The football field at Hanston High is beautiful at sunset. It's out on the prairie in southwest Kansas, surrounded by wheat fields and small-town dreams. In the sun's dying rays the redbrick gymnasium, the water tower behind the school, and the nearby grain elevators all glow from the same palette. � Jerry Slaton, coach of the school's eight-man football team, has seen a lot of those sunsets. He drove into Hanston for the first time in 1976, and if he had blinked, he might have missed it. ("I knew it was gonna be a docile town," he says, "because I seen a dog chasin' a cat, and they were both walkin'.") A two-man blocking sled, four tackling dummies and the prairie are pretty much the extent of his program's fixed assets. His school has an enrollment of 65, and his team rarely has more than 25 players, from freshman to senior. Fourteen junior-high boys practiced with last year's team, but at about 90 pounds each, they didn't see game action. "Four of 'em all together," Slaton cracks, "wouldn't make a human being."
Hanston High, lest you get the wrong idea, is no football backwater. The Elks have won the Kansas Eight-Man Division II championship three times in the last four years, and Slaton has taken his team to the title game seven times since 1990. Kansas eight-man has a mercy rule—at any time after the half, a 45-point lead wins the game. The 2001 Elks were so good that they didn't play a fourth quarter until the title game.
Big-city folks may smirk, but you have to admire a scheme that allows a burg like Hanston—a town so small that there's no room for a speed trap—to fancy itself a football juggernaut. This month Hanston will try to repeat as the champion of Division II, which comprises schools with an enrollment of between 30 and 64 students in grades nine through 11. The title game will be played on Nov. 22 at Russell High, also the site of the final in Division I (schools with an enrollment of between 65 and 95).
Eight-man football is a small-town phenomenon, and Kansas, with scores of tank towns spread across a 410-mile-wide swath of gently rolling hills, is a small-town state. "The center of the eight-man universe is in Hodgeman County in southwest Kansas," brags a Kansan in an Internet posting. "You could watch a close game between two crappy teams...but unless you watch Jetmore [a Division II power] or Hanston, you won't know what eight-man football at its finest really looks like."
What it really looks like is America. Drive into a Kansas farm town on a fall day, and you'll see lampposts wrapped in gaudy colors, shop windows covered with authorized graffiti (BLACK ATTACK—ORANGE CRUSH!) and pickup trucks decorated like parade floats. "This is our social event of the weekend," says Steve Riedy, athletic director in the central-Kansas town of Hope (pop. 450). "Everybody in town identifies with the high school."
The enrollment at Hope High, grades nine through 12, is 83. In 1982, the last year the school fielded an 11-man team, enrollment had dwindled to the low-50s. Farms were getting bigger. Families were getting smaller. Young people were moving to the cities. "The 1980s were terrible," says Riedy. "We worried about the school's survival." But then a curious thing happened. Struggling merchants and their wives took jobs about 35 miles away, at either the Army base, Fort Riley, or behind the registers at the outlet mall on I-70—but they stayed in Hope. The town refused to die.
Why do people stay? They stay for the sunsets, the sound of crickets in the night...and the Hope Lions. Everybody from the shiest first-grader to the grandma in the John Deere cap knows all the cheers—Lean to the left, lean to the right, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight!—and everyone is schooled in the ritual abuse of the next opponent. ("We're gonna castrate the Elk!" a Hope player shouted at a rally before last year's title game with Hanston. The theme of the rally was "Elk—it's what's for dinner.")
The braggadocio is laughable—everyone in Hope knows their kids would get pounded if they had to play the muscled-up, big-school teams from Wichita, Lawrence or Overland Park—but it satisfies the universal need to aim high. "City people can eat their hearts out," says Hope coach Jeff Hostetter, "because there's nothing like a small town coming together."
Kansas eight-man doesn't look much different from the 11-man game. The field is 80 yards long and 40 yards wide instead of 100 by 53?. The ball is kicked off from the 30. There are five players on the line of scrimmage. Any player on the end of the line is an eligible receiver, as are the three backs. The subtraction of six space-hogging players, however, opens up the field and promotes scoring. The most pleasing difference, if you're a football purist, is the absence of specialty players. The quarterback who throws an interception doesn't trot off the field with his head down. He stays on to play defense—no doubt hoping for a crack at the kid who made him look bad. "You have to be a little more well rounded to play eight-man," says Luke Salmans, who played four seasons for Hanston, including as quarterback and linebacker in 2001. "It's gung ho."
The rhythms of the season are familiar to anyone who has played high school football. Practice begins in the searing heat of August. Regular-season games start in September and course through Indian summer and winter-wheat planting season until the leaves drop and farms and towns turn as gray as wood ash. The season ends with a four-round tournament: 16 teams battle through bidistrict, regional and sub-state playoff games to reach the finals. The games, most of them played under lights on weathered fields, create bright patches on the prairie that can be seen for miles.