As the discussion about the viability of football programs at smaller schools in Wisconsin heats up amidst yet another round of concussion studies and declining participation in programs, a piece on ESPN's SportsCenter caught my eye today.
It's about the 6-player version of football that is keeping tradition alive and well in rural Texas.
We've all heard about how Friday nights in Texas are sacred (you have probably seen a TV show or movie titled Friday Night Lights--that's based on Texas high school football). Growing up and living my entire life in Wisconsin, I don't know that the passion level is any different in the Midwest than it is in Texas for high school football, but that's a debate for another day.
The piece caught my eye because this year, I worked on some features for a few of the area 8-player football teams, such as the very successful program right here in Madison at Abundant Life/St. Ambrose and the upstart program at Wisconsin Heights. Two schools with vastly different circumstances have embraced the 8-player game as a means to offer another avenue in which their student-athletes can compete at a high level in a sport they care about. Any coach in the 8-player game, or any coach who has been in a situation where the 8-player game has been introduced as a way to keep a football program alive despite declining enrollments and participation in rural Wisconsin, has had nothing but positives to say about the sport.
Proponents of the sport tell me over and over: It's football. There are fewer players, and a smaller field, but it's football, once you get over those two facts. For small, rural communities, it's the only way in some cases to keep a football program going when participation numbers are low. Not only is it a matter of practicality, but it's also due in large part to player safety.
I mentioned the studies on CTE that were recently released. Concussions are a major issue in the sport. That's why, for schools with participation numbers into the teens (or even single digits), an 8-player option is usually a much-discussed solution in order to protect those few players.
The reasoning is simple. Why would a program line up 14-year-old freshmen against more developed 17- and 18-year-old seniors and expect success? There are greater risks with players who are not developed, physically or mentally, to step onto the field with players who are years ahead in development and experience. Unlike in college, where men and women compete at a high level, of which the athletic pool is comprised of the very best athletes, the difference between freshmen and seniors at the high school level is a much larger, and much different, factor.
I have never played 8-player football, outside of games in the park with the neighbors for fun during the summer as a kid. I was fortunate enough to grow up in two different small communities that had enough support and participation to offer the traditional 11-player football. The town I grew up in, Cadott, was one of the first schools in Wisconsin to infamously cancel an entire season a few years ago, only two weeks in, due to injuries and low numbers. The team had virtually no chance of competing in most of their games in a rugged Cloverbelt Conference, with low numbers requiring freshmen to step in for their fallen teammates. A JV squad was a laughable idea.
Only a generation prior, I was a freshman on a team that went undefeated and won the state championship at Cadott. We had enough players to field the best varsity program in the state for a school our size, plus a JV team and a freshman team. All this for a school competing in Division 4 at the time, and a program that had little success prior or since in terms of wins and losses. The ebbs and flows of population in a small town can mean the difference between hoisting the gold ball at the end of the year, or calling it a season in the second week.
This year, low numbers have forced some programs to co-op, play in 8-player, or cancel their season before practice even began. Low participation will always be a factor in a small town, which makes it all the more impressive when a small school can reel off decades of competitive, championship-winning teams. The pool for finding two or three dozen successful student athletes doesn't exist some years. At some schools, finding two dozen bodies to run a full scrimmage is a challenge, and when a program can't field its own scrimmages, it's time to take action.
Whether fear of concussions, sport specialization, competing academic or athletic programs in the fall, lack of program success historically, declining or inconsistent enrollments, or those factors combined or even other reasons not mentioned, the fact is, 8-player football is around to stay, most likely. The other school I played for, Flambeau, still operates an 11-player squad. However, many of their old Lakeland foes, in which we participated in some absolute battles, are now operating in the 8-player division. That's why I have reached out to talk to the coaches and administrators at schools with 8-player programs, to get their thoughts.
Wisconsin Heights football coach Jeff Supernaw was one of the first coaches I talked to upon my move to Madison last year. I was intrigued by the school's decision to move to 8-player football before last season, and in the two years I've interviewed coach Supernaw, he has cited player safety as the number one reason to play 8-player football.
"The biggest positive for Heights is that it allowed us to play juniors and seniors at the varsity level with underclassmen contributing when they were ready, as a varsity program should be," said Supernaw. "We no longer have to rely on underclassmen to make the jump to varsity football. Not only does this show in the win/loss column, but our as a safety issue, we aren't throwing underclassmen who may not be ready physically or mentally ready onto a field against experienced upperclassmen."
In the preview I did for the team this season, Supernaw told me that the experience of the first year with 8-player football was fun, competitive, and a learning experience. Once you get over the three fewer players per side and the slightly smaller field, it's football through and through.
While Wisconsin Heights made the switch last year, Abundant Life/St. Ambrose was the only undefeated program in the state in 8-player football last year. They'll have a new coach this year in Chad Henning, but it's an established 8-player program that produced one of the state's best players last year in Obi Iwuagwu and has one of the state's best returning quarterbacks in underclassman Mike Rhatican.
One of the knocks by the people who believe 11-player is the only "real" football is that there is a talent disparity in the 8-player level; that you can't gauge how good a player is because the competition isn't up to par. While I could pound the keyboard for a few paragraphs about why that's right or wrong (11-player has teams that struggle to compete with other teams as well), the positive aspect of this is that, much like the NFL finding small-school stars in football during the draft or rookie free agency, talented players in 8-player football will also be found.
Coach Henning cited several examples of players who are competing at the college level after playing 8-player football in high school, including a few right in the state. The point being: If you're good at football, you will have every opportunity to compete at the next level. Even if you're not, you have the opportunity to compete at a high level in high school, where the vast majority of athletes will complete their organized athletic careers.
That brings me to my final point of viability for the 8-player game. The sport is getting organized. Next season, the WIAA will host an eight-team tournament for the first time in 8-player football. With over two dozen programs competing at the level, a tournament should make it easier for schools walking the line between 11-player and 8-player football to decide if they want to join the pool of teams that already made the switch. The WIAA has offered to expand the tournament to 16 teams once a certain state-wide participation threshold has been met.
Now more than ever, parents have access to information, both good and bad, to make a decision about what sports or extra-curricular activities their children participate in. While clickbait headlines get passed around Facebook as this generation's version of chain mail, and only the loudest, most ignorant voices herald a looming death knell for the great sport of football, there are treasure troves of medical science, smart and compassionate football coaches, and parents of successful student-athletes to reference in regards to the safety of the sport. That is why 8-player football should thrive, and will thrive: It's a clear acknowledgement of ensuring only the safest conditions of participation in the sport, without the risk of forcing 14-year-old freshmen to get ground into the turf by players three or four years their senior. Those freshmen invariably get hurt, or get discouraged by their lack of success and quit.
If Texas can make 6-player football happen, there's no reason why 8-player football can't succeed in Wisconsin as well. After all, as several coaches at the level have told me, one of the most fun aspects of the 8-player game is that it holds individuals more accountable for their assignments, and therefore more accountable to their teammates, because there is no safety net behind them. That's exactly what sport teaches us and why it remains an important part of culture today. Do your job, work as a team, overcome adversity, and find success, even if it's not in the W column.
-- Jimmie Kaska @jimmiekaska