A “small” high school football problem has led to a growing solution, thanks to a “new” twist to the old sport.
From humble beginnings, eight-man football has gained traction throughout the state of Illinois as a viable alternative for enrollment-dropping, roster-challenged programs.
And the Illinois High School Association is taking notice. As are a few area programs.
North Fulton and the Lowpoint-Washburn co-op have joined a group that has grown from six teams in 2018 to 16 this season. Peoria Heights is set to play the emerging sport in 2020.
While some version of non 11-man football has been played in other states for more than 80 years, it’s new to Illinois — thanks to the efforts of Alden-Hebron coach John Lalor.
Lalor led the Giants to the playoffs 12 of 13 years from 2003 to 2015, but his roster continued to dwindle as enrollment lowered and concussion concerns heightened.
“I saw where we were with our numbers, and I saw some of the other schools up here,” he said. “I looked at us, and I said in order for us to save our football program we’re either going to have to find a bigger co-op or we’re going to have to come up with something different.”
He chose something different.
Having seen eight-man work with other schools on the varsity and junior varsity level, Lalor approached his school board with the idea. The board agreed and Alden-Hebron began an eight-man schedule with 16 players in 2016. They finished 3-6, playing some teams twice for lack of opponents and venturing into Wisconsin to fill out the schedule.
Four other Illinois teams joined the next year. The berth of the Illinois 8-Man Football Association followed in 2018, with six teams vying for a first state title last year. Milford-Cissna Park won that first championship, 66-24 against Alden-Hebron at Monmouth College.
Lalor isn’t surprised by the recent growth, especially considering the IHSA’s pending move to district football in 2021.
“I knew this would grow and it is,” he said. “And I think it’s going to continue to grow. I really believe the IHSA recognizes that this is real and sooner or later it’s going to have to be an IHSA sport.”
North Fulton coach Elliott Craig, whose program was also on the brink of elimination before making the move, expects the number of schools to reach 30 by next season.
But that’s still well below the IHSA’s typical 10 percent threshold of member schools to add a new sport, which would be around 80 for football.
“We don’t have a certain number we’re looking for,” said IHSA administrator Sam Knox. “We’ll just have to see how quickly eight-man football grows. It may reach a point a few years down the road where our board says it’s time for the IHSA to implement a state series, but I can’t speak for that (now).”
Knox admits eight-man football presents the IHSA with uncharted territory.
“We’ve never really been down this road before,” he said. “There’s no map to follow, so to speak. To see it grow that quickly is intriguing. It certainly gives those kids who still want to play football a chance to do their thing and play the sport they love to play, just with a smaller roster.”
The IHSA will continue to monitor and seek out input from other states that already have eight-man football as an official sport. Neighboring states like Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri have played non 11-man football for years.
According to sixmanfootball.com, Nebraska is credited with creating six-man football in 1934 and Texas followed suit four years later. Texas, with its abundance of small towns, remains a hot-bed for non 11-man football.
There were 880 schools and 19,292 players in 21 different states participating in either six-, eight- or nine-man football in the 1969-1970 school year — the first year of the National Federation of High Schools participation survey.
By 2017-18, there were 1,407 schools and 29,627 boys in 30 states playing non-11-man football, with 164 girls also playing.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
The obvious question most football fans want answered is how eight-man differs from the 11-man game.
The most noticeable difference, outside of three fewer players, involves the playing field. A regulation 11-man field is 100 yards long, end zone to end zone, and 53 1/3 yards wide. The eight-man field is 40 yards wide and, usually, still 100 yards long.
Teams typically have two fewer linemen and one fewer skill player on offense and only five persons are required on the line of scrimmage to start an offensive play.
“Defensively, you can’t miss anymore,” Craig said of fewer players to make up for mistakes. “It is designed to be more of an offensive game. But at the same time, if you want to line up with five offensive linemen and get in the old I-formation and pound it down the field, you can do that. If you want to spread people out and throw it all over the place, you can certainly do that too. That’s no different that 11-man football.”
Three fewer players and the narrow field, creates intrigue. Milford-CissnaPark, the association’s first champion, averaged 56.8 points per game.
“It’s fast, it’s fun and exciting,” said Peoria Heights coach Adell Hawks, who owned two professional eight-man teams in the area before becoming the Patriots’ coach. “Either you’re going to put up a lot of points or you’re going to put up a little. It’s a faster game and it benefits the smaller school.”
