"Six-man distinguishes itself from 11-man in that it's a game where a little guy can be successful," says Wendell Bradley, the coach at Strawn. "Guys like that kid John Leven at Gordon are the exception rather than the rule. Most guys that big are too slow. In six-man you tell the fat boys to go to the sideline, and you play with the skill people. It's all about speed and quickness."
"You'd be amazed at the size of some of the kids who've been all-state," says Doug Hopkins, a member of Six-Man Central. "I remember, not many years ago, a kid from Guthrie was 5'4" and 130 pounds, and he made second team all-state. That sonofagun was hard to tackle—little tiny fella, ran straight ahead."
In Texas six-man is popular enough to have spawned a couple of publications dedicated to covering the games, ranking the teams and anointing the stars. Joe Nash and Tommy Wells of Ranger put out an annual called Six-Man Illustrated and advertise it as "North America's only international six-man magazine," whose mission is "to preach the word of six-man football." Nash and Wells show up at games wearing shirts made to resemble the U.S. flag, and they confess that six-man changed their lives. Wells met his wife at the first six-man game he ever saw, and Nash says six-man is practically all he thinks about, day and night. "I've been married 10 years, and I do love my wife," he says, "but you know how you hear about love at first sight? Well, I gotta admit it, six-man was like that for me."
Although the passion these men feel for the game might run to the extreme, to love six-man is to love a way of life that other places in this country have outgrown or discarded. Six-man celebrates an America that didn't die with the social revolutions of the 1960s but hid out in forgotten little towns in big spaces, waiting for Friday night.
"People generally have two opinions of small towns," says Granger Huntress of San Antonio, who publishes The Huntress Report, a weekly newsletter devoted to the game. "They either think small towns are innocent and pure and wonderful, which is my view, or they think they're ignorant, mean and backward. But go to any six-man town, and what you'll find there is wonderful. All that talk from politicians about family values? They're wherever six-man is played."
Wonderful, too, are the names of the towns, some of them too little for the map, enduring like a secret: Groom and Rule and Ropesville and Ira and Ackerly and Loop and Paint Rock and Star and Buckholts and Cranfills Gap and Blum and Fruitvale and New Home and Maple. The schools in these towns are "the heart and soul of the community," says Phil Watts, owner of KXYL, a Brownwood radio station that broadcasts six-man games. "Everything revolves around them, economically and socially. And so at this time of year the football team becomes the heart and soul of the town. Everybody goes to the games."
Jack Pardee is the most famous name to break out of the six-man orbit, and his high school career ended 44 years ago. He came from the West Texas town of Christoval, just south of San Angelo, and went on to star at Texas A&M and to play and coach in the NFL. "I was hit as hard in six-man as I was ever hit—college or pro," Pardee once told USA Today.
However, few six-man players ever advance to major college ball. Just last year a running back named Raul (Petey) Salaiz finished a historic career at Mullin (Texas) High, where he rushed for 10,468 yards, the second-highest total ever by a U.S. schoolboy. Salaiz received a handful of letters from Division I-A colleges, but alas, none offered a scholarship.
"Kids in six-man don't get scholarships because college coaches can go to bigger schools and pick kids of the same size and ability who've already been exposed to 11-man programs," says Bradley, the Strawn coach. "The six-man kids just don't get the recognition they deserve, no matter how good they are."
The folks in Zephyr can't remember their last football player to receive a free ride to play major college ball, but those in Gordon remember theirs: He was Nelson Campbell, the coach and principal at the high school. In 1967 Campbell led the Gordon Longhorns to victory in the six-man regional championship, the furthest a school could advance back then. Texas Christian and Southern Methodist came calling, and recruiters from both universities took Campbell to a restaurant for a steak dinner, hoping to cast a spell. Campbell chose Texas Christian, but he never got much respect there.