Friday Night Lite

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

Corey McAdams is no stranger to the religious fervor generated by schoolboy football in Texas. Son of a coach, he quarterbacked his dad's Sudan High team to the state championship in the mid-'90s, then went off to play college ball at Abilene's Hardin-Simmons University. After graduating with a communications degree, he took a job as promotions director at a local television station but after a couple of years realized his love for the game remained. As he'd been doing all his life, he sought the counsel of Royce McAdams. His dad suggested a career of teaching and coaching, and the son went in search of a new livelihood.

His quest would lead him to a town he'd never even heard of, to coach a brand of football he knew little about. "Before I could even start helping Coach Darden," he admits, "I had to learn the rules of the game." Like the players he now coaches, McAdams started from scratch.

The game his team plays is reserved for 102 of the state's public high schools with an enrollment of 99 students or fewer, and the battlegrounds are whistle-stop communities only a short drive from Dallas that would try the geographical knowledge of lifelong Texans--Buckholts, Coolidge and Aquilla; Calvert, Milford and Bynum--and the adversaries are teams of Indians, Bulldogs and Bobcats often drilled by one-man coaching staffs. (Fellow teachers Phillip Esparza and Charles Bellows assist McAdams.) Many play on poorly lighted fields bare of grass, circled by trucks and cars filled with fans who view their weekly games through windows freshly cleaned at Gus' Grocery and Gulf. A 150-pound halfback scores a touchdown, and his effort is greeted by a chorus of honking horns.

The scoreboard blinks a disappointing tally as Penelope players huddle for a postgame pep talk. At least they didn't get "45-pointed": In six-man football, the game stops at any point after halftime if a team is 45 points behind. Below, Coach Corey McAdams assures his inexperienced players that they are improving.
The scoreboard blinks a disappointing tally as Penelope players huddle for a postgame pep talk. At least they didn't get "45-pointed": In six-man football, the game stops at any point after halftime if a team is 45 points behind. Below, Coach Corey McAdams assures his inexperienced players that they are improving.

Out in the hinterlands, where bleachers might accommodate 100 spectators, where there are rarely enough students to field a band at halftime and admission is only three bucks, there is a strong argument to be made that rural America offers up organized sport at its purest.

"I think it's pretty obvious that our kids play for the simple enjoyment of the game, of being a member of a team," McAdams says. "It's important to them, and they work hard at it, but they're not out here in hopes of some day playing at the college level or becoming a big pro star. Having a football team is fun for the school, fun for the townspeople."

Penelope's growing enthusiasm for the game lends support to his observation. While things such as late-evening farm chores prevent organization of an official booster club like those found in most towns, McAdams is one of the few coaches in the state whose players' parents were willing to donate the money necessary to buy equipment and uniforms. He also has at his disposal someone like school board member Willie Harlin, who volunteers to scout upcoming opponents, returning with such data as the formations, heights and weights of the next week's opponents. Harlin films the Wolverine games with his own hand-held video camera, providing McAdams and his players an opportunity to review and learn from their performances.

So while school board members in Philadelphia questioned the worth of athletics in its 38 public schools a few years back and Los Angeles eliminated junior high football in the name of economics, Penelope fields a junior high and high school team with an operational budget that wouldn't even keep Highland Park High School in footballs.

"Our football program," says Superintendent Johnson, "is not a financial burden, thanks to the interest and support of the townspeople." While he'll not disclose how much McAdams earns above his base teaching salary for coaching football in the fall and track in the spring, rest assured it is light-years shy of the $90,000 reportedly earned annually by the head coach at perennial Class AAAA powerhouse Stephenville High.

In addition to coaching both the high school and junior high football teams, McAdams also directs the boys' and girls' track teams in the spring (despite the handicap of not having a running track). Toss in that he lines the field for home games, launders his players' uniforms, teaches a full course schedule (speech and health), serves as scorekeeper at home games during basketball season and assumes an after-school bus route once football season has ended, and it's easy to see that he earns every penny the Penelope Independent School District pays him.

Patience, says the superintendent, is Coach McAdams' greatest virtue. "He recognizes the fact that our kids are far behind those they're competing against. The teams we're playing are made up of boys who have been in football at least since junior high, some as early as elementary school. They know all of the basics; they understand the importance of practice and teamwork. Our kids are still learning what the game's all about."

"When we first started," McAdams says, "I don't think many of our kids had any idea what they were up against. None of them had ever seen a football practice, and they didn't even know how to put on the equipment." Those who occasionally miss an after-school practice to help haul hay or drive a load of cows to auction have no understanding of the disruption their absence might cause. In Penelope, priorities are a bit different.

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