Everything these days is determined by an unscientific survey and/or settled by social media. It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that earlier this weekend I saw one of those Twitter flash polls asking folks to weigh in on Maine eight-man football.
Excitement, apathy and hatred were the choices, loosely paraphrased. I’ll never understand how the latter emotion has become so pervasive when we’re talking about kids playing a game, but here we are.
Regardless of whether you love, like, loathe or tolerate it, a pared-down version of the greatest game God ever gave man the vision to create is coming to rural Maine, and it’s there to stay.
Having loved high school football since I was old enough to see over the velvet rope behind the bench, and having read with interest longtime tag team partner Randy Whitehouse’s superb series about the methods, motivations and myths behind eight-man football, I’m excited for the stakeholders in my native state.
The game they cherish is being saved and given a fighting chance to thrive, today and for another generation of tomorrows, in a time when every other societal trend pushes against it.
Budget-constrained parents can’t afford it. Well-meaning but short-sighted professionals and political figures preach against it. Prospective players choose hand-held games that demand less sweat equity and provide greater immediate gratification.
All of which are major problems, if you’re looking around at an aimless, detached, increasingly frightening society that is desperate for the life lessons this game taught its fathers and grandfathers.
We simply should err on the side of giving young people every reasonable opportunity to play multiple sports, and especially football, which encourages development of character, reliance upon your neighbor and respect for your adversary perhaps above all others.
Never in my lifetime have Maine and America had a more lukewarm attitude toward football, yet never has the game been more crucial to the lives of its participants.
Ten schools will tackle the inaugural challenge of introducing eight-man football to Maine, and let’s not tiptoe around the issue.
Forget that you might have seen one of those programs win a state title earlier this decade, or that one or two others may have been competitive in the Class C or D playoffs not many years in the rear-view. Without a less labor-intensive option for playing the game, every last one of those programs would cease to exist within five years. Most, while heaven knows they would have tried, would not have been able to operate safely in Class B, C, D, E, X, Z or pi this coming autumn.
That’s when football truly becomes a health-and-welfare issue, even if you’re calling it a developmental league and picking strictly on opponents your own size. Eighteen to two dozen players are not enough to responsibly play the sport in its traditional incarnation on a field of normal dimensions.
More than one courageous but crazy team tried to make do with even fewer bodies than that in 2018, creating a no-win situation for all involved. Playing a game of football’s physical toll with more assistant coaches than substitutes standing on the sideline is foolhardy.
Something had to be done, not only for those schools, but for coaches who are looking three, five or seven seasons down the pipeline at what’s coming up through their system and rolling their eyes and gritting their teeth. Eight-man football is more than a patch-up job. It’s a preemptive strike against every trend that is slapping us across the face.
Allow me to put this into perspective. There are 223 high school football programs in Kentucky, or roughly three times the number trying to do business in Maine. Most of them are well-matched and playing a manageable schedule against teams at their own level within an hour of home.
Yet in the state sanctioning body’s 2018-19 school year roll call for all sports, the line that stood out from all others was that Bluegrass-wide, compared to the previous year, football participation dropped an average of one player per school.
One kid, out of what’s typically 60, 70 or more. And still Kentucky is alarmed about the direction of the sport. To which I can’t help but chuckle, because for the better part of my final half-decade in Maine, I didn’t need a bean counter to tell me football was in trouble. The addition of fourth and fifth classes and cooperative teams were necessary to keep football from dying on the vine in once vital pockets. Mid-season shutdowns and post-season forfeitures became unfortunate, annual events.
There’s an increasing tendency in politics to say that you don’t have the right to an opinion about a heated issue if you aren’t directly affected by it. While I don’t subscribe to that school of thought across the board, I’ll eagerly play the card here.
If you aren’t a player, parent, coach or administrator from one of the 10 schools that invested in its football future by adopting eight-man, it really isn’t your concern, even if your school quite possibly is headed there shortly. You’re under no obligation to play, watch, understand or follow that version of the game.
Just be aware this style of play still teaches blocking, tackling, discipline, commitment and skill development. It still keeps the participants motivated to take care of business in the classroom, and yes, it still gives the option of playing the 11-man brand in college if they have the talent and desire.
Excitement and love of the game are the only answers to any survey question for those young people. I doff my helmet to the Maine Principals’ Association and these few, proud member schools for their forward thinking and flexibility to provide a competitive avenue for those athletes on frosty Friday nights and crisp, sunny Saturday afternoons.
Kalle Oakes covered high school football in the pages of the Sun Journal for 27 years. He now roams the sideline as sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.