coaching in the NFL.
Brian Ford from Calvert currently is a senior linebacker for Stephen F. Austin, a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I AA) program located in eastern Texas. Two members of the Richland Springs championship teams are freshmen at Sul Ross State, a Division III school (no athletic scholarships) located in the Big Bend area of Texas near the Mexican border. One of those two players is Tyler Ethridge, who was the most valuable player in the championship game as a freshman, junior and senior.
Sue Ransom covers Richland Springs for the San Saba News and recently expressed her frustration that Ethridge and Mark Williams aren't playing more for Sul Ross: "They are wasting our gift to the world of football."
Calvert coach Coylin Grimes said his star fullback-linebacker, senior Travis Walker, is attracting the attention of TCU and North Texas.
Texas Tech is the one major college program located in the middle of six-man country. And coach Mike Leach runs a high-flying offense that often looks similar to six-man play. But Leach said it's unlikely he'd seriously consider giving a six-man player a scholarship.
"It's too hard to project them," Leach said. "They might look good, but it's harder to tell if they're playing against a good team or a bad team. You can't tell how they'd do with a lot more players on the field."
Such observations are frustrating to Lyle Campbell, who starred in six-man at Gordon in the late 1990s and became an honorable mention All-Ivy League linebacker at Dartmouth in 2003.
"Football is football," Campbell said. "Blocking. Tackling. If you have football instincts, you'll pick it up."
If moving into college ball remains difficult for six-man alums, Richland Springs coach Burkhart is trying to help the cause at the younger end of the player pool. This fall, he started what might be the first six-man peewee program. It includes fifth-graders and younger in Richland Springs, Cherokee and nearby Lometa and Rochelle. The six-man peewee "Super Bowl" is scheduled for Nov. 8.
Jed Tedder is a Cherokee resident who helps coach the town's peewee flag football team, which tops out with second-graders. He spends a lot of time tying shoelaces, but is proud that the kids have stuck with the program throughout the season.
"Some of these little boys had not ever touched a football. They really take to it," said Tedder, a ranch foreman. "They still come to practice twice a week and show up Saturday mornings for the games."
The future of six-man football is getting an earlier start.
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas.
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