Most people I spoke to have never seen a six-man football game. In fact, outside the states that play it, many football fans I met weren’t even aware the sport exists. I always knew in order for my book to give a complete picture of Texas High School football, I needed to include a six-man team, but six-man is a different world and it took me a long time to find a team. Chris Koetting, head coach at Canadian High School put me on to the Throckmorton Greyhounds, I contacted Coach Reed and he enthusiastically agreed to it. It turned out to be a great choice.
…As I traveled though Texas, people spoke of the six-man game as though it were some exotic animal, elusive and hard to find.
“I’ve heard about it,” People often said, “Someday before I die, I’d like to see a six-man game.”
There is some truth to the claim that six-man is difficult to find, at least for suburbanites who don’t live in West Texas. The six-man game is played almost exclusively in very small towns, not Abilene small or even Stamford small, but towns that don’t have more than one stoplight–places like Throckmorton, a crossroad of intersecting two-lane highways connecting four slightly larger small towns, with a blinking red light strung up where the two highways meet.
The game itself is also elusive, because it is often over so fast. Defensive coordinator Blayne Davis tells me good defensive stand is forcing the opponent to run five plays to score. More commonly a touchdown drive is two or three plays, and with the 45 point mercy rule, many games are over at the half. During the past two seasons the Greyhounds played a total of nine complete games, with 20 ending early due to the mercy rule.
Downtown Throckmorton sits in a valley at the intersection of State Highway 183 and State Highway 380. The low hills surrounding Thockmorton are covered with thickets of mesquite and prickly pear. North on 380 takes you to Seymour, south to Albany. West on Highway 183 leads to Haskell and east to Newcastle. On one corner is the courthouse with a sign on the lawn proclaiming Throckmorton as the home of Dallas Cowboy great Bob Lilly. The town has two restaurants, two convenience stores, a small grocery and a bar that is open on weekends. Lucky for me there is a motel. The Double T Lodge is not big, the rooms are small, but at least it’s clean and the owners are friendly. Throckmorton High School is a few blocks northwest of the intersection. The elementary and middle schools are steps away; all three schools share the gym and some of the teachers as well, including head football coach Reed.
Six-man football differs from both the 11-man and eight-man game.
· 15 yards are needed for a first down instead of ten.
· Since it’s easier to move the ball on the ground than kick with so few players blocking, the conversions are switched; one point for getting the ball into the end zone from scrimmage, two for kicking it through the uprights.
· All six offensive players are eligible to catch passes and carry the ball. Because this means the whole defense must be in coverage, an exchange is required before the ball carrier can run (No QB sweeps, sneaks or scrambles.) In some versions of six-man offense, the tailback is effectively the quarterback, having the nominal quarterback pitch him the ball, letting the tailback either throw or run.
· The playing field is only 80 yards long and not as wide as the 11-man field with only 13 yards from the hashmark to the sideline.
· The gameplay is different. With so much field for the defense to cover, six eligible receivers and so few defenders, scoring is very quick. Davis tells me that the goal of his defense is to force the offense to run seven plays to score, counting on the offense to make a mistake somewhere along the way.
A well-executed offense will score in this game no matter the quality of the defense. As the best basketball defense gives up baskets from time to time, a six-man football defense gives up some touchdowns. Scores can reach the triple digits and it’s rare for a winning team to score under 50 points. The basketball comparison is apt. Six-man football defense, more than anything, resembles a violent form of basketball zone defense.
There are several consequences of having so much open field. Each defensive player is exposed and can be easily isolated, often creating mismatches where weak defenders can be exploited. With small schools, it’s not unusual to have at least one weak link on defense, giving the superior team a tremendous advantage. Games between a good team and one with weaknesses often quickly become lopsided, so the six-man game has a mercy rule. When a team goes up by 45 points, the game ends. Since the Greyhounds began playing six-man in 2004, as many games have ended early as have gone a full four quarters.
The type of player who does well at this game is often different than one who’s successful at 11-man. This isn’t a game of specialization. Good six-man players must be proficient at all football skills. On offense, everyone must block, catch and carry the ball. On defense, everyone must be able to tackle, shed blockers and drop into coverage. With rosters sometimes in the single digits, very few six-man players only play offense or defense, good players rarely leave the field. The big 200-plus pound linemen of the 11-man game aren’t effective; this version of football favors mid-size players with the endurance and speed to work in the open field. Big players in Throckmorton have an extra incentive to slim down if they want to play this game.