The history of six-man football.

The history of six-man football, as written by Granger Huntress and Leman Saunders.

This text was written by myself back around 2000 and appears in the book, "King Football: Greatest Moments in Texas High School Football History." I also listed a top-10 all-time six-man games in the book, which I would recommend anyone buy, but I have not been paid (as well as many of the other writers in the book) by the guy who published it.

Six-man football was invented in 1934, by a high school coach from Chester, Nebraska named Stephen Epler, who wanted to find a way for his players to have the opportunity to play the game of football. Four years later, the game made it's way to the Lone Star state, as the UIL contemplated adding six-man football to the option allowed for Texas public schools.

In that first year, 1938, only 55 schools participated in six-man football. A year later, the number grew to 112 schools. At one time as many as 160 teams participated.

In the early 1940's, towns that sixty years later still play six-man football, such as Harrold, Trent, Novice, Groom and Oglesby, were playing. But also appearing on those early charts were the then tiny towns of Katy, Friendswood, Dripping Springs, Copperas Cove and Pearland. Of course many long forgotten towns that no longer exist or have schools were represented. Towns like Darrouzett, Oklaunion, Flat, Pecan Gap and Stuart Place fielded teams in those early seasons.

Today, as we enter the twenty-first century, a time of consolidation and migration to the city, the game of six-man football is still alive and well in Texas. In 2001, there were be 102 public schools and as many as 50-60 private schools participating. By comparison, 19 teams play in New Mexico, 16 in Colorado and 15 in Montana, the only other states sanctioning state championships. (writer's.note: of course there are several teams in various states, like Nebraska and Kansas, which play six-man football that is not sanctioned by the state association.)

The game that started it all in Texas... or maybe not (see below). Leman Saunders, a former player at Blackwell, has found evidence that the first six-man game in Texas was actually played in 1936, as opposed to the UIL exhibition that was played in the Spring of 1938.

Very little is known about the exhibition these two squads put on, other than it was the first six-man football game played by Texas high school teams. University Interscholastic League Director, Rodney Kidd, asked coaches at the two schools located just south of Austin to study the rules. They later played the exhibition for UIL officials, who must have been impressed, as they officially sanctioned six-man play for the fall of 1938.

(updated November 11, 2016)
First of all, I want to thank Leman for doing this. He has really been the driving force in updated research of six-man football in Texas. For years we have both tried to trace the roots of those games mentioned above, but have never found documented proof that the dates actually line up. Here is his update:

It has long been rumored that Prairie Lea played Martindale in an exhibition game for the Texas Interscholastic League too obverse and decided if they wanted to sanction 6-man football as an official sport and this long rumored game has been called the first 6-man football game played in Texas by many sources. It has been proven that not only was this alleged game not the first in Texas, it is unlikely that this game ever happened at all

The first recorded 6-man football game in Texas took place on September 29, 1936 in Rotan between Sylvester and Dowell, Sylvester won 14-0. These two school teamed up with Hobbs and McCaulley to play this new game in the fall of 1936 forming their own league playing a round robin schedule. Sylvester went 6-0 and claimed the league title. Then in 1937 Texline High School sought out other schools in their area to form a 6-man football league and Texline for sure played at least one game against Grenville, New Mexico losing 18-0. By the early spring of 1938 many schools took interest in 6-man football and began making moves to learn the game in order to adopt the sport by the following fall. This was fueled in part by Rodney Kidd, the newly appointed Athletic Director for the Texas Interscholastic League or TIL (later named UIL) who took office in February and as early as March started out to make 6-man football an official sport in Texas. Several clinics and a few demonstration games were played around Texas in order to show the coaches just what 6-man football was; here is brief time line of those such games:

April 22-May, 1938 - Pioneer School Activities Association (PSAA, rival to TIL) spring football district is formed and games played between Westbrook, Coahoma, Garner(Knott), Ackerly, and Courtney.

April 27, 1938 - Per article in May 5th Lockhart newspaper, Prairie Lea and other schools' officials met in San Marcos and with the help of Rodney Kidd and Roy Bedichek organized a '6-man football league' for schools in Hays and Guadalupe counties. J. D Fulton of Prairie Lea was elected district chairman and L. J. Wehmeyer of Prairie Lea was named secretary. Article noted that a second meeting would be arranged to make schedule of games. This would be District 3. No mention of an exhibition game being played or set up for a future date.

April 30, 1938 - Pyote played Barstow in a 6-man football game at Wink, TX.

May 5, 1938 - Friona played a 6-man football exhibition game at Friona between a split squad of Friona high school players. Reds beat the Whites 31-26. Friona had intentions of playing 6-man in the fall of 1938 and even formed an early district but they changed head coaches and ended up playing 11-man instead.

