Thursday, November 01, 2007

8 Men Doing The Work Of 11

With graying demographics and in some cases staggering population losses in their communities, many Iowa schools, particularly those in the southern and western reaches of the Hawkeye State, have resurrected eight-man football -- a product of the Great Depression -- to keep their grid-iron programs alive or make more them competitive again.

New to Iowans of more recent vintages this brand of football is something of re-opened history book for many in the Hawkeye State.

In the early 1950s about 100 Iowa high schools played eight-man or six-man football.

But with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the ensuing urgent focus on academics, scores of rural schools consolidated and eight-man football, as well as the six-man format favored in some Iowa schools, survived only in the yellowed newspaper accounts of old games. The game has a rare atmosphere, blending the modern, hectic pace of arena football with a nostalgia for a time when the boys iron-manned it and played both offense and defense.

Bud Legg, the history minded information director for the Iowa High School Athletic Association, says that from the 1960s to the late 1990s eight-man football essentially was extinct in Iowa.

“The charm of it is seeing a community that might not have a chance in an 11-player game and has probably gone through years of losing seasons finally make the change and go into eight-man football and it just grabs the community by the heart,” says Iowa journalist Chuck Offenburger, author of a recently published history of high school sports in Iowa, “Bernie Saggau & The Iowa Boys: The Centennial History of the Iowa High School Athletic Association.”

Many of the Iowa schools now fielding eight-man teams are in smaller western Iowa towns, places like Glidden and Coon Rapids and Exira and in districts such as Ar-We-Va. Many of eight-player teams are west of Interstate 35.

“I think it was just great to bring that game back because, otherwise, we were going to have a bunch of smaller schools that were going to have to give up football,” Offenburger said. “They just could not field squads big enough to maintain an 11-player team. This gives smaller schools an opportunity to continue to have a football program, and you’re seeing in Glidden the positive results of that.”

A high school's choice to move to eight-man football can very much define a community. In 2000 as he campaigned for the presidency former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley visited the western Iowa town of Exira, which to this day has one of the smallest school districts in the state and had recently moved to eight-man football. Legendary reporter Bob Woodward of the Washington Post asked me, a local reporter here in western Iowa, about Exira, what made the town of 700 tick. When I told him the local high school team played eight-man football, he stopped asking questions, said, "great nugget" of information, and used that fact prominently to paint a picture of the campaign stop.

Exira is in Audubon County which, according to the U.S. Census, lost 8 percent of its population from just the year 2000 to 2006. Only 12 percent of people over age 25 have bachelor's degrees in Audubon County, compared with a state average of 21 percent. Nearly a quarter of the population in the county is 65 or older.

When you watch eight-man games as an Iowan age 35 or older you can't help but experience some sadness as the team playing three short on the field often is representing a town with sagging fortunes -- although some smaller communities, like Glidden, in close proximity to regional trade center Carroll have much reason for optimism.

In its return to the eight-man format Iowans only had to look across the Missouri River for guidance.

Nebraska is the birthplace of both eight-man and six-man football. In Nebraska, the eight-man format developed out of Depression-era necessity, said Steve Borer, assist principal at Seward, and a former longtime eight-man football coach at Brady, a town near North Platte and just north of Interstate 80.

He is the co-author of two books on eight-man football — “Eight-man Football: Collection of the Best 1 and 2."

“We’ve been playing it as long as anybody,” Borer said. “Oklahoma could make a claim to it as well as Kansas. When you think of eight-man football you think of Nebraska.”

The sport is also popular in sparsely populated areas of the American West as chronicled in the blog, Small Town High School Football, which features Wyoming and Montana.

Borer said the general reaction from football fans on a national level is a mixture of fascination and contempt.

“I’ve experienced both,” Borer said. “There does seem to be an ugly stepchild aspect to it.”

Some detractors have claimed that, “’Well, if you can’t play 11-man football, you have to play eight-man,’” Borer said. “It’s always derided.”

For his part, Borer counters any snubs or criticisms with the arguments that the eight-man game is both more exciting for the fans and challenging for players.

“It’s really hard to hide somebody who isn’t as good an athlete,” he said. “I think eight-man kids get a little tougher attitudes."

His old school, Brady, printed some shirts with the slogan, “8 men doing the work of 11.”

“That made some 11-man people mad,” Borer joked.

In the eight-man format, teams in Iowa play on an 80-yard field without tackles on the line and with the loss of one skill player.

Borer, the former secretary and treasurer of Nebraska’s eight-man coaches organization, was one of several people from that state to meet with western Iowans about the re-emergence of eight-man games here. He’s also sent materials to professional eight-man teams in New Zealand and youth leagues in Malaysia.

Legg said the eight-man game places a premium on fundamentals.

“Football comes down to blocking and tackling,” he said. “I think the coaching strategy becomes a little more wide open.”

Offenburger, well-known for formerly writing “The Iowa Boy” columns for The Des Moines Register, said in an interview that he’s been to a handful of eight-man contests since the game came back in the late 1990s.

“I love it. I like going to the games,” he said. “They’re exciting and they’re fun.”

Offenburger said he’s somewhat alarmed at some of the lopsided scores. Glidden-Ralston has bettered some opponents by more than 50 points, and just the other night, at a game I covered for my family's paper, The Carroll Daily Times Herald, the Wildcats scored 44 points in the first quarter alone. Glidden won the state 8-man title in 2005.

“I know that that can happen easily, but I think there probably needs to be some tinkering done with that somehow,” Offenburger said.

Borer said he knows of a game in Nebraska in which a team scored 100 points. Glidden-Ralston could have the other night.

“That can become a problem in eight-man football because if you get a mismatch, it can really get ugly,” he said.

In Iowa, if a team goes up on its opponent by 35 points, the clock runs continuously in the second half. Other states have their own “mercy” rules.

But Offenburger and other eight-man football advocates say such concerns are just glitches in a format otherwise filled with positives.

Offenburger said Iowa could capitalize on the charm of eight-man football for tourism as well.

“I think there could be a tremendous promotional campaign launched to attract people to come to these communities and see these games,” Offenburger said. “I think you’d not only get them from out of state. I think you’d get them from all over Iowa.”

He added, “It’s something that could be promoted and turned into a neat experience in those towns that the large schools and the large towns can’t compete with right now.”

There’s that nostalgic air about eight-man football that just isn’t there with the more popular 11-man brand, say some observers of the sport.

As an example, Legg said eight-man football may hold a special place in some Iowans’ hearts for a different reason: the memory of six-on-six girls basketball.

“I don’t want to make the comparison with girls six-on-six basketball,” Legg said. “But in many respects there is a comparison.”

This story is cross-posted at Iowa

Photo is courtesy of Carroll Daily Times Herald photographer Jeff Storjohann.


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