My pal Longboard Larry is something of a six-man football aficionado. He writes a blog about the game and has a coffee-table work featuring his photography in the works. Still, I’ve long resisted his invites to take in a game.
“Six-man football,” I’d tell him. “That kinda sounds like a fancied up sandlot game.”
This fall there’s a pretty fair six-man team down the road from the Wyoming college where I teach. Meeteetse High School is one of the favorites to win the state title this year, so I joined Larry for a game.
Sandlot or not, the wide-open spectacle of six-man football rocks. It’s kind of like watching a couple of run-and-gun basketball teams eschew defense in a desperate bid to outscore one another.
The field at Meeteetse is a typical high school facility surrounded by a running track, but that’s where normalcy ends. On the home side a steep hillside rises up from the track, so fans gather at the top of the slope in bleachers or on chairs they bring from home. Everyone sits together in a cozy nose-bleed section, eating chili verde burritos from the snack bar or barbecue carried in from tailgate parties as they watch the boys fight it out down below.
Meeteetse is something of a powerhouse in the six-man ranks. The Longhorns were state champs two years ago, and runners up last season. In addition to the six boys on the field, the school usually has anther 15 or so on the sidelines. That’s a luxury. Last weekend when Meeteetse travelled to face its Big Horn Basin rivals, Ten Sleep, the home team suited up just eight players, and one was a freshman girl who gave up more than 100 pounds to some of her competitors.
I don’t know how Meeteetse puts together that big roster. Like a lot of small towns in the rural west, the shrinking town population tracks the declining number of folks needed to work farms and ranches. The sagebrush plains that surround Meeteetse are filled with little but sage grouse, pronghorn and oil and natural gas wells. The productive Oregon Basin Field is nearby and keeps some in town employed.
The growth of six-man football in Wyoming and Montana tells half the story of what’s happening in the rural West. For instance, Geraldine High School near Great Falls once fielded a competitive eight-man team, but now has to co-op with nearby schools just to get enough bodies to play six-man.
While small towns are drying up the cities boom.
Kalispell’s Class AA Glacier is the only new Montana public high school in recent memory. The story is similar in Wyoming, where there are now more schools playing six-man football than any other classification, yet “Big City” schools in Casper and Gillette keep growing.
It’s the mid-level divisions that are taking it on the chin. There are 39 high schools in Montana’s Class B, the smallest that plays 11-man football. Back in the mid-90s when I worked as a sportswriter in the Bitterroot there were 56.
Not all will lament the loss of small town football, but we can’t afford to ignore to larger story it tells. At Ten Sleep I didn’t just watch a football game, I also watched folks clinging desperately to something worth being desperate about: community. It was homecoming weekend, complete with the kind of pomp one expects when a town of 250 throws a party. The halftime highlight? Mr. Egger was voted the school’s most popular teacher and as a reward got to walk out to the 40-yard line and kiss Lizzy the goat.
I’m not sure what it is about small town sports, but I’ve been a fan since I took that first Bitterroot sportswriting job. Six-man football just helped me rekindle an old flame.