The boys eat biscuits and white gravy and sausage wheels and bacon and hash browns and scrambled eggs and toast and milk and juice, and some of them eyeball the ice-box pie but don't say anything. They are wearing their white game jerseys with maroon lettering, and some already have on their black rubber cleats, even though they still have classes today and the game is 12 hours away.
When breakfast is over they file outside and stand in the parking lot, trying to decide how to feel. The sun has come up, and the bugs have gone quiet, and not one of the boys wants to believe that a kid as big as John Leven can run that fast and hit that hard.
It's Stephen Epler they all have to blame—Stephen Epler, who in 1934 decided that the boys at his school in little Chester, Neb., deserved a chance to play organized football. Epler is 87 now, retired and living in Sacramento. Over a distinguished career he served as president of four colleges, but everybody remembers him as the guy who invented six-man football. It's a fact that leaves him slightly bemused. Sometimes when he answers the phone he's asked to recount the story of how it all began.
"Well, I was 24 years old and just out of college," he says. "Chester is on the Nebraska-Kansas line. There were about 80 students in the high school, half of them boys, most too little to play football. They'd tried 11-man in earlier years and had to give it up because of injuries and lack of students. The kids still wanted to play, so one day I said to my superintendent, 'Why don't we have football here?' He told me all the reasons we didn't, and I blurted out, 'Then why don't we have a team with fewer than 11?' He said, 'O.K., you invent the game, and I'll see that it gets a try.' "
First Epler decided how many players to put on each side of the ball. He chose six because he figured he could count on rounding up the five players who started on the basketball team, all of them good-sized, athletic boys. Also, with six you could put three on the line and three in the backfield. Next he devised a set of rules, most of which still apply today. Six-man is played on a field 80 yards long and 40 yards wide. All players are eligible to receive a forward pass, but the quarterback can't run the ball unless a teammate handles it first. After a touchdown a kicked conversion counts for two points, while a pass or a run is good for only one. (A field goal earns four points.) A team must cover 15 yards for a first down.
Epler says the first six-man game, in '34, featured consolidated Nebraska teams from Chester and Hardy on one side, Belvidere and Alexandria on the other. They played under lights on a college field in Hebron, and the final score was 19-19. About a thousand people showed up to watch, a couple of wire-service reporters among them. The oddball slant of the story appealed to newspaper editors nationwide, and by running an account of the game they helped light a spark at little nowhere towns across the country. In that first year, Epler says, he sent out mimeographed copies of his rules to about 50 schools. Over the next decade thousands of schools would field six-man teams, and around 1954 an eight-man version of football would emerge. Eight-man survives today, but with fewer programs than six-man.
Six-man has been enjoying a resurgence in the heartland because a drop-off in enrollment has forced some schools to change from 11-man to six-man teams and because other schools that did not play football at all have caught six-man fever. Elsewhere the game continues to thrive because small towns have found in these teams a repository for all their hopes and dreams and yearnings. The oil patch might run dry, and the bank might foreclose on the family farm, but the football team isn't going anywhere, not as long as there are a half-dozen young male bodies to suit up. Six-man is the temple where the isolated come together and celebrate their smallness.
On top of that, the game's a hoot and an even greater spectacle to watch than 11-man. With only a handful of defensive players to elude, a speedy back or receiver can break one tackle and be in the clear. Long gainers are the rule rather than the exception. It is not uncommon for six-man teams to trade touchdowns throughout a game. In 1991 Zephyr beat Strawn 92-66. And last year May toppled Sidney to the tune of 90-82 in another Texas matchup. (Four weeks after the Gordon-Zephyr game, a squad from Saskatchewan, Canada, would play in the first international six-man match in history and lose to Gordon 92-24.)
"In six-man the game is never boring," says Terry Pophan of Strawn, a town about nine miles from Gordon. Pophan, a partner in a building-materials company, is a charter member of a group that calls itself Six-Man Central. Each week he and some friends attend as many six-man games as possible, occasionally catching four in three days.
"Something's always happening in six-man," Pophan says, "and everyone is involved. All the boys are receivers, which makes it interesting, since you don't have five guys up front just blocking while somebody's trying to throw the ball. Instead you might have five guys going out and trying to get open for a pass. A lot of people who watch six-man for the first lime and see all the hitting say, 'My gosh. This is wild, and, well, yeah, it is still football, isn't it?' "