The Friday night lights may reignite in a number of small Arkansas towns this fall.
In rural towns such as Decatur, Augusta and Hermitage, football coaches recruit and often beg students to play to have enough bodies for an 11-man team.
Augusta, once a powerhouse in Class 2A football with multiple state titles, canceled its season last year because of low numbers.
Decatur went back and forth before deciding to continue with a team after a new coaching staff literally drove up and down the streets of the town to find players. Then with just a few games left in the season, the Bulldogs were forced to shut the program down when numbers became too low to safely field a team.
It was the same story at Hermitage.
"We've constantly struggled to keep numbers up," Decatur Superintendent Jeff Gravette said. "Last season, when we got down to 14 healthy players, we didn't have any other choice. Just from a student safety perspective, you can't put those kids out there."
With enrollment declining at a number of small schools across the state, several superintendents got together this spring to explore options to keep football alive at their schools. Gravette, who has been the superintendent for four years at Decatur, created a Google survey and put together a listing of 70 schools in the state based on their average daily enrollment numbers to gauge interest in creating an eight-man football division.
Gravette's survey was a straightforward, three-question email. Of the 70 he sent out, he estimates about 35 were returned. More than half of those expressed an interest in eight-man football.
"With the 12-14 we have, we could split the state into two conferences this fall and play six to seven games this fall," he said.
The Arkansas Activities Association will meet with the interested schools today in Little Rock. The group is proposing to use the 2018-2020 reclassification alignment cycle to offer eight-man football as a club sport. The AAA reclassifies schools across the state every two years.
"I'm excited to explore the opportunity for eight-man football in Arkansas," said Steve Roberts, AAA associate executive director. "We have a large number of schools where football has been a large part of the fabric of their community, and every year it's a question of whether they are going to be able to play football or not.
"Because this will be a club sport, there won't be a whole lot of AAA involvement other than to lend a hand to help organize and get it started for this year, then maybe in the next cycle we'll have enough teams to make it work."
'Town rolls out'
Many rural schools in the state played eight-man football until 1965. The last full-fledged eight-man conference was the 1-B Conference, which included Gravette, Decatur, Pea Ridge, Prairie Grove, Greenland, West Fork, Mountainburg, Gentry and Lincoln.
A handful of schools in Arkansas still play eight-man football. Two of those are private schools in Bryant and Fort Smith. Arkansas Christian Academy in Bryant won six games last season. Union Christian Academy in Fort Smith, a longtime member of the AAA, left last season and joined the Oklahoma Christian Schools Athletic Association, where it fields an eight-man team.
Dudley Hume, the Woodlawn superintendent, watched his high school baseball team win a state championship in Baum Stadium earlier this month. Woodlawn is another school that has struggled to have enough players to compete in 11-man football. The district didn't finish the season in 2017 when numbers became too low.
Hume is familiar with eight-man football after serving for more than 30 years as a school administrator and coach in Oklahoma, where there are more than 80 schools that compete in eight-man football.
"If you've never been around eight-man football, it is exciting," Hume said. "And the smaller guys can play. A 260-pound player can do OK, but the 160-pound players really excel. It's such a fast game, high scoring. Those games can be 65-50 in no time."
The rules for eight-man football are basically the same as for 11-man. The only real difference is the size of the playing field, which is slightly smaller than a regulation field. And there are three fewer players on each side of the ball, creating more open space on the field.
Hume said Woodlawn is among the schools ready to make the move now, and he is confident the AAA will adopt it as a regular division in 2020.
"When the AAA sees how many more new schools they will pick up, and that it's going to generate more money and more activities and get more kids involved in football in the state of Arkansas, they're going to find out it can be a win-win situation all the way around," he said. "They'll also find out that little towns like ours, when they play in championship games, the whole town rolls out."
Even mighty programs are struggling as schools such as Barton, McCrory, Hughes and others have been forced in recent years to the sidelines because of low numbers.
Steven Meek is the high school principal and football coach at Clarendon. He said the school will move forward with its 11-man team this fall, but low numbers in a couple of incoming classes could end the football program.
"Our kids that are in eighth grade, going to be ninth-graders, there are 25 kids total," Meek said. "And the kids that are going to be seventh-graders, there are 22. So that's two consecutive years where the numbers are not there.
"We're going to go to the meeting and listen. This cycle we are probably going to be OK, but just with our enrollment down the road, we're probably going to have to do something if we want football to survive at our school."
Meek said the junior high teams at Clarendon likely would play an eight-man schedule this season and next while the school ponders the possible move in the near future.
Administrators at schools that have been traditionally successful at the 11-man level are facing the realization that to have football, this may be their only option, Meek said.
"We hate to see the sport die because you have a lot of old-timers and people in town who still want it to be successful and have it and the values it teaches kids," he said. "So you're kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. You keep it, and it becomes a safety issue, or you kill it and it destroys your school and community."
Ready to move
Augusta has joined Decatur as a program headed to eight-man football this fall. Augusta explored the possibility of joining an eight-man league in Mississippi after having to cancel its season in 2017, said Superintendent Cathy Tanner.
Tanner said she has received positive feedback from the AAA that it will support the move.
"I think it is time for eight-man football in Arkansas because the states around us have been playing it for many years," she said. "Nothing brings a town together like a Friday night football game. And when your numbers are decreasing and the history is so strong in Augusta for football, it's hard. It's something that we all love to watch and love to be there on Friday nights, and I did not want my kids to lose out on that simply because we are a very small school."
Tanner said a number of students transferred to nearby schools to play football when Augusta shelved its season last fall.
"You can't hold that against them if they want to play football and you can't give them that," she said. "Our kids want to be Augusta Red Devils, and we are going to do whatever we have to to make that happen."
Sports on 05/30/2018
What is eight-man football?
It’s usually played by high schools with smaller enrollments on a slightly smaller playing field than the 11-man teams. The field dimensions are 40 yards wide but usually still 100 yards in length, although in some states the field length is reduced to 80 yards. The width of the field for 11-man is 53 yards. Other than the size of the playing field, the rules for eight-man generally are the same as for 11-man with just a few exceptions, like major penalties are 10 yards and not 15. There are also some point-after-touchdown differences.
There are an estimated 1,100 schools in the U.S. that play eight-man football in 30 states. Some of the states that offer eight-man include Oklahoma, Mississippi, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Tennessee.
Notable eight-man alumni
There are a number of former eight-man football players who have excelled at the collegiate and professional level. Among the more notable ones include:
• Dan Bailey: The Dallas Cowboys kicker played at Southwest Covenant School in Oklahoma and was an all-state kicker and punter. He won the Lou Groza Award in 2010 as nation’s top collegiate kicker at Oklahoma State and has been the Cowboys kicker since 2011.
• Rashaan Salaam: The 1994 Heisman Trophy winner from Colorado was a running back in the NFL for the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns. Salaam played 8-man football in California.
• Josh Brown: The former placekicker for the New York Giants, He played collegiately at Nebraska and played 8-man football at Foyil, Okla.
• Nolan Cromwell: An All-Pro safety for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1970s from Kansas.
Source: Staff report
Print Headline: Small schools give 8-man football look