The pride is obvious in Randy Jewett’s voice when he talks about his school’s football heritage. He stands in Camas County High School in tiny Fairfield, Idaho, and points to class pictures that line the main hallway. He says in the 1970s, the Mushers were regulars in the state playoffs.
“I know they won it that year, that year,” said Jewett. “There’s some incredible football players in this area.We dominated eight-man football in Idaho.”
Idaho is like a lot of rural states in that small schools play football with just eight players per side. Jewett knows the game well. He’s played eight-man football. He’s also the school’s former head coach. And he was an assistant last year when he watched the Camas County team struggle to compete.
“A couple of the state playoff teams really handed it to us. We have the mercy rule in Idaho. And we had one team that beat us 60-0.”
Enrollment in at the high school here is just 37 students. Having enough healthy bodies to play competitive eight-man games became such a challenge that Jewett worried the once-proud football program might die. So as the district’s athletic director, he did something drastic. He led an effort to have the state sanction six-man football – a version of the sport played in five other states. And he was successful: the Idaho’s athletics association signed off on a three-year pilot project.
On a sunny Friday afternoon on Camas County’s home field, six Mushers line up against six players from Lima, Montana – a school more than 200 miles away. They play on a 40-by-80 yard field, have to get 15 yards for a first down, and score often. About two dozen people sit in the stands. Others watch from trucks and SUVs parked next to the field. Principal Jeff Rast has been thrilled with the switch to six-man football and what it’s meant for his student athletes.
“These are opportunities to build kids, to build discipline and try to give them a sense of self-esteem, reasons to come to school for those that have a hard time finding a reason to come to school,” said Rast.
The population density here is one person per square mile. Rast says with only about a thousand residents in the entire county, six-player football is a perfect fit. But other Idaho schools haven’t shared his enthusiasm.
“It’s been an uphill battle trying to get six-man football going back in a state that hasn’t had it since 1947,” said Rast. “You’ve got other states like Texas, Wyoming, Montana where it’s still very big. But for us it represents a big shift. And for a lot of schools it’s a plunge they’re really not willing to take yet.”Other tiny districts here have opted to share football programs – so-called co-ops – instead of fielding their own six-man teams. In fact, just two Idaho schools chose to play six-man football this year. John Billetz, the head of the state’s high school activities association, says there’s skepticism about the six-man game.
“We’ve always been an eight-man state,” said Billetz. “I think schools want to hold on to their eight-man identity as much as they can. And as long as they can field eight-man teams, they want to do it. I don’t think its reached crisis proportion yet where schools can’t participate at the eight-man level.”
In Fairfield, Randy Jewett’s sense of pride gives way to concern when he talks about the future of Camas County football. The school district is too isolated to share with another district. Jewett laughs, but he’s worried what the lack of interest in six-man football will do to the program here.
“We’re not a small school anymore, we’re a teeny, tiny school, you know?” said Jewett. “It gives you a chance to keep playing football. I don’t want to make any changes. God love the soccer people, but I want to play football.”
But that’s going to get even more challenging. The only other Idaho school to play six-man football this year has already decided to field an eight-man team next year. School officials there say it was just too difficult to fill out a six-man schedule. So Camas County will be forced to make the same move, and return to the struggles and uncertainty that come with the eight-man game here. It leaves Rast to ponder the question: What’s lost in this tiny community if football goes away?
“That’s a hard question to answer. A lot of tradition. And tradition is big in any community, even large cities. But in a small town, traditions are much more of a glue that holds things together. And there will be a void that people will really feel if we lose that.”
Jewett, the athletic director, says the boys in next year’s high school classes will probably be able to field an eight-man team. But he’s just not sure how long that will continue.