Another big difference is all jersey numbers are eligible and can play any position. That means a team’s center could go out for a pass, if he’s the last person on the line of scrimmage. The quarterback could wear No. 99 or the nose guard No. 1.
“Defensively, I think guys are excited because you’re going to have to line up in different spots,” Craig said. “You’re not always going to be a defensive end. There may be some formations where you’re asked to play outside linebacker. Your nose guard isn’t always going to be right over the center. And defensive stunts that I haven’t done in several years, I’m bringing that back because I think it fits this game a little more.”
Differences aside, the game remains the same.
“It’s normal football, you just notice the field’s a little narrower and it seems like a few less guys,” Lalor said. “They’re still out there tackling and blocking and, to be honest, it still comes down to whatever team dominates the line of scrimmage is still going to win that game for the most part.”
With so few total teams spread out across the state, travel remains one of the hurdles for financially strapped small school districts.
“We are going to have to travel a little more for the first year or two until more teams join,” Lalor said. “But are we willing to pay for the travel and put our kids in a competitive situation and have a good experience, or are we so hung up on (travel expenses) that we’d rather get our brains beat up by a larger school just because they are closer? Everybody that’s doing this has agreed that they’d rather travel and put their kids in a safe, competitive situation.”
Milford/Cissna Park came on board last year, when its roster dipped below 20.
“We were in a spot where we either travel and play football, or we don’t play football at all,” said coach Clint Schwartz.
North Fulton opens with four straight home games and five of its first six at home, before finishing the regular season with three consecutive road trips — to Edwardsville Metro-East Luthern (274 miles roundtrip), Flanagan (174 miles) and Lake Forest (446 miles). The other long road trip is to Elgin Westminster Christian (408 miles) in Week 5.
“That was some of our parent’s and board’s concern, the long travel,” said Craig, whose team will eliminate extra travel by playing junior varsity games immediately after the varsity contest when possible.
Fundraising by the players and cheerleaders will help offset much of the travel expenses.
“I told the kids, ‘It’s pretty simple. You wanna ride the yellow bus, do poorly on your fundraiser,” Elliott said. “You want to charter those three (long trips), do very well on your fundraiser.’”
Road trips have their upside.
“I’m trying to treat those like playoff games, and I want them to look at it the same way,” Elliott said.
Schwartz did exactly that with his kids last season.
“Just being able to travel to all these places … somewhere you’ve never played before … was a really good thing for our guys,” said Schwartz, who considered a team-bonding road-trip to Wisconsin in Week 4 a turning point in his team’s championship run.
The IHSA’s move to district scheduling has led small-school co-ops still fighting the numbers crunch — like Peoria Heights/Quest — to look at eight-man. With the combined enrollment of the two schools, district football would have forced the Patriots to play a 3A schedule with a 1A-sized roster.
The Heights will end its co-op with Quest after the 2019-2020 school year, allowing the Patriots to play eight-man with an enrollment of just over 200 students.
The Illinois 8-man Football Association does not have an enrollment cap on the regular season, but the playoffs are limited to schools with 400 or fewer students. Lake Forest, the largest school in eight-man with around 430 students, is ineligible for the postseason.
Knox knows there could be competitive balance concerns moving forward for eight-man if several schools are well above the 400 enrollment — but with a football roster still in the 20s — join the league.
“We’ll just have to keep an eye on that number as we go, and make decisions on what’s best for eight-man football going forward,” Knox said.
After reviving eight-man football in 2012, Wisconsin fielded 32 teams this past year and had its first playoff series. Wisconsin caps its eight-man enrollment at 200 students.
Another concern involves the nature of small-school football. Keeping small teams together, injury-free and fully engaged, is a constant battle that could threaten the sustainability of each program.
“If you lose any of those people, you don’t have a program,” Todd Clark, spokesman for the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, told the Chicago Tribune. “That’s the challenge in promoting the sport. There’s always going to be a lack of numbers if you’re playing eight-player football.”
BACK TO BASICS
The opportunity to play the game of football, with all that comes with it — cheerleaders, band, homecomings, community pride — is what’s driving the move to eight-man in Illinois.
“We’re excited and I think most 1A schools should be excited about eight-man football,” said Peoria Heights athletics director Matt King. “We think it’s the future of small-school football. If you’re a small community and you have the numbers issues we all have, I think this is a great opportunity to rejuvenate your football program.
“We’re excited to be hopping in early on in the process, and we think it will give a lot of great opportunities for our students.”