July 12-15, 1938 - Denton's North Texas State Teacher's College hosted a coaching clinic with a demonstration game played at the end on July 15th at 7:30pm. Clinic was put on by Jack Sisco, coach at North Texas, and Joe Ailett, varsity backfield coach at Louisiana State Normal College in Natchitoches, LA. The two teams that played the game were made up of former football players for Teacher's College. 1,500 people attended the game between the Whites and Reds, the Whites won 14-6.

July 31-August 6, 1938 - Texas High School Football Coaches Clinic and school was held in Lubbock, rumored to have talked about 6-man football sometime during the clinic.

August 3, 1938 - A 6-man demonstration game was played at East Texas Teachers' College in Commerce. This was held at the end of a six-week summer course on the sport. 4000 fans attended the game which featured two teams made up of 'present and former Lion football stars.' The Blue team beat the Gold team 25-13.

Research has yet to show that the mythical Prairie Lea vs Martindale game was one of these demonstration games, with more research needed. The best evidence that they MIGHT have played is in an article from the Amarillo News Globe newspaper on Sunday June, 19th states that 'to give school officials and coaches attending the University of Texas summer school, and other over Texas, an opportunity to see 6-man football, a game between two Austin high school teams under the direction of Coach Standard Lambert of Austin and H. L. Berridge of the university's physical education department will be played here June 28.' However, research has produced no evidence a game was played at all and if so would have likely been with college students just like the other demonstration games put on at Denton and Commerce under the supervision of the TIL throughout the summer. Summer courses were also offered at the college in San Marcos as well.

What IS known is that Kidd helped form District 3 that both Prairie Lea and Martindale would be in by sitting in on their formation meetings. It is likely that this has been misinterpreted over time into being an actual football game being played, but there is no mention of it in the historical record anywhere which includes the 1939 Prairie Lea yearbook, Lockhart newspapers that covered this district and its formation from the start, and The Leaguer which featured a January 1939 article written by the Martindale Superintendent about starting football at his school with again no mention of this long rumored game.

Another long circulation 'fact' is that 55 schools decided to participate in 6-man football in 1938, that also is not true as over 100 Texas schools played 6-man football in 1938. There is only one known surviving official UIL document found to date which puts the number of schools at 55, but in fact some of the schools that document lists didn't field teams in 1938 and still other schools played in the district(s) instead of them. An example of this is as follows:

Document Listed: District 4 - Blue Ridge, Floyd, Merit, Princeton, Prosper, Nevada, Josephine
With no notation on who the district winner was, however Merit and Prosper didn't field teams and instead Allen and Murphy did and via newspaper articles we know Allen won the district.

Revelations like this point to the existing UIL document to be a very early document, likely being printed right around the September 15th deadline for official district recognition before all the district formation paper work was received. Based on this evidence we can openly question what schools were actually officially sanctioned as well as the number of districts in the 1938 season. Newspaper accounts have the number of schools playing 6-man football in the fall of 1938 over 100 and schools that played 6-man football in 1938 that are still playing the game today are:

Balmorhea, Blackwell, Buena Vista, Garden City, Harrold, Hedley, High Island, Patton Springs, Prairie Lea, Sterling City, Trent, Westbrook (and possibly Buckholts and Savoy as well, but no scores have been found and it remains unconfirmed for them at this point) In the February 1939 edition of The Leaguer, under the headline 'Texas Leads in 6-man Football' Stephen Epler, inventor of the game, claimed 'Texas now has more schools playing 6-man football than any other state.' Listing North Dakota at second with 120 schools. While no number is given for Texas there is no doubt Texas had over 120 schools playing in the fall of 1938.

Playoffs didn't start for 6-man football in Texas until 1941 and from 1941-48 there was only one round, Bi-District, officially recognized by the UIL. In 1949 the UIL expanded the 6-man playoffs by one game to include a Regional championship round after Bi-District and that playoff system held true until 1972 when finally a full playoff schedule ending in an officially recognized State Champion game was created. In 2006 the 6-man classification was divided into two divisions each with their own districts and playoff systems resulting in 2 state champions crowned for the classification each season, and it is this system we still go by today.

From 1958-75 Texas had both 6-man and 8-man football which cut the number of schools playing 6-man and saw the lowest participation numbers during these years, but once the UIL eliminated 8-man football the number of schools playing slowly began to rise again. The cut off number in order for a school to qualify to play 6-man football has changed throughout the years, starting with 100 or less in 1938 and ranging from between 75-95 for most of the years and peaking recently with the current max number being 104.9.

Here is a link to more discusson on the history of six-man football: 6 Man History