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IT'S STEPHEN EPLER THEY ALL HAVE TO BLAME—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. He served as president of four colleges, but everybody remembers him as the guy who invented six-man football. "I was just out of college," Epler explains. " 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. 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 1934, 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 in little nowhere towns across the country. Over the next decade thousands of schools would field six-man teams, and the game continues to thrive because small towns have found in these teams a repository for 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.
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. "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, a town about nine miles from Gordon.
IT'S EARLY AFTERNOON NOW, AND THE ZEPHYR boys pile into a yellow school bus and commence the 110-mile journey to Gordon, with Bufe behind the wheel. Accompanying the bus is a pickup truck, its bed packed with helmets, shoulder pads and other gear. Most of the boys have cotton mouth and fluttering stomachs that nothing but a little physical contact can cure. An uncertain fate awaits them at the end of this road, and here is the lesson: Life is hard, but not compared to six-man.
With a population of 516, Gordon is more than twice the size of Zephyr. Gordon doesn't have a red light either, but it does have street signs, a dry-goods store, a grocery, a video store, a fire hall, a post office, a Ford dealership, a filling station, a bank branch, a barbershop, a hardware store, three churches and a dominoes hall. Gordon—with its vital little business district and its proximity to Fort Worth—is prospering compared with Zephyr.
While the Bulldogs are journeying over vast stretches of mesquite-choked terrain, a pep rally begins in the WPA-era gymnasium at Gordon High.
For the Gordon football team, what's happening in that gym is proof that all those miserable hours of pumping iron and driving the two-man sled and running wind sprints were worth it. You hear the applause and see the crowd come to its feet, and it's almost as nice as being kissed for the first time. Both the Longhorns and the Shorthorns—the name for Gordon's junior high six-man team—run out and circle the shiny pine floor before taking seats in the bleachers.
Two groups entertain the student body: the cheerleaders, led by Stacie Crain, and the drill team, with Terra Golden in front. Gordon High is too small to have a band, so the girls dance to canned music from a boom box, and nobody trips and falls, and this delights Terra to no end. She couldn't sleep the night before in fear of just such an accident. "If I fell, I'd just lay there on the floor and cry," she says. "We're supposed to get right back up, but I don't think I could."
Eventually the pep rally ends, and everybody but the coaches goes home. The coaches head out to the field and hit the fire-ant mounds with another lick of spray. "When those fire ants bite you, they leave a little blister," says Nelson Campbell, Gordon's head coach and a star on the school's 1967 championship team.