Friday Night Lite
Downtown Penelope is a ghost town--literally. Town life centers around the school, where Weston Walton helps Cindy Watson get ready for volleyball practice (top right), and Penelope High School cheerleaders (above left) prepare a "spirit" sign for homecoming. Enthusiasm runs high during an afternoon pep rally (center), and Bonnie Jones proudly wears her homecoming mum (far right). For the players on the school's 11-member football team, a pregame prayer is traditional (bottom).
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.
In the parking lot, Superintendent Harley Johnson is busy at his regular Friday-night job directing traffic. Only a few parking spaces remain with kickoff 45 minutes away. Smiling as he looks to the clearing skies, Johnson predicts the largest crowd of the season.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
So McAdams resigns himself to preaching realistic goals: weekly improvement, minimizing mistakes and striving to play beyond the first half (a goal it has accomplished in two of its three games this season). "Last week," McAdams says, "when we scored 25 points [in a 70-25 loss to Walnut Springs], I felt it was a major step forward.
"It's hard, but it's fun," he says. "I can't deny that it isn't difficult to take the beatings we do, but the pluses far outweigh the minuses."
If there is any criticism of the young coach or his less-than-gifted players, it is difficult to find. Parents Michelle and Tracy Joslin left Duncanville in 1999, fed up with the crime and hectic pace of the Dallas area. They purchased a 400-acre cattle ranch outside Penelope and enrolled their two boys in the rural school. Morgan, now a senior, and Mason, a sophomore, enjoy being a part of the team.
"The kids here," Michelle says, "are really close. And they think the world of Coach McAdams." It also pleases her that in Penelope High's history there has never been an incident involving drugs or firearms on the school's campus. She puts the current state of the infant Wolverines into perspective: "Ask any of these boys to drive a tractor or do some welding or load cattle into a trailer, and they know exactly how to get it done. But until recently, football was something completely foreign to them. But they're learning...and trying."
One of the goals McAdams sets for his players is to "not get 45-pointed." Unfortunately, the Wolverines don't achieve their objective of completing four quarters very often. The week before, the game was called early in the fourth after a Walnut Springs touchdown extended the margin to 70-25. (Which is quite an improvement over how things were back in 1958, when Venus High scored 110 points against the Wolverines in the first half.)
In the four seasons the Wolverines have competed, not a single college coach has dropped by to watch a practice or attend a game. Johnson and McAdams are, however, quick to point out that Mario Herrera, the center on last year's 0-10 team and one of the star performers in school secretary Gloria Walton's one-act play troupe, did receive a drama scholarship to Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas.
An elderly farmer who hasn't missed a Wolverines game since the school's return to football leans against the fence surrounding the field, looking up into the crowded stands on the home side of the field. Mums, some as big as dinner plates, are worn by mothers and girlfriends alike. Several grade-school girls are dressed in uniforms similar to those worn by the six Penelope cheerleaders .
"This," the farmer says after several minutes of silence, "is the most I've ever seen at a game. I'd say 250, maybe 300."
Either guess exceeds the town's population.
Six-man football began in 1934, the brainchild of a Chester, Nebraska, educator and coach named Stephen Epler, who recognized a void in the fall programs of small rural schools. Searching for a solution, he went to the drawing board and designed a football game that would not require the customary 11 players. A game could be played, he theorized, with three linemen instead of seven, and three backs instead of four.
As word of his new concept spread, so did interest. States throughout the Midwest adopted Epler's plan, and in 1938, Rodney Kidd, then athletic director of the University Interscholastic League, governing body of high school sports, wrote Epler for information on the game.
Kidd then contacted coaches at two small Texas schools, Prairie Lea and Martindale, and asked that they study the rules, have their kids practice for a while and then put on a spring exhibition game for UIL officials.
He and other UIL officials liked what they saw, and the following fall the formerly non-football schools Dripping Springs, Harrold and Oklaunion and the two teams that had staged the spring exhibition were celebrating their first district championships.
