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Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Eight Ball

Eight Ball

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Denton, Kan.

The rolling plains of northeast Kansas are filled with faded-yellow cornstalks ready to be plucked from the earth by slow-moving combines. But the huge machines are shutting down early this evening.

In northeast Kansas, everyone turns out to watch Midway High School's eight-man football team put on the best little show around.

Tonight, the corn can wait.

On this crisp, early-fall Friday, there is an eight-man football game at Midway High School, where the beloved Eagles are making a run for another state championship. Tonight, even hard-working farmers need time to shower, pack their children and wives in the family pickup, and make the 7 p.m. kickoff.

In small, rural communities across the United States, eight-man football is the biggest little show in town. The sport is a scaled-down version of traditional football, which puts two teams of 11 players on the field at a time.

While football is typically about size and power, it is a tribute to the smaller game that, in the five tiny farming towns that feed Midway High its 62 students, the fans say they aren't missing anything.

"Eight-man is much more exciting," declares Al Fuhrman, a local farmer who played offensive and defensive line on Midway's 11-man football team in the 1970s. His two sons, Jarred and Eric, are playing in tonight's game. "There are littler guys on a smaller field, but the first time I saw it, I couldn't believe how much scoring there was. They're always running up and down the field."

The sport's anything-can-happen-at-anytime feel is not the only reason eight-man football is popular in these parts. Frankly, short of farming, a pool hall with one table, and church, there's not much to do.

Midway High Principal Volora Hanzlicek says the nearest movie theater is 17 miles away. Eight-man football, she adds, gives students a healthy social and recreational activity that motivates them to do well in school.The scale of the game also seems tailor-made to preparing students for life in small communities. Because the teams have fewer members--Midway has 20 players on its roster and has had as few as 14 in past years--everyone is important and must chip in.

"It's just like every day," Bill Pauly, the president of the Midway Booster Club, says. "Everybody has to contribute to survive."

Most football fans probably don't realize that there's a brand of the sport that features just eight players per team and a field that is 20 yards shorter and 10 yards narrower than the regulation, 100-by-53-yard field for the 11-man game. But the eight-player game thrives in small high schools throughout the Midwest and West. True, only about 13,000 high school athletes play the scaled-down version nationwide, according to a survey last year by the National Federation of State High School Associations. In contrast, 958,247 youths played 11-man football. Still, eight-man football, which drops two linemen and a running back from the standard 11-man lineup, is a sanctioned interscholastic sport in 15 states.

The 1997 survey found that, with 3,100 participants, Nebraska had the most eight-man players of any state. At the low end, Iowa and Mississippi each fielded just one team, both of which played out of state or against 11-man teams that agreed to field only eight players for a game.

In Kansas, 99 eight-man high school football teams will vie for state championships this year in separate divisions for schools of up to 63 students and schools with between 64 and 100 students.

Not surprisingly, eight-man football doesn't command the same attention from college scouts as its bigger counterpart. "When I go out and talk to college coaches, I tell them we have a lot of good players," says Rick D. Bowden, the assistant executive director of the Kansas High School Activities Association. "Eight-man-football players often get overlooked because of the size of their schools and remoteness."

But the smaller-scale version has several big-time success stories.

Just about any eight-man fan in Kansas will point out that former Los Angeles Rams star defensive back Nolan Cromwell played eight-man football at Ransom High School in western Kansas in the 1970s. Today, Cromwell coaches wide receivers for the National Football League's powerhouse Green Bay Packers.

Then there's Rashaan Salaam, who won college football's premier award, the Heisman Memorial Trophy, in 1994. Salaam, who played running back for the Chicago Bears, was an eight-man-football star for the 250-student La Jolla Country Day School, 30 minutes from San Diego.

Not surprisingly, eight-man football doesn't command the same attention from college scouts as its bigger counterpart.

Here in Denton, Midway High has had a few players go on to play some local junior college and small college football. School administrators are quick to point out, however, that most of the school's athletes end up pursuing studies, not football, at two- or four-year colleges.

And college scouts notwithstanding, eight-man players are adored by their hometowns. Nearly 17,500 tickets were sold to last year's eight-man state playoffs.

"It's neat," beams Bowden, who has also been a coach and a football referee. "You go to a lot of schools and people are at the field one and a half hours early, already in their pickups, parked on the track with umbrellas in their trucks," he says. "This is what it's all about. This is the American heartland stuff."

Midway High is the only high school in the 226-student Midway Unified School District. It is located 60 miles northwest of Kansas City. Most of its students come from the tiny farming towns of Bendena, Denton, Leona, Severance, and Purcell in Doniphan County. The area traces its beginnings to pioneers who settled here along the Oregon-California Trail. The county's population, which once topped 12,000, has dropped to about 7,000.

