Six of One and half a dozen of the other
VAN HETHERLY Staff
SUN 09/01/1985 HOUSTON CHRONICLE,
Section Texas Magazine, Page 5, NO STAR Edition
It was a rotten night for football. The almost-grassless field was soggy after two days of cold rain, and the rain continued to fall on fans filing into the stadium, their shoulders scrunched up close to their red cheeks. They milled about the concession stand or sloshed to their seats and shivered under slickers and umbrellas. One of them said, "It's a great night for ducks," then laughed and laughed and, without a trace of remorse, winked and added, "but not for Jaybirds or Tigers, right?!"
Right, or for people either.
The temperature was in the high 30s. It was pushing 80 in the dressing rooms, where the Jayton Jaybirds and the May Tigers were agonizing quietly, dreading the extra dimension of pain that the mud and cold portended - but savoring it, too, in the odd way that misery, to be enjoyed to the fullest, must be as nearly absolute as possible.
That seemed true of the spectators as well, particularly here on the raw edge of the West Texas desert where inhabitants develop a kind of frontier pride in the extremes of heat and cold and dust and wind. I mean, we're all in this thing together, aren't we? So if it's gonna rain on us, let it rain HARD . And COLD . It feels that much better when it stops hurting.
The punishing weather added just the right element of macho masochism to the high-school war that was about to be waged last December in McMurray College Stadium in Abilene. This was the six-man football game, between two teams with identical 13-0 records, that would determine the 1984 state championship.
May, near Brownwood, beat Paint Rock (54-8), Cherokee (40-29) and Newcastle (52-6) in the playoffs. May had reached the championship game twice before, losing to Marathon in 1976 and beating Marathon in 1977.
Jayton, midway between Amarillo and Abilene, beat Grady (60-14), Tornillo (68-12), Higgins (60-0) and Marathon (66-30) in the playoffs. The Jaybirds had no previous six-man record, having stepped down just last year from 11-man competition.
May, with a population of 285, suited out 33 worthies. Jayton, with more than twice that many citizens (638), fielded only 19. I can't explain that, but country towns are what six-man football was invented for, places that simply don't grow enough kids to line up full-sized, 11-man teams.
It is fast and furious football. It is offense run amok, wide open, a touchdown tornado that routinely sends scores soaring to ionospheric levels. Consider the 57 touchdowns scored in the 1952 season by six-man football's most famous alum, Jack Pardee. He was playing then for the mighty Christoval Cougars. You know him better as a great linebacker for the Texas Aggies, the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins and as head coach of professional teams, most recently the Houston Gamblers. Where do you think Pardee picked up the run-and-shoot offense? Why, on the playing fields of Christoval, where else?
("There were 16 boys in Christoval High School when Pardee was a senior, and 15 of those played football," writes The Chronicle's Bill McMurray, the state's premiere high-school sports journalist, in his book, Texas High School Football , stocked by major Houston bookstores. Make a note: One of these days we must look up that boy who didn't play football and do a story on how he turned out.)
But except for high scoring and some funny rules (see box on page 6), the ambiance and the trappings of the six-man game are identical to those of its big-brother 11-man version. Both are serious stuff, and both peak weekly into pure Texas-high-school-football-hysteria. It is a madness that takes different forms in different teams and coaches.
Outside the dressing rooms, May coach Ronnie Watkins raninto Jayton coach Phil Mitchell.
"Well, you got 'em ready?" Mitchell said.
"Nah," Watkins fudged, then gestured at the black wet night. "It's the pits, ain't it."
Mitchell agreed, then stepped inside the building where his troops had finished dressing in their black and gold Jaybird uniforms, outfits just as snappy as any pro team's. The odor of Analgesic Balm would have told a blind man that he was in the presence of jocks.
The kids tried to look cool, pretending not to notice a snapping photographer. Some stretched their legs, scrawny compared to their hugely padded shoulders. Others lay still, staring at the ceiling. A jam box bombarded the room with rock music, Twisted Sister screaming Stay Hungry. One black-shirted Jayton warrior raised up to yell fiercely, "Stay hungry! That's exactly what we gonna do!" Then he lay back down and silently nursed the knots in his stomach.
It was a little like Ike with his D-Day troops; you watch the kids and empathize with them, wishing you were one of them and damn glad you aren't, cringing a little when Coach Mitchell decrees it time to go out in the cold for warm-up drills.
They began clapping in unison - CLAP, CLAP, CLAP - psyching themselves into combat frenzy. Mitchell quieted them.
"We started out a little ol' two-bit town nobody ever heard of," the coach said. "Now we're playing for the state championship. Isn't that great?"
"Great! Great!" they shouted, ignited with emotion as white-hot and awesome as that of any tent-revival faithful.
"But it won't be so great if we lose, will it?"
"We don't know HOW to lose! Let's go! Let's gooooooo!"
And they went, yelling, cleats scraping the concrete like chalk on a blackboard, out into the frigid slush.