By halftime, diminutive Penelope halfback Michael Lozano has scored a touchdown, but Cranfills Gap--bigger, faster and clearly more talented--has built a 25-6 lead. The oncoming defeat, however, is put aside briefly as candidates for homecoming queen, ignoring the fact that the muddy field is certain to soil the long dresses they're wearing, are escorted to midfield by members of the team.
Smiling nervously, the girls pose for one of those yearbook moments that will be remembered long after the score.
Six-man football's popularity reached a national peak in 1953 when 30,000 teams across the country competed in the sport. And while consolidation of rural schools ultimately turned the sport into nothing more than scrapbook memories for many states, it continues to thrive not only in Texas but in New Mexico, Montana, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and throughout Canada. Today, in fact, it is no longer sole property of small towns. The growth of urban private schools and the desire to provide their students with athletic opportunities have given rise to 74 new six-man football teams in Texas alone.
And while the list of six-man graduates who've gone on to make names for themselves on a higher athletic plane is admittedly short, there have been exceptions. Jack Pardee, once the rage of little Christoval High, went on to earn national recognition as a fullback for Paul "Bear" Bryant at Texas A&M in the '50s, then enjoyed a lengthy pro career with the Washington Redskins. And more recently, a gifted Amherst running back named DeWayne Miles, who scored 40 touchdowns in the six-man playoffs alone, enjoyed a record-setting career at Canyon's West Texas A&M in the late '90s before playing briefly in the NFL. It should also be pointed out that Survivor star Colby Donaldson got his first taste of competition as No. 88 on Christoval's six-man Cougars, and Dallas photographer Laura Wilson, mother of well-known actors Owen and Luke, has a picture book, Grit and Glory: Six-Man Football, due out next month from Bright Sky Press. Wilson spent a season visiting small-town games, gathering black-and-white images.
If there's an ultimate authority on the sport, it is Austin's Granger Huntress, 38-year-old communications manager for the U.S. Tennis Association and keeper of a Web site devoted to scores, schedules and rankings of Texas six-man football. His knowledge of the game is encyclopedic. Want to know the score of the 1979 six-man state championship game between Milford and Cotton Center? Huntress can give it to you off the top of his head. He'll tell you that tiny Marathon, in the Big Bend, once enjoyed a 50-game winning streak but, alas, this year had to forfeit all of its games since just three players reported for the team. Remember '95, when little Mullin High, out in West Texas, played a Colorado school from Weldon Valley for the mythical six-man national championship? Huntress was there, roaming the sidelines.
Recently he rushed home from the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in New York to keep alive his routine of seeing at least one six-man game every weekend. Sometimes he manages to see several. "I try to see at least 15 or 20 games a season," he says. His travel plans are Lone Star State-simple. "I look for the good games that will be played near some place I can get good barbecue," he says. The color and atmosphere of the rural sport fascinate him. "All the wonderful clichés are there: community pride, school spirit, good people. I love it."
And, ironically, the sport he religiously follows is thriving--but for a negative reason: Small-town Texas continues to vanish, swallowed up by economic hard times and the lure of urban life. "What has happened to Penelope is a textbook example of what is happening to so many rural towns. Farming is no longer very profitable, and the job market has dried up, so people move to the city to find work. Suddenly the school enrollment is so small that it is no longer possible to field an 11-man football team. So they drop down to six-man."
Each year, he says, he sees more and more schools with marginal enrollment downsizing to the six-man game.
Many missed tackles, fumbles and dropped passes have contributed to the Wolverines' third lopsided defeat of the season. As the crowd winds its way toward the parking lot, Corey McAdams gathers his players at midfield. He briefly reprimands a frustrated player who has thrown his helmet onto the ground in disgust, then his voice turns soft. His comments are focused more on the brief signs of improvement than a ranting recap of mistakes. "We're making progress," he says. "We've just got to keep working."
Nearby, April McAdams shakes her head. "I know he's disappointed," she whispers. "He really thought this was a game they had a chance of winning." A week later, while playing Iredell, the Penelope team reached one of the goals Coach McAdams had set. The Wolverines established a new school single-game record by amassing 40 points. Unfortunately, Iredell scored 88.
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