From The Ridiculous To The Sublime: The NFL vs. 8-Man Football
Regular readers may have gleaned an inkling that football isn’t exactly Number One With A Bullet on my list of favorite spectator sports this week. Going to an NFL game will do that to you these days.
But duty called, and the name of this duty was 8-man football.
The concept is a good one – the 8-man version of football allows teens to play the game even if they don’t attend a school with a large student body. Instead of simply saying “Sorry, we’re too small to field a team”, 8-man football puts high schools in a position to offer the All-American athletic experience.
In California there are a lot of schools in precisely that position. In fact, in Southern California alone there are 14 leagues. Not teams – leagues. For playoff purposes, there are two separate divisions that each compete for their own CIF Southern Section Championship.
And since those playoffs had arrived, it was my journalistic responsibility to cover them. Also, I was wicked curious. So when the tournament got to the semi-final stage I closed down the IGTS corporate offices and took the entire staff to the Windward School, a small private academy in Westside L.A.
The game’s two participants – Windward and Faith Baptist – actually play in the same league during the regular season, the Heritage League. Their relative success in league play was widely divergent though. After a strong start, Windward had lost 3 of its last 5 regular season games and just barely qualified for the post-season.
In contrast, Faith Baptist was on a roll. They had steamrolled the competition all year and up to this point in the playoffs had not been seriously challenged. In fact, only one team all season had come within ten points of them. The Contenders were much more than their nickname would suggest. At 11-0 and nationally-ranked, they appeared to be the solid Favorites.
And they had a score to settle. One year earlier Windward had snapped Faith Baptist’s seven-year home unbeaten streak at a time when the Contenders were the nation’s #1 ranked 8-man squad. In Faith Baptist’s Homecoming Game, no less.
Quite honestly, I couldn’t figure out how it was that Windward earned the right to host this playoff game. Faith Baptist obviously had the higher ranking, and the two teams had already played in Los Angeles in October, in a regular season game that Faith Baptist had won convincingly.
In thinking even more about it, I started to wonder why the game wasn’t being played at a neutral site, since the playoffs had advanced to the semi-final stage. The reason became self-evident as soon as I saw the field. It was only 80 yards long. And while this turned out to be my imagination, it also looked a little narrower than a standard football field. I would soon learn however, that the kids were full-sized and hit every bit as hard as their counterparts at larger schools.
This particular home field also had its own signature quirks, the most obvious of which was the end zones – or more specifically, what lay beyond the end zones. At one end of the field, a fence separated the gridiron from what looked to be some sort of industrial storage facility. And whatever that space was, what it wasn’t, was accessible. An extra point kick that comfortably cleared the cross bar would sail into this no-man’s land, at a cost of one football.
That would explain why early in the game both teams headed to the opposite end of the field after a touchdown had just been scored right in front of us. All place kicks for the rest of the day would be confined to one set of goalposts.
All in all, it was definitely a no-frills fan environment. There was no game program, no concession stand and no P.A. system. Pep bands? Nope – there was no place for them to sit, as each sideline had just one tiny section of bleachers, on which fans had to stand in order to see over the team benches.
There was a scoreboard, but only its basic capabilities were utilized. Forget about down and distance or remaining timeouts – you got just Score and Time Remaining. This, since you were pretty much able to walk right up to the sideline and listen to the teams talking amongst themselves, was just about all you needed though. It was as close as I had gotten to participative fan-dom since I had been delighted by the U.S. Lawn Bowls Open.
In short, 8-man football is like arena football – without the arena. Offense is the name of the game. With six fewer bodies on it, the field is wide open, giving everyone much more room to maneuver.
The typical offensive set consists of four down linemen, a quarterback, a running back, and two receivers. On the other side of the ball, the limited number of defensive backs almost eliminates double-coverage schemes, so quarterbacks can often get away with putting a pass up for grabs to receivers who are covered one-on-one.
The whole thing reminded me of watching hockey during a matching penalty situation. When both teams are playing a man short, a score feels imminent at all times. It definitely brings you to the edge of your seat. That’s what standard 8-man football is like – minus the seats.
What else is standard is the humble nature of the game. For example, after one pass sailed out of bounds near me, the receiver for which it was intended continued on after the play and ran to retrieve the ball, as if he were playing in a pick-up game. In fact – and I say this with affection – much of the environment felt like these guys had just gathered at the field and chosen up sides. And then put on full uniforms, but that’s beside the point.
Carrying the analogy further, it seemed like all the guys also brought their little brothers and sisters, instructing them to remain within eyesight while they played. In fact, a few enterprising tots had busied themselves systematically “renovating” the pitcher’s mound on the adjacent baseball diamond.
Just as I was giving way to the hypnotic notion that this was indeed a sandlot game though, the universal rallying cry of the Football Parent snapped me out of my reverie: “Hey ref – call ‘em both ways!”
To be concluded in next post…