Invented in 1934 by Stephen Epler, a Chester, Nebraska, teacher who wanted students at small high schools to experience playing football, six-man football is a special Plains phenomenon. After envisioning a modified version of traditional football, Epler spent the summer of 1934 at the University of Nebraska developing his ideas in a project for a summer graduate education course. The first game was played in Hebron, Nebraska, on September 26, 1934, before more than 1,000 fans. In the only six-man game that year, players from Chester and nearby Hardy lined up against boys from Alexandria and Belvidere high schools, resulting in a 19 to 19 tie. The next year uniforms and equipment were purchased for several six-man teams, and enough schools decided to take on this new Plains sport to form a league.
At its height in 1951, six-man football was played in 2,463 schools in forty-eight states. Plains states claimed five of the top ten, with Nebraska second at 167, Texas third at 163, North Dakota sixth at 120, Montana eighth at 85, and South Dakota ninth at 83 schools. In 1997 only 158 schools in seven states (six of them Plains states) fielded six-man football teams: Texas (90), Nebraska (21), Colorado (17), Montana (14), New Mexico (12), Kansas (2), and California (2). With increasing pressure on smaller schools to consolidate, fewer and fewer six-man football teams will be organized. For example, after the 1997 season Nebraska lost seven teams, leaving only fourteen; 1998 marked the last year for the sport in a high school tournament, because future school consolidations will reduce the number below a critical mass necessary for a legitimate play-off system.
Six-man football is different in several ways from eleven- and eight-man football. Perhaps the most colorful rule–one that has resulted in at least two distinctive Plains phrases–is that if an opponent achieves a lead of fortyfive points or more in the second half, the game is called. In Texas, this is the slaughter rule, and so "to be slaughtered" takes on a new meaning. In Nebraska small towns, local expressions include "to be forty-fived," which is a phrase residents hope will never be said about their team. Other noteworthy differences in this high-scoring game include a first down requiring advancing the ball fifteen rather than ten yards; the six-man field being 80 (not 100) yards long; all players being eligible for a pass, which can make even the center a "skill" position; and the quarterback having to lateral the ball in order for the offense to advance the ball (since 1998 the quarterback is also able to make a handoff). Scoring is also distinctive. Because preventing a kick from being blocked is very difficult, a successful field goal counts four points in six-man football, and a kick after a touchdown counts two points, while an extra point scored by a pass or run is only one point. Since size, speed, agility, and finesse are as important for successful six-man football players as they are for eleven- and eight-man team members, these teams have produced players who have gone on to star in college football programs and even professional leagues.
In 1993 a Wall Street Journal reporter visited several small towns in West Texas and described a Friday night six-man football game in Amherst, a Last Picture Show kind of town. At the time the reporter thought that the game's popularity was making a comeback, but that observation seemed premature in the late 1990s. Much more accurate was his notion that six-man football boosts the spirit of small Plains communities.
See also EDUCATION: School Consolidation and Reorganization.
Peter Maslowski University of Nebraska-Lincoln John R. Wunder University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Ingersoll, Bruce. "You Might Call This Football Lite, but It Keeps a Ritual Alive." Wall Street Journal, December 3, 1993.
Secter, Bob. "A Revival of Six-Man Football." Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1991.