Six-Man Football

1947 Claremont High School Mythical State Champs

South Dakota State Six-Man Football Champs of 1947
South Dakota State Six-Man Football Champs of 1947 | Source

When Six Men Ruled the Prairie

From 1935 until 1959 a new version of the game of football became THE sport of rural communities throughout the United States. Unable to field the traditional eleven man teams due to limited funding and small high school enrollments, the six man version of the game provided access to a sport that was very popular in larger communities. The game was invented by Stephen Epler, an assistant coach at the Chester, Nebraska High School and from modest beginnings, the number of high school teams participating peaked at more than 5,000 during the 1940's and 1950's. Coach Epler was determined that the game be safe, inexpensive, retain the fundamentals of the eleven man game and be fun to play and watch. What he got was that and more.

Knowing he had to reduce the number of players on a team to achieve the proper result, Coach Epler looked long and hard at each position, trying to determine the optimal player count. Keeping his goals in mind, Epler decided the best opportunity to open up the game would involve eliminating the interior line positions. He felt these positions, due to their size and strength, caused many injuries in the course of double-team blocking, and due to their tendency to pile on when tackling. It was dangerous for the ball carriers at the bottom of the pile as they lacked sufficient safety equipment to prevent injury. The interior linemen also tended to slow down the game and provided more obstacles for the ball carriers. This made the eleven-man game lower scoring and less exciting for the fans. By eliminating these positions, Epler also made it possible for smaller players to participate and the overall speed of the game increased.

Dropping the interior line positions was a good start; but Coach Epler still had an unbalanced number of players in the backfield verses on the line. To correct this, he eliminated one of the two halfbacks, leaving a quarterback, a halfback, and a fullback. This gave a nice symmetrical arrangement of three players on the line and three in the backfield. Epler felt this structure would meet the goals he had set out for the new sport.

Eleven-man teams required significant protective equipment, specialized shoes, and at least 20-30 kids on the team to be successful. The six-man game required only a helmet, a place to play and as few as eight players on the team. Even with the reduced personnel, it resulted in a very entertaining game, involving a lot of scoring, a wide-open, razzle-dazzle offense, and spectacular open field tackles for the benefit of the fans.

Rules

Once he defined his vision for the new sport, he began to refine it. He observed that many injuries occurred at the start of the game or just after halftime, as the player’s muscles were tight and their bodies not yet prepared for the contact. Epler put into place rules that required a minimum 3-minute warm-up just before the start of each half to help prevent injuries. He also knew that many injuries occurred on the extra point try after a touchdown. Rather than settling for a single point by kicking the extra point, more teams would attempt to run or pass it into the end zone for a two-point conversion. A disproportionate number of injuries occurred during these plays and with the high scoring game he was developing; he knew it would get worse.

To make the kicking option more attractive than the run, Epler changed the dimensions of the goal posts by widening them to 25 feet, making them at least 20 feet high and lowering the cross bar to 9 feet to provide a bigger target. He then reduced the points earned for a play from scrimmage after a touchdown to one point and awarded two points for a kick. He also decided to increase the number of points scored for a field goal from the traditional three points to four. The technique for scoring a field goal was to use a drop kick, and since the drop kick came in the flow of the offense, it gave the defense one more threat to consider.

Features and Benefits

Where eleven-man teams relied on sheer power, the six-man game required speed, execution, and deception, all components interesting to the spectators. The increased number of pass plays, reverses, misdirection plays, and longer open field runs kept the spectators entertained. It also meant any of the players on the field had an equal opportunity to score, which was an encouragement to the players who would otherwise have toiled in a guard or tackle position where they would only have their name called if they missed a block or committed a penalty. The hero potential was a big incentive.

In a pamphlet written by Stephen Epler and distributed by General Mills via advertisements on its “Wheaties” boxes, it described one of the big cases for the sport. It indicated that in a study of the first 100 games played, six-man football produced twice the number of touchdowns as eleven-man games. The pamphlet advocated the sport as having four times the number of touchdowns per player as fewer players had significantly more points.

