Friday Night Lite

Far away from big cities, big stadiums and big offensive lines, six-man football keeps the game pure

Penelope, named after the daughter of a Great Northern Railroad official who founded the community in 1902 as a watering stop for passing steam engines, was not always the ghost town it is today. Longtime postmistress Mary Dvorak remembers her mother telling stories of a thriving town that once included three grocery stores, three hotels, seven churches, a lumberyard, a pharmacy with a doctor's office upstairs, a feed and hardware store, an ice house, three active cotton gins and a depot.

Showing a collection of faded pictures of Penelope as it once was, Dvorak notes that her tiny post office is now the only business left, flanked by weather-worn and boarded-up buildings that run the one-block length of what was once called "downtown." "There's no mystery to what happened here," the lifelong resident explains. "In 1960 the railroad shut down, and cotton was no longer king." That devastating one-two punch sent shoppers and job-seekers to nearby Hillsboro, Waco and Dallas. Today, with the exception of a small residential area inside the city limits, most of the residents whose mail she handles live in the countryside, farming their land and sending their children off to school by bus every morning.

Even inside the city limits, the only paved streets are the intersecting farm roads that run through it.

The Wolverines defense (dark uniforms) attempts to slow the much swifter Cranfills Gap team as the visitor's fans look on.
The Wolverines defense (dark uniforms) attempts to slow the much swifter Cranfills Gap team as the visitor's fans look on.
Natalie Matula, escorted by Wolverine player Allen Dudik, is crowned homecoming queen at halftime.
Natalie Matula, escorted by Wolverine player Allen Dudik, is crowned homecoming queen at halftime.

"Still," she says, "it's a wonderful place to live. After I graduated from high school, I moved up to Dallas for a couple of years. But I got enough of the big city real quick. I came home, and I've never been sorry I did. Like I've told my kids, I'm going to be here until they take me to the cemetery."

And, she adds, she'll continue to be a regular at the Wolverine football games, win or lose. "We're proud of those young men. They may not be winning much, but they're building something for the little ones down in elementary school and junior high."

Which is how Superintendent Johnson views things. Penelope discontinued football following its 1963 season. "Frankly," he says, "the idea of us playing again never entered my mind until the spring of '99, when a student named Marvin Hill came into my office. He said he'd been sent by several of the boys in school to ask if we could have a football team. I told him to bring me a list of names of those interested in playing. He did, so I took the request to the school board."

The decision to add the sport came easy; putting the idea in motion didn't. "I don't think we even had a football, much less any equipment," Johnson remembers. Nor did the school have a stadium or anyone to coach the youngsters, who had never played the game on an organized level.

Johnson resolved each problem methodically. He persuaded members of the community to donate money needed for equipment and talked an old friend, Clifton Darden, retired and living in nearby Hubbard, into coaching the team. (Though he'd never coached the six-man game, Darden's credentials were noteworthy. At Sealy High, he'd tutored former SMU great and NFL Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson.) The stadium problem was resolved when Johnson suggested that Darden draw up a schedule with nothing but road games.

"Honestly," the superintendent says, "my thinking was to wait and see if the kids would stick with it before we went to the expense and effort of building our own football field." Last year the school purchased a two-acre pasture adjacent to the campus and, with a great deal of volunteer help, was soon planting grass, building stands and erecting lights.

While the team was winless that first season, scoring only 20 points in 10 games, it was not without its poetic moments. The first Penelope touchdown of the new era was scored by Hill, the kid who'd urged Johnson to reinstate the game. In the second season came the school's first and, to date, only win. By then, a substitute teacher named Corey McAdams was serving as a volunteer assistant to Darden.

A year later, with his teaching credentials in order, McAdams replaced Darden as head coach.

As the kickoff nears, fifth-grade teacher April McAdams, wife of the coach, is hurrying some 40 elementary school youngsters to one end of the field. She calls them "The Bleacher Creatures," and it was her idea that they form a "victory line" that the teams run through onto the field. Amid youthful, high-pitched cheers, she explains that it's a way the kids too young to play can be participants. Now, she points out, during daily recess periods, the grade-school boys choose sides for quick games of football, talking of the day they'll become full-fledged Wolverines.

Since Penelope High has no band, it had never bothered to adopt a school song. So April McAdams took it upon herself to persuade officials at nearby China Springs High School to let it "borrow" theirs.

And, once the elementary kids are back in the stands with their parents and the school song has been sung ("...The friends we've made while going here will last our whole life through/So to Penelope High and the Wolverines we pledge our hearts anew... "), April McAdams will be on the sidelines, clipboard in hand, keeping statistics for her husband.

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