Remembering the father of six-man football

Monday, October 6, 2003
Stephen Epler

In 2003, six-man football teams in the McCook area are few and far between. Herndon is playing their final year of football of any kind (after this year the school merges with the Atwood district and the Herndon boys will be playing as part of Atwood in 2004.)

Since six-man teams are so rare, Herndon has actually had to become a member of a Nebraska league, and distances traveled to away games are very long. Because this is the last year of six-man football in our area interest has been strong. Herndon has a beautiful athletic park and crowds have been good for the games. A McCook radio station even contracted to broadcast some of the Herndon games.

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, school enrollments in the Great Plains dropped alarmingly, as people joined the great migration to California. School activities were curtailed all together in some cases. Many of the smaller high schools were forced to abandon their football programs for lack of available boys to play. In 1933, in Chester, a fellow by the name of Stephen Epler devised a six-man game, which he thought would preserve the integrity of the game and still enable small schools to field a football team. The game caught on quickly, and by the start of World War II there were more schools in Nebraska playing the six-man game than there were 11-man football.

Mr. Epler's game involved more that just changing the number of players on a team. The playing field is smaller, 80 yards long X 40 yards wide. A touchdown is six points, as in 11-man football, but two points are awarded for a kicked extra point, but only one for an extra point by running or passing. Four points are awarded for a field goal. Another difference is that the first man to touch the ball from center is not allowed to pass. That makes for a number of unusual offensive formations. Every member of the team is eligible to catch a pass in six-man football. The emphasis is on speed and deception, rather than power. The very nature of the six-man game lends itself to high scoring games.

Mr. Epler considered that six men on a team was an ideal number. With three men in the line and three men in the backfield, balanced formations could take place. This made for a wide-open game, more like sand-lot football---with a heavy emphasis on passing, and man defenses.

Beside the reduction in the number of players, Mr. Epler came up with other recommendations for the game. He thought that the conventional football shoe, with cleats was not right for the six-man game, in which speed was so very important. He devised a shoe that was more like the sneakers we wear today, a design that was picked up by one of the major athletic shoe makers of the day. Along the same line of reasoning, Mr. Epler felt that cumbersome hip pads hampered a player's agility and speed, and felt they could be discarded. That proved to be a mistake, as the very nature of the game, which was fast, made it even more necessary for a player to have good protective equipment. That mistake was later rectified.

In the years since World War II, two factors have largely spelled the demise of six-man football in Nebraska and Kansas.

1. Eight-man football, which used fewer men and a smaller field than 11-man, but was considered closer to the 11-man game. Like the six-man game, eight-man games tend to be fast and high scoring.

2. Consolidation. As the small, six-man football schools merged, the new larger school has been able to field either an eight-man or an 11-man football team.

By 1960 six-man football in Nebraska was almost extinct. A number of the former six-man teams had switched to eight-man football, and were running up large scores in their games. The Fairfield football team boasted two members from the State Championship Class D 880 Relay team among their starting lineup. In 1960 those speedsters helped Fairfield to post a scoring record of over 80 points per game. One of those men was Joe Heckenlively, who was recruited by Merle Confer to play football for the McCook College Indians. Joe went on to play football at Doane College, and later had a successful coaching career at several Nebraska schools, including Culbertson and Kenesaw

In the 1990s, Don Coolidge, of Indianola, coached a six-man football team for several years at Chester, the home of six-man football. Although he had never played, or even seen a six-man football game, he reasoned that if he coached the basics of blocking and tackling he could be successful. That proved to be the case, and after a time he rather enjoyed the peculiar aspects of the six-man game. The additional benefit of having a boy on his team who had the athletic ability and the intellectual capacity to receive a full ride scholarship to Harvard University greatly enhanced the team's success -- was like having a coach on the field.

One of the great events in Don Coolidge's coaching career occurred in 1993, when 82-year-old Stephen Epler, the Father of Six-Man Football, returned to Chester, from his home in California, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the game. He attended a six-man football game in Chester, and the banquet in his honor, following the game, both duly reported in the Los Angeles Times. Coolidge was greatly impressed by Mr. Epler, whom he found to be very gracious and modest.

In 2003 there is but one six-man football league in Nebraska, and that league includes Herndon, in Kansas. The schools are located mainly in the Sandhills, and teams travel tremendous distances to play their games. But the schools in the Nebraska six-man football league play the game at a high level. In the 2003 Sports Illustrated Pre-season poll of high school six-man football teams, both Herndon and Arthur from that league were included in the top 25. 17 schools in the top 25 were Texas schools, where Six-Man football still thrives.

The fact is that six-man football in Texas is extremely popular. In addition to the high school teams that play six-man football, there are at least two professional leagues that play a regular schedule in Texas, and the Las Vegas Casinos regularly post odds on those games for gamblers. Recently, representatives of one of those leagues were in Nebraska, attempting to organize teams in Hastings, Grand Island, and Kearney to join a professional league of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma teams.

Who knows, perhaps Six-man football will see resurgence in Nebraska -- on the professional level. In the meantime, we can all celebrate Herndon's last football season by watching the Beavers as they bring down the curtain on the Six-Man football era in our part of the country.

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