Like many rural schools, Midway High is so small that there is always someone suggesting it merge with a neighboring school. Proponents of consolidation point out that students attending larger, merged schools would have more classes to choose from. And they grouse at the salaries being paid to keep the county's five high schools open.

"I just feel that people don't see beyond their own little community," says Joan Fuhrman, Al Fuhrman's mother and the grandmother of two Eagle players whom she will watch on the field that evening.

To make her point, she notes that one of her daughters had to take a chemistry class she needed for college outside of regular school hours because it was not offered then. "We need to make sure students are prepared to go to college. They need more opportunities."

Democratic state Rep. Galen Weiland, who also turns out for the Midway High game, says there is continuing pressure in Topeka, the state capital, to eliminate the special funding for low-enrollment schools that helps keep them alive. About half of Midway's $1.6 million budget comes from that aid. But, Weiland says, keeping the money flowing is important because the school is such a unifying factor here. And the team's winning tradition helps the cause.

"When you've got a winning team, it makes everything great," adds Weiland, who manages a local grain elevator. "It brings people together. I've seen some come here who didn't even know what a touchdown was."

Despite its prior competitiveness in 11-man football, Midway High moved to eight-man ball in the 1980-81 school year. Because of an enrollment slump, the school could round up just 20 boys for the team, compared with the 40-plus players that suited up at other schools. "It got to the situation where we didn't think it was the best thing for our kids," says Jim Leatherman, a mathematics teacher and the school's athletic director. "At some point, you have to be worried about the safety of students."

Some coaches resisted the change at first. But, after winning seven state championships since 1981, few here still gripe.

"I think it's great for a small school like ours," Pauly, the booster club president, says. "There's no way we can suit up a team and win against bigger schools. I think it was the greatest thing that happened."

He agrees that the team's success has translated into a stronger voice for keeping the school open.

"To be honest, 20 years ago, I was for consolidating," adds Pauly, a farmer. But the Eagles' winning tradition has meant so much to the community that the games would be sorely missed if the school closed. "It's like a domino effect. To me, a community prospers when it feels good about its schools. A school gets support when it's winning, and that trickles down to the community."

A debate about their school's future is the last thing on the minds of the 20 young Eagles lying silent on the floor of their school's gymnasium, pondering what lies ahead just one hour before game time.

The darkness is broken by rays of dust-spattered light that cut through two fans in the cinder-block structure. Curtis Albers, a 175-pound guard, imagines himself dislodging the opponent's 300-pound defensive lineman so that his friend Jarred Fuhrman has a place to run. Starting quarterback Tyler Martin, a 140-pound freshman, is envisioning pass routes. It will be his second high school game.

Inside the locker room moments later, a portable fan labors to remove stale air. Over the fan's din, head coach Mark Martin sends his team to battle. "I know you want to be a title team," he tells the attentive young men. "To do that, you have to be determined."

Outside, the Olathe Christian Warriors are warming up. The team is made up mostly of home-schooled students. Olathe Christian School, located in a suburb of Kansas City, Kan., began sponsoring a team just three years ago.

While they may not have a lot of experience, they are big. Their roster boasts two players over 300 pounds.

By kickoff, more than 300 Midway supporters have arrived. The team's red, white, and blue bleachers are only half full, though, because so many fans stand near the sidelines where they have a better view.

They all yell as one on the opening kickoff, which 205-pound sophomore Daren Roberts hauls in and returns 70 yards for a touchdown.

It is a sign of things to come. Roberts returns a punt for a 40-yard touchdown less than two minutes later. The score is 30-0 by the end of the first quarter.

When Olathe finally makes a big play in the second quarter, Midway's band members cheer because they do not want the game to end. A "mercy" rule in eight-man football requires the referees to end the game if one team gets *p by more than 45 points.

Between plays, the band launches into a quick version of "March of the Winkies" from "The Wizard of Oz."

It's one of their last songs. The 45-point margin is reached halfway through the third quarter. The quicker and stronger Eagles rack up a 58-8 score to force an early end to the game.

After the game, at least 30 adults file into a classroom for a booster club meeting that will last well into the night. They discuss upcoming fund-raisers and the needs of the school's football and cross-country teams and its cheerleading squad.

In the next room, a committee of parents and teachers has delivered pizzas from 17 miles away and soda pops for the students and players. Most of the school's students are there.

Sharing a toppings-laden pizza with several friends, Eagle lineman Albers reflects on the night. "It's a confidence booster. It showed me that I can be able to block anybody else who comes along."

As for the larger question of his school's future and a possible merger, he makes his point between bites.

"I wouldn't like it," he says. "There wouldn't be as many opportunities for sports. I just like a small school more than a big school."

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Pages 28-33

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