Because the game was wide open, Epler required a first down occur after 15 yards, verses 10 for the eleven-man game. He also determined a reduced field dimension would be required to keep the game fair. Rather than starting play on the 20-yard line after a touchback, the team started on the 15-yard line.

In designing the game, Coach Epler had one other benefit in mind. He knew that 90 percent of the schools adopting the six-man game would not have fielded a football team before. Most of these teams, however, had basketball, track, and baseball teams. The new version of football would result in better-conditioned athletes when the basketball season began, which would improve the team’s results and give the kids a means to maintain conditioning during a period where they would be otherwise inactive.

The cost of equipping a starting squad of six men was less than $100 for the minimum equipment, including a helmet for each and a football. In Nebraska, the cost for a spectator to get into a game was between $0.10 and $0.40 cents. For most teams the total gate receipts were less than $50.00 but that more than covered the cost of the sport. A visiting team received $5.00 for its participation and the referee was paid $3.00 for his night’s work. In North Dakota, for a time, referees were all voluntary, which further improved the monetary dynamics of the sport.

An article in the Evening Times, a Cumberland, Maryland newspaper,[1] spoke to the fact that the use of canvas shoes was the major reason for the reduced cost in six-man football, as the spikes worn by the eleven-man football players were very expensive. The spikes were dangerous as well and many injuries resulted from a player stepping on hands, feet, legs, back and even the head of an opponent lying on the ground.

Implementation and Growth

Once Mr. Epler was comfortable with the structure of this new game, he took the school board up on its promise to endorse his plan, and he received permission to test the game. Knowing he had to prove its viability, he set out to secure teams willing to play the sport. The first-ever game occurred in Hebron, Nebraska, played by two teams recruited from four area high schools. It received high marks from both the players and the fans,and it encouraged Coach Epler to continue with the development of the game. He used the rest of 1934 to test the rules and nuances of the game via a series of experimental games. At the end of the year, he published the rulebook for the sport entitled How to Play Six-Man Football.

In 1935, the number of six-man football teams playing the sport increased to 156. In 1936 this grew to 500 teams and by 1938, the national association for the game estimated 2,500 teams were participating. The total number of teams participating in the game varies depending on the information source. In an article published in the Corpus Christi Times on January 26, 1940, it indicated the team count by the end of the 1939 season had increased to 4,000 in 37 states, with conference, district, regional and state championships in each state. By the 1940 season, this had increased to 5,000 schools. All-State and All-American team selection was occurring and Stephen Epler himself chose the first All-American squad[1] and announced the results in December of 1939.

The article reported the average number of players on the teams in 1939 was 15 for six-man football and 45 for eleven-man teams. In a story in the January 2, 1946, edition of the Cumberland Times (Maryland],[2]Ross Prysock, provided statistics indicating that in 1935, one in every 120 schools played six-man football. In the following year, that ratio improved to one in every 35 schools. By the end of 1941, he reported one in every eight schools was playing the abbreviated version of the game. He further went on to discuss how the sport was beneficial to college programs as it was a great training ground for skill positions. It was especially beneficial to those seeking kickers as the rules of six-man football really promoted the development of the kicking game.

A great quote in the article sums up six-man football. Mr. Prysock said, “It is not trick football, exercise football or even football’s little brother. It is a fast, heads up, hard-hitting game demanding the utmost of coaches and players and giving the best of fighting competition to the spectators.”

Conclusion

The sport of six man football was very important to the rural schools during a challenging time in the United State’s history. It provided a distraction from the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War and helped those suffering significant hardships find distraction from their troubles. Its popularity continues today at a much reduced level with at least four states still fielding six-man teams.

To learn more about the sport and to follow the schools still participating, you can access a number of websites relating to the sport. You can also learn about a great man, a national record and the story of the Claremont Honkers football team by reading “Six: A Football Coach’s Journey to a National Record”, published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. Their website is www.sdshspress.com or you can access the author’s site at www.six-man.com.

[1] Staff Writer, “Deforest Boy Named All American”, Wisconsin State Journal, January 11, 1940,

[2]Ross Prysock, “Joe Sephus’ Reveries Past Present and Future column, January 2, 1943, page 13


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