RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
High school football is winding down at this time of year from the big football schools to the ones that don't have enough players for traditional 11-man teams.
(Soundbite of Meeteetse High football team applauding and shouting)
MONTAGNE: That's the boys' varsity football team from Meeteetse, Wyoming, all 10 of them. Since 2002, Meeteetse High has played six-man football. For decades, the six-man game has given small schools and their small towns a chance to experience a full ritual in American sport. NPR's Tom Goldman traveled to the town, population 351.
TOM GOLDMAN: They're known as the Meeteetse Longhorns, but the six-man football team may as well be called the Vagabonds. When the decision was made at Meeteetse seven years ago to switch from 11-man to six-man or face life without football, there was one little hiccup in the plan. Wyoming didn't have a six-man league. So Meeteetse joined a league in neighboring Montana where the locals have been neighborly, at least off the field.
(Soundbite of football game between the Bridger Scouts and the Meeteetse Longhorns)
Unidentified Announcer: Touchdown.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
GOLDMAN: On a chilly October night in Bridger, Montana, the Bridger Scouts are roughing up the boys from Meeteetse on the field.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
Unidentified Announcer: Touchdown.
GOLDMAN: Six-man football can come at you fast. It's played on an 80-yard instead of 100-yard field. With so few players, one broken tackle, one nifty fake by a ball carrier can lead to a score, sometimes lots of them. Eight seconds into the game, the Bridger Scouts led Meeteetse eight to nothing. A minute later, it was 14 to nothing. Another minute, 20 to nothing. You get the picture. Kelly Allen came to Bridger to cheer her two sons who play for Meeteetse. Most of the time, she was doing this.
Ms. KELLY ALLEN: Oh shoot. Darn. Get him.
GOLDMAN: A tough night for a parent, but there was never a question that Allen and her husband would make the 240-mile round-trip drive to support Meeteetse football.
Ms. ALLEN: Even this year, we were - 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 will move our kids to a different town. You've seen way too many towns, small towns, if they don't have their sports teams, the towns dissipate.
GOLDMAN: So are we looking at downtown Meeteetse?
Mr. RICK PAXTON (Athletic Director, Meeteetse High School): Yes, we are. Basically one block. We've got the Elkhorn Bar and Grill, we have Lucille's Cafe, we have the Outlaw Cafe and Bar. And that's pretty much it.
GOLDMAN: I'm standing on State Street with 38-year-old Rick Paxton.
Mr. PAXTON: I'm the Meeteetse High School activity director, I'm the head high school boys' basketball coach, and I teach physical education K through 12.
GOLDMAN: Paxton is working his dream job and living in his dream town. Long ago, he targeted Meeteetse for its small-town feel and proximity to great hunting and wilderness. But when he arrived seven years ago, it was a town, he says, on edge.
Mr. PAXTON: Just a lot of turmoil and a lot of things going on with our community. Part of that was also job-related. You know, there's only so many career opportunities in a small town like Meeteetse, and so you've got all these mixed emotions, almost the midst of just a little bit of a depression and things, kind of, going bad.
GOLDMAN: With the high school football team too. The 11-man team started losing players, so Paxton and a few others embraced the idea of six-man. They lobbied for it in the Montana League and got in. They quickly saw the connection between six-man teams and the local Montana towns.
Mr. JOHN FERNANDEZ (Former Meeteetse High School Football Coach): I remember one time going to Lima. It's up there by Idaho.
GOLDMAN: John Fernandez was the first six-man coach at Meeteetse.
Mr. FERNANDEZ: And as we're coming in for the football game on the bus, you can just see all the dust coming in from the dirt roads and all those farmers and ranchers coming in to the football game.
GOLDMAN: Six-man football as a rallying point in Meeteetse finally happened in 2006. That's when the Longhorns made a memorable run to the semifinals of the Montana state tournament where they lost to the eventual champions from Highwood. Rick Paxton.
Mr. PAXTON: People that probably hadn't been getting along all that well, talking, saying, hey, how about those Longhorns? How about our boys? Do you think they have a chance of beating Highwood this weekend? And just forgetting some of the little petty things that had been bugging us and realizing that we're like a family.
(Soundbite of football game)
GOLDMAN: Six kids, ages eight to ten, play pick-up football on the Meeteetse High School field. Their heroes, they say, are current and former Meeteetse six-man players. Six-man is what these kids aspire to. For those critics who say it isn't real football, that it's some sort of benign backyard flag football game, try lining up against nine-year-old Colton Curtis(ph).
Mr. COLTON CURTIS: If you're not bleeding, you're not playing.
GOLDMAN: Who says that?
Mr. CURTIS: Me.
GOLDMAN: For how long have you had that philosophy about football?
Mr. CURTIS: From when I was four.
GOLDMAN: If Colton is the future of Meeteetse six-man, Brazilian exchange student Caio Oliveda is the present. With 34 students in the high school this year, pickings were pretty slim. So as soon as Oliveda arrived from his home in Sao Paolo, he was persuaded to play football. He knew nothing about the sport, but now he really likes it, especially the hitting.
Mr. CAIO OLIVEDA (Brazilian Exchange Student, Meeteetse High School): Usually people are saying, don't hit your friends, or whatever. And here they just say, hit the guy. That's cool.
GOLDMAN: And what don't you like about it?
Mr. OLIVEDA: I get hurt.
GOLDMAN: Not as badly as his teammate, Blaise Allen. On the long bus ride back from Bridger where the Longhorns finally lost that game 66-12, Allen sat in the dark with his leg wrapped and an ice pack on his aching knee. He dislocated it, a recurring problem during the season. But he never thought about quitting. He'd been recruited before the season by other guys on the team and the head coach. Allen hadn't played football since middle school.
Mr. BLAISE ALLEN (Football Player, Meeteetse High School): I found out there's very few players and that if I didn't play that 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.
GOLDMAN: And it promises to be even better, largely because of Meeteetse's experience. Wyoming has decided to start up a six-man league in the state next year. So, the Longhorns' homecoming from Montana that October night will be permanent. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You can take a look at Meeteetse's football team in action at our Web site, npr.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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