By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
They are visible on the flatland horizon from miles away, rural beacons signaling that the fall ritual of Texas high school football is again under way. Down Farm Road 308, past the sprawling cotton fields and sun-browned pastureland that dot this region south of Dallas, the Friday-night stadium lights are luring fans to a game that is more special than any other on the schedule.
On this September evening in the tiny pickup truck-and-gimme-cap hamlet of Penelope, where they play a strange and fast-paced game called six-man football, it is homecoming.
Though rain clouds are moving in and kickoff is still almost an hour away, members of the hometown Wolverines, 11 youngsters whose weights range from the heft of a 200-pound senior to a wispy 130-pound freshman, are already in their bright red uniforms and white helmets, going through the pregame ritual. That too many practice passes are dropped, punts seldom spiral and team speed is noticeable only by its absence doesn't seem to concern the hometown fans filing into the stands or leaning against the chain-link fence that surrounds a playing field that was a pasture for grazing cattle only a year ago.
On this evening, in fact, 27-year-old Corey McAdams, ever the optimist, believes his team, the perennial doormat of District 16 throughout his brief coaching career, just might have a chance to win. This despite an arm-long list of disadvantages he and the inexperienced players he coaches must contend with.
The game they play here is different. Of the estimated 10 million fans who turn out to see high school football in Texas each year, only a small percentage has seen or is even aware of the hybrid sport. Its rules differ considerably from those applied on fields where the traditional 11-man game is played.
Six-man football is played on a field 80 yards long rather than the customary 100; offenses must travel 15 yards for a first down rather than 10; a kicked touchdown conversion is worth two points and one if accomplished by run or pass; and a successful field goal earns the kicker four points rather than three. Six-man teams play 10-minute quarters instead of the 12 in the 11-man game, and all players, center included, are eligible to receive passes. In an effort to avoid embarrassment to squads of lesser talent, there is a rule that says if one team is leading by as many as 45 points at any time after the half, the game is ended.
It is wide-open and hard-hitting, part flag football with open-field tackles, part Arena League and heavy on end sweeps and bombs. Scores generally resemble those tallied at basketball games. And, as one of the adult railbirds watching warm-ups explains, "In six-man, if you ain't got speed, you're in big trouble."
It was only four years ago that the Penelope Independent School District, the 16th-poorest school district in the state, revived a football program that had been dormant for 37 years. It made the decision to muster a team even before it had such basic necessities as uniforms, a coach or even a field on which to play.
This season, however, the two seniors, two juniors, four sophomores and five freshmen who make up the Wolverine squad are playing in a manicured and well-lighted stadium funded by grant money and a sizable bank loan, awaiting the kickoff of the third game of the new season. All that's missing is a tradition of winning.
Which is not to say that Penelope High School students haven't had their moments. Inside the nearby red brick school building, built as a WPA project in 1939, a bulging trophy case tells of past achievements. There's the picture of a smiling group of teenagers who won the 1954 state girls' basketball championship and large plaques attesting that PHS performed the best one-act play in Texas in both '51 and '76. District champions in this, regional winners in that. But you've got to search in a far corner to find the lone evidence of football glory--a game ball from the team's only win since it returned to competition. It is inscribed with the score (Penelope 32, Cranfills Gap 20), the year (2001) and the signatures of those who played in the historic game.
That Cranfills Gap is again the opponent on this night in 2003 is not lost on any of the 211 people who call Penelope home.
Michelle Joslin, mother of two of the players, notices the number of people making their way toward the stadium and instructs her aides in the concession stand to be prepared to sell more nachos, popcorn and soft drinks than usual. In the deer blind-sized press box, watching the stands fill, school board member and Penelope High alumnus Karen Osborne is nervously awaiting the moment she will be called on to sing an a cappella version of the national anthem.
On the field, Coach McAdams' Wolverines stop their warm-ups to count the number of Cranfills Gap players coming out of the dressing room. Unlike most nights, when the opposition has far more in uniform, they see that the visiting team has brought only 11. That's a good sign.