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- The Cash was launderedPeter Gammons | May 02, 1977
I had been cruising the South Platte River valley all morning, keeping an eye out for promising dove-hunting territory. Hugging the wide, cottonwood-filled bottoms as closely as the meager dirt roads allowed, I checked dead trees and snags for birds. A fortuitous left turn over a rickety bridge brought me to a Colorado hamlet of maybe 500 souls. It was an ordinary enough village, but something—maybe the few extra clusters of people here and there, or the kids and dogs all loping in the same direction through the dusty streets—hinted that this was not a run-of-the-mill Saturday.
After a quick lunch I drove through town, away from the main highway, and followed a pair of boys on bikes to a tiny, turn-of-the-century schoolhouse. Behind it, nestled like a bright jewel in the dusty school yard, was a small, well-groomed football field. Around the edges men were placing yard markers and readying equipment. A few early spectators were filing in past the ticket takers, among them two farm women who told me the game was between this school and another 50 miles north that kickoff was at 1:00 and, best of all, that it was six-man.
Serendipity. It's difficult to think of a more endangered species on the American sports landscape than six-man football. Conceived in 1934 by Stephen Epler, a Nebraska high school coach, six-man caught on quickly in small, Depression-drained communities that couldn't muster 11-man teams. Its popularity peaked in the late '40s, when there were teams in hundreds of villages across the nation. A decade later it was fading, and by 1982 the National Federation of State High School Associations Handbook listed only 65 high schools that fielded six-man teams, mostly in the Great Plains states. Even these remnants are variable, depending on the year's enrollment; if they can manage it, many schools go to eight-man.
I dug a jacket out of the trunk and walked back to the field. The first cold front of the fall had moved in the night before, chasing most of the doves out of the region and leaving a chilly gray sky. Cars and pickups were edging in close around one corner of the field; corn waved in fields that came up to within a few feet of the far side and the far end. Six cheerleaders were chanting along one sideline; for whatever reason, the visiting team didn't have any. The hometown squad of 13 was warming up and running through plays. The local quarterback was having trouble with his passes; after each wild off-target throw, you could hear his frustrated shouts of "Gee-aw!"
I had already decided to side with the visitors, 10 boys from a town I knew from several prairie drives, a town in the midst of federal grasslands so high and dry and lonesome that it made you think of distance by the snake-length and luxury as getting in out of the wind; a town that made even this river village seem promising. These were ranchers' sons, whose nightly football practice meant extra work for someone at home.
It was all comfortably familiar. In my home county in Ohio in the early '60s, before the baby-boomers achieved puberty and school consolidation became the rage, six-man was still viable. Those 80 X 40-yard fields are all elementary-school playgrounds by now, or parking lots, but in those days they drew people in pickup trucks from miles around on Saturday afternoons. I remember the crowds—small ones, of course—people gathered in little groups, chatting the way they do on the sidewalk after church. There were sunburned faces you saw only two or three times a year along the sidelines. Almost no one sat; the idea was to saunter along the field, renewing acquaintances.
The coaches always seemed to be men of a special cut—loud, solid and knowing, with enough flair and vocabulary to get the whole operation off the ground and keep it there. Most of those I recall were legendary outdoorsmen, coon hunters or hound trainers, men who knew what to do with their whiskey on autumn nights when the dogs struck a trail. And there were always a few crows and a herd of holsteins grazing just beyond one end zone.
Now the cheerleaders were trying to outshout the South Platte valley wind and they were mostly failing. By kickoff time, there were probably about 150 people standing around. There were two 15-foot bleacher sections of six to eight planks each. In these sat mothers with their infants; the sidelines filled up with men wearing either baseball caps or battered Stetsons. One official was mingling with the crowd; another was tossing a ball in the air and whistling You Are My Sunshine.
It was all in crystalline miniature, but it was football. The spectators were on their feet, then the ball was in the air. It was just one kickoff, but for a split second I felt something like a deep sadness. Six boys, averaging 145 pounds, in a frail huddle under a wide, cold sky bathed in cornfield Main had my hair on end.
Not that the football as played was any more primitive than many small-town 11-man versions. On the contrary, there were moments of classic six-man, those tight covey-bursts of speed and execution that call to mind the best of basketball. Six-man is a sprinter's game of endurance and dazzle; 250-pounders are most useful for carrying equipment to and from the locker rooms.