Eight Is Enough In small towns across the prairie, there's no bigger event than Eight-Man Football

November 10, 2003

The football field at Hanston High is beautiful at sunset. It's
out on the prairie in southwest Kansas, surrounded by wheat
fields and small-town dreams. In the sun's dying rays the
redbrick gymnasium, the water tower behind the school, and the
nearby grain elevators all glow from the same palette.

Jerry Slaton, coach of the school's eight-man football team, has
seen a lot of those sunsets. He drove into Hanston for the first
time in 1976, and if he had blinked, he might have missed it.
("I knew it was gonna be a docile town," he says, "because I
seen a dog chasin' a cat, and they were both walkin'.") A
two-man blocking sled, four tackling dummies and the prairie are
pretty much the extent of his program's fixed assets. His school
has an enrollment of 65, and his team rarely has more than 25
players, from freshman to senior. Fourteen junior-high boys
practiced with last year's team, but at about 90 pounds each,
they didn't see game action. "Four of 'em all together," Slaton
cracks, "wouldn't make a human being."

Hanston High, lest you get the wrong idea, is no football
backwater. The Elks have won the Kansas Eight-Man Division II
championship three times in the last four years, and Slaton has
taken his team to the title game seven times since 1990. Kansas
eight-man has a mercy rule--at any time after the half, a
45-point lead wins the game. The 2001 Elks were so good that they
didn't play a fourth quarter until the title game.

Big-city folks may smirk, but you have to admire a scheme that
allows a burg like Hanston--a town so small that there's no room
for a speed trap--to fancy itself a football juggernaut. This
month Hanston will try to repeat as the champion of Division II,
which comprises schools with an enrollment of between 30 and 64
students in grades nine through 11. The title game will be played
on Nov. 22 at Russell High, also the site of the final in
Division I (schools with an enrollment of between 65 and 95).

Eight-man football is a small-town phenomenon, and Kansas, with
scores of tank towns spread across a 410-mile-wide swath of
gently rolling hills, is a small-town state. "The center of the
eight-man universe is in Hodgeman County in southwest Kansas,"
brags a Kansan in an Internet posting. "You could watch a close
game between two crappy teams ... but unless you watch Jetmore [a
Division II power] or Hanston, you won't know what eight-man
football at its finest really looks like."

What it really looks like is America. Drive into a Kansas farm
town on a fall day, and you'll see lampposts wrapped in gaudy
colors, shop windows covered with authorized graffiti (BLACK
ATTACK--ORANGE CRUSH!) and pickup trucks decorated like parade
floats. "This is our social event of the weekend," says Steve
Riedy, athletic director in the central-Kansas town of Hope (pop.
450). "Everybody in town identifies with the high school."

The enrollment at Hope High, grades nine through 12, is 83. In
1982, the last year the school fielded an 11-man team, enrollment
had dwindled to the low-50s. Farms were getting bigger. Families
were getting smaller. Young people were moving to the cities.
"The 1980s were terrible," says Riedy. "We worried about the
school's survival." But then a curious thing happened. Struggling
merchants and their wives took jobs about 35 miles away, at
either the Army base, Fort Riley, or behind the registers at the
outlet mall on I-70--but they stayed in Hope. The town refused to
die.

Why do people stay? They stay for the sunsets, the sound of
crickets in the night ... and the Hope Lions. Everybody from the
shiest first-grader to the grandma in the John Deere cap knows
all the cheers--Lean to the left, lean to the right, stand up,
sit down, fight, fight, fight!--and everyone is schooled in the
ritual abuse of the next opponent. ("We're gonna castrate the
Elk!" a Hope player shouted at a rally before last year's title
game with Hanston. The theme of the rally was "Elk--it's what's
for dinner.")

The braggadocio is laughable--everyone in Hope knows their kids
would get pounded if they had to play the muscled-up, big-school
teams from Wichita, Lawrence or Overland Park--but it satisfies
the universal need to aim high. "City people can eat their hearts
out," says Hope coach Jeff Hostetter, "because there's nothing
like a small town coming together."

Kansas eight-man doesn't look much different from the 11-man
game. The field is 80 yards long and 40 yards wide instead of 100
by 53 1/3. The ball is kicked off from the 30. There are five
players on the line of scrimmage. Any player on the end of the
line is an eligible receiver, as are the three backs. The
subtraction of six space-hogging players, however, opens up the
field and promotes scoring. The most pleasing difference, if
you're a football purist, is the absence of specialty players.
The quarterback who throws an interception doesn't trot off the
field with his head down. He stays on to play defense--no doubt
hoping for a crack at the kid who made him look bad. "You have to
be a little more well rounded to play eight-man," says Luke
Salmans, who played four seasons for Hanston, including as
quarterback and linebacker in 2001. "It's gung ho."

The rhythms of the season are familiar to anyone who has played
high school football. Practice begins in the searing heat of
August. Regular-season games start in September and course
through Indian summer and winter-wheat planting season until the
leaves drop and farms and towns turn as gray as wood ash. The
season ends with a four-round tournament: 16 teams battle through
bidistrict, regional and sub-state playoff games to reach the
finals. The games, most of them played under lights on weathered
fields, create bright patches on the prairie that can be seen for
miles.

The championship game is the goal. It's played in daylight on a
Saturday, like a college football game. There are big aluminum
grandstands, a crowded press box, radio commentators, TV
cameras--even team nicknames painted in the end zone. "We're good
enough to be here," Hostetter tells his frightened players in the
locker room before last year's title game in Russell. "I don't
care how many games they've won in a row"--he's pacing
now--"remember who we are! We can do it!" And then the brutal
send-off, almost a taunt: "The next four quarters you're going to
have to live with the rest of your lives."

Fear is suddenly their friend. The players yell and slap each
other's shoulder pads and run onto the field shouting. The Lions
won't prevail against Hanston--the Elks win 38-12 on the strength
of a punishing ground game--but they play their hearts out behind
quarterback Kyle Goracke, who completes 11 of 16 passes despite a
broken finger on his throwing hand. On the field afterward,
buffeted by celebrating Elks and mournful Lions, Hanston's Coach
Slaton sees nothing but winners. "I like eight-man football
because it takes a good old-fashioned American boy and makes him
feel good about himself," he says. "Somewhere else he might not
even play."

A few hours later a bus and a small caravan of honking cars roll
into Hanston and park in the shade of the high school. While the
townspeople plan their evening, two players walk over to a
chain-link fence, where white Styrofoam cups have been inserted
to spell out a message: HARD HABIT TO BREAK 11-0. Adding a few
cups, they change 11 to 12.

The bottoms of the cups catch the setting sun.

SI.com
For more about sports in Kansas and the other 49 states, go to
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COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES TOWN TOPIC Love for the eight-man game helps keep Hope alive. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES THE SHORT VERSION Hanston (in black) defeated Hope in last year's Division II title game to win its third championship in four years. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES LIONHEARTED Hope fans put on a good face, but their team couldn't win the rushing battle. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES [See caption above]

"City people can eat their hearts out," says Hope coach Jeff
Hostetter, "because there's nothing like a small town coming
together."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)