High school football is a rite of passage for many young athletes. More than just a game, football is a fall ritual in American sport. But what does a school do if there aren't enough players to field a team?
Meeteetse, Wyo., has a population of 351. It's a small town in a big state. And Meeteetse High School has only 34 students.
Athletic Director Rick Paxton moved here seven years ago, drawn by its small-town feel and proximity to great hunting and wilderness. But when he arrived, he says, it was a town on edge.
"There was a lot of turmoil. There's only so many career opportunities in a small town like Meeteetse," Paxton says. "One of the trends I noticed is we have younger families moving in, but by the time those kids get to high school, those families have moved on. And so you've got all these mixed emotions — almost the midst of a little bit of a depression — and things were kind of going bad."
Things were going bad for the Longhorns, Meeteetse's high school football team, too. With such a small school, coaches were having trouble finding replacements for players who had left the team.
Faced with the prospect of life without football, Meeteetse decided six years ago to stop playing 11-man football and started playing a six-man game instead.
Giving Kids A Chance To Play
Six-man football can come at you fast.
It's played on an 80-yard field instead of the usual 100 yards. With so few players, one broken tackle, one nifty fake by a ball carrier can lead to a score — or sometimes lots of them.
Still, some people in the community didn't like the idea at first. They thought six-man was not real football.
Head Coach Zeb Hagen was one of the skeptical ones.
"My first thought," Hagen says, was "this sounds like backyard football, like flag football. But when you get down to it, the fundamentals are the same. The tackling, the blocking, the throwing, how you carry a football, your football moves — they are all still the same."
The new team size, however, gave the kids a chance to play the game.
Kelly Allen's two sons play for the Longhorns. She says it's more than just football. Saving the high school team was also saving the town.
"You've seen way too many towns, small towns, if they don't have their sports team, the towns dissipate," Allen says. "Even this year, there was a chance we might not have a team, and we had three different families call and say, 'If we do not have football, we'll move our kids to a different town.' "
Bringing The Town Together
There is no six-man league in Wyoming, and so the Longhorns had to join the league in neighboring Montana. Parents like Allen sometimes drive hundreds of miles round trip to watch their sons play.
John Fernandez, the first six-man coach at Meeteetse, says you realize how important high school football is when you travel to these remote rural towns.
"As we're coming in for the football game, on the bus, you can just see all the dust coming from the dirt roads, all those farmers and ranchers coming in to see the football game," Fernandez says.
Paxton says it's been the same at his school.
"What a fantastic thing it's been for our school and our community," Paxton says. "Some of those people who resisted at first and said, 'Nah it's not real football, it's not 11-man football' — well most of those people are saying what a great thing this has been."
Everybody Gets To Play
Fielding even a six-man team can be a challenge for a school with only 34 students.
Coach Hagen is constantly on the lookout for new players. He had to scramble to find enough boys for this year's varsity team.
When exchange student Caio Oliveda arrived in town from his home in Sao Paolo, Brazil, he was persuaded to play football, a sport he knew nothing about. Now he really likes it — especially the hitting.
"Usually people are saying, 'Don't hit your friends,' " Oliveda says. "And here they just say, 'Hit the guy!' That's cool."
The only thing he doesn't like, he says, is getting hurt.
On a long bus ride home from a recent game in Bridger, Mont., where the Longhorns lost their last game of the season, 66-12, Oliveda's teammate Blaise Allen sat in the dark with his leg wrapped and an ice pack on his aching knee.
He dislocated it, a recurring problem during this season, but he never thought about quitting, he says. Allen was recruited before the season began by other guys on the team and Coach Hagen, even though he hadn't played football since middle school.
"I found out there were very few players, and if I didn't play, they might close it down. I knew that's not what anyone from Meeteetse wanted. So, I decided to try it, and it was well worth it," Allen says.
Largely because of Meeteetse's experience, Wyoming has decided to start up a six-man league of its own. So the Longhorn's homecoming from Montana this October night is going to be permanent.