It’s a muggy Friday night in November, and the atmosphere is perfect for Alabama high school football.
Cheerleaders yell loudly.
The blowing of referee whistles echoes through the night air.
Parents stand at the chain link fence bordering the field, clapping and encouraging their sons.
The scent of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers waft from the concession stand.
The pounding of football pads reverberate throughout the small stadium carved out of the grass behind a softball field.
And while the sights, smells and sounds of the night are all too familiar, the action on the field between players from Brooklane Baptist Academy and Victory Baptist School is a bit unexpected.
The two schools–from Hueytown and Millbrook–are part of the Christian Football Association, which directs the eight schools that still play six-man football in the state of Alabama.
At these small, private schools, six players line up against each other on the football field to do what’s done on any given Friday night across the country.
(See all of AL.com’s high school football coverage.)
They suit up and run, kick, pass, catch, block, tackle.
But the end result looks a bit like backyard football.
There’s variety in play calling, lots of scoring and plenty of excitement.
And the players, coaches and fans love it.
How does 6-man football work?
Six-man football rules are different than traditional 11-on-11 football.
The field is smaller (80 yards by 40); all six players are eligible quarterbacks and receivers; first downs are 15 yards, not 10; kicked extra points are worth 3 points; field goals are worth 4 points; and the ball has to be tossed from the quarterback to another player before it can be run across the line of scrimmage.
The result of these different rules is a football game that is faster, higher scoring and in some ways more athletic than what most fans of the game typically watch on television or at high school games.
Brooklane head coach Jerrod Gilchrist said that the speed and athleticism of the six-on-six game is often surprising for players.
“It’s exciting, fast-paced, lots of scoring,” he said. “If you ever see a 24-21 score, it’s been a defensive battle. Instead, you have games with 60 or 70 points.”
(A game last month in Texas, in fact, racked up the highest scores ever recorded in a high school six-man football game when the Campbell Indians beat the Fannindel Falcons 125-122.)
The result is that Gilchrist and his assistant coaches have to approach strategy and conditioning in a unique way.
“Depth and conditioning are issues, because every player has to be athletic. There’s one-man tackling, and you may have to travel across the field to make a play,” he said. “And you have the added issue of fewer players. I had 13 varsity players this year to work with and had injuries too.”
Getting ready to play that sort of demanding action means that practices can be intense.
“We do a lot of running in the Summer, because you have to get ready,” Gilchrist said. “In six-man football, it can really feel like 100 degrees out there.”
Victory head coach Jim Hardy said that players, coaches and fans especially love the high scoring offense that comes from the way the game is played.
“The field is very open with only six players on each team on the field allowing for high scoring fun games,” Hardy said. “One coach even told me this season after coaching 11-man for some 10 years, he coached his first season in six-man and loved it way better. He found it more challenging and more exciting.”
Hardy’s team has been in every state championship game since Victory entered the league; the Eagles won the title in 2013, 2014 and 2016 and finished as runner-up in 2015.
Brooklane and Victory played in the CFA’s first game of the 2017 season, with Victory emerging victorious 34-32 in a game characterized by tough defensive play; Friday night’s championship game would determine the owners of the coveted state trophy.
The popularity of the sport
Invented in 1934, six-man football gives small schools the opportunity to keep playing a sport they otherwise couldn’t.
While Alabama has just eight schools currently playing the version, Texas has approximately 300 teams participating. It’s also played in western states such as Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming.
According to the website SixManFootball.com, the game was designed as a way to let all players have a chance to enjoy the sport:
“Six-man football was invented in 1934, by a high school coach from Chester, Nebraska named Stephen Epler, who wanted to find a way for his players to have the opportunity to play the game of football. Four years later, the game made it’s way to the Lone Star state, and six-man football was contemplated being added to the option allowed for Texas public schools.”
Brooklane Athletic Director Jack Scott said that the sport was introduced first in 2010 in Alabama, when Brooklane and Trinity Christan were the only two participating schools.
“We just played each other that first year. We traveled to each other four times during the season,” Scott said. “Then the next year we had other schools join in.”
Scott said that the smaller communities and schools realized what an asset it could be to have football–even if it was a much different version than they were used to.
“Fans started showing up, having a good time, and they realized how great it could be,” he said. “There were teams that never thought they’d have football.”
“We introduced it to the league, and it just grew from there,” he said.
The sport continues to grow in popularity elsewhere as well.
“Several states are in talks now about having all-star games between states and travel games out of state,” Hardy said. “The future looks bright for the fun sport.”
Players on the sport: “How is this even a thing?”
For players who’ve never been on the field as part of a six-on-six team, it can be a bit of an adjustment.
Tenth grade Brooklane quarterback Dalton Hill said that the sport was a pleasant surprise.
“I doubted it at first. I wondered, how is this even a thing?” Hill, who came to the private school from a public middle school where he previously played running back, said.
The six-man version, though, is something he found to be challenging and ultimately rewarding.
“As quarterback, you really have to know every play,” Hill said, “and you have to keep up with the defense at the same time.”
“As a team, you have to learn to rely on each other. You have to step it up for everyone else,” he said.
Sophomore RJ Moore said that he also questioned the sport at first.
“I kinda looked down on it and laughed at it,” Moore said when he first transferred from a local high school. “But now I love it. I like it better than 11-man.”
Moore said that the game requires commitment and conditioning.
“You have to be disciplined,” he said.
Brooklane and Victory battle for state championship
Brooklane and Victory met last Friday night for the 2017 state championship and the game lived up to all of the expectations one might expect from a matchup between two schools with such a strong six-man legacy.
With the memories of the early season two-point loss to the defending state champions still fresh, Brooklane knew it would be a battle.
“We lost against them last year and then again at the beginning of the year,” Gilchrist said. “That motivated us, and we knew we had to play for each other.”
Brooklane got a hard-fought 48-30 win, but after the game there were mostly hugs and smiles from all sides of the field.
“We ended with a state runner up finish, but my young men will always be champions in my heart,” Hardy said.
“You’ll remember this forever,” one parent shouted to the Brooklane team as they crowded under the scoreboard displaying the winning margin. “You’ll tell your kids and grandkids about this night.”