Over in the gym, the May Tigers were still warm, dry, snug and nervously subdued. They were suited out, sans shoulder pads and shoes, in their green and white uniforms and were running plays on the basketball court, Watkins coaching them right down to the wire - offensive sets, defenses and cues.
"We gotta stop the sweep first rattle out of the box," he said. "Don't let 'em bounce out around you, Randy. We don't wanta give 'em nothin', nothin' cheap."
Some of the boys stopped and stared menacingly at me in the corner taking notes. The coach shifted his chew from one cheek to the other and said, "No, he's not a spy. He's a reporter."
Watkins had decided not to send his kids out for pregame warmups - except for his extra-point kicker, snapper and holder. He said, "We gonna get soaked soon enough as it is." Good strategy? Who knows? If the Tigers win, good strategy. If they don't, bad strategy.
When the kicking bunch came back inside - shake, rattle and roll up in a blanket - someone asked, "Is it cold out there?"
"Naw," one of them lied bravely through trembling teeth, "you don't even notice it."
Another, referring to Jayton's snazzy uniforms, said, "They look like the Saints."
"So what?" a teammate snapped. "We look like the Dolphins."
Watkins looked like every football coach in the world 10 minutes before kickoff: sick. He spoke to his players slowly and quietly.
"You gotta tackle some tonight, hear?"
"This is the one we been working for all year . . . got to take it to 'em . . . gonna remember it all your lives . . . give 110percent, and you'll be the champs . . . "
Then they recited the Lord's Prayer.
"GET MAD!" a kid hollered, and the herd thundered to battle, Watkins right along with them in his yellow slicker, gray May sweat shirt and black pants that were quickly soaked to the knees.
May won the toss, received and fumbled. Jayton scored first rattle out of the box on a 45-yard run by Trey Ritchey, a little guy (145 pounds) whose running style is berserk waterbug, flitting yon and then, abruptly, hither.
"DA-da-da-da da-DA da-DA" - the Jayton band sent The Aggie War Hymn , Jayton's fight song, blaring across the field. The good ol' boys who run the sidelines at all country high-school games in Texas, boys a year or two graduated, wearing their letter jackets and 10-gallon hats and boots and jeans, unable quite yet to let go of their own glory days, yelling insults and encouragement at the players - those ol' boys were down there whooping it up. So maybe the Jaybirds did right by getting cold and wet first.
But maybe not. May tied the score real soon, big ol' Glenn Pittman (190 pounds) muscling over from 18 yards out. May fans and drill team members rejoiced, but the May band didn't play because there is no May band. Every kid in town must be on the football or drill teams.
So we had a barnburner on our hands, but what else is new in six-man football? Touchdowns are so routine in this game you can miss one by merely glancing at a cute cheerleader. If you don't believe that, well, on the first play after May's kickoff, Jayton scored again on a 62-yard pass, Ricky Martinez to Pat Hamilton. And again, real fast, after a May fumble. Then May scored back, then Jayton scored again, and May scored back, and the count was Jayton 30, May 20, with 28 seconds left in the FIRST quarter. At this rate, the final score would be 120 to 80. But then things slowed way down.
Trey Richey ran beautifully for 60 yards to make one of only two touchdowns scored in the second quarter - it was 44-20 Jayton at halftime.
During the respite, both teams slipped into something more comfortable: fresh, dry uniforms. I call that big time. Back at Lampasas High we were lucky to have a change of uniforms every year. But you must remember that back then we walked 12 miles to school barefoot through the snow, and things like that.
Anyway, both dressing rooms were subdued and business-like during intermission, as they usually are, the coaches talking strategy at the blackboard. On the way back to war, Jayton's elusive Trey Richey outlined the chore ahead: "O.K.," he declared, "20 more minutes of bustin' butt."
And that is what came to pass, but in shocking fashion. Indeed, a truly strange and wondrous thing happened in the third quarter. No one scored. The fourth period was almost as remarkable, May scoring once and Jayton not at all. The game ended with Jayton owning 44 points to May's 28.
Say what? The second half was a defensive battle? In six-man ball? Stranger things have happened, but not lately. Coach Mitchell was, of course, happy; he had outscored Coach Watkins more in the first half than Coach Watkins outscored him in the second half. But he experienced mixed emotions. Now a Jayton Jaybird through and through, nonetheless he himself had worn the green and white of May in 1976 when the Tigers finished second in the state. Even now he knows most of the May players personally because his father-in-law, Grayum Hart, is on the May coaching staff.
"I hated to see those tears rolling down their faces," he said, but quickly and honestly qualified this show of empathy: "Course I'd have hated it a whole lot worse for us to be crying and losing at the end."
Coach Watkins still thinks he had the best team. Both coaches expect to be back in the finals this season. If they are, I see the outcome as a toss-up. Mark my words: It'll be six of one and half a dozen of the other.
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