ALSEA — Dillon Elbers remembers what it was like when there was no Friday night football in Alsea. He remembers how flat and lifeless the community felt and how many of his friends got into trouble once they didn’t have the daily structure and routine of the sport.
“That’s the bad part — they had nothing to do,” Elbers said. “They started making less intelligent decisions.”
Even with the school fielding a football program for the first time in two years, Elbers still knows how painfully close he is to losing the sport he loves, again. That’s why he spends many of his days going from classroom to classroom, making sure his teammates are where they are supposed to be. Because if they don’t go to school, they can’t practice. And if they don’t practice, they can’t play. And if they don’t play, he and the Wolverines might find themselves in the same situation they were in on homecoming night in early October.
Alsea kept pace with a talented Gilchrist team through the first half, and the bleachers were packed like they had been in decades past. But shortly after Elbers was crowned homecoming king during the halftime homecoming ceremony, it was announced that Alsea had forfeited the game; they didn’t have enough healthy players to continue and head coach Joe Martinez couldn’t stand to keep rotating in a battered group just for the sake of finishing the game.
Such is life for Alsea and so many other 1A schools that are in the midst of a six-man football experiment. The two-year OSAA pilot program, which began last season, gives schools that aren’t able to field an eight-man team the chance to continue offering the sport and has infused life into small football communities all over Oregon.
“We used to not have any town spirit — actually, that’s a lie. We used to have a lot, 10 years ago,” Elbers said. “Then it kind of died off. Nobody wanted to commit to football. Nobody wanted to do it. Then these last two and a half years, we didn’t have football. This year we’re finally starting to get back on the field as a team, as a community.”
The pilot program has been a lifeline for communities that were facing football extinction, but many schools are only an injury or two away from not being able to safely compete. Players are often playing both offense and defense in a game that hardly resembles the traditional version of the sport due to an excess of open space.
“I grew up playing 11-man and I thought we were tough,” Martinez said. “These guys are playing iron man football.”
The six-man game — which requires teams to play with three players on the line of scrimmage and three players off it — allows every offensive player to act as an eligible receiver. That gives coaches plenty of creative freedom on a 100- by 40-yard field. It also typically makes for an uptempo brand of football that can leave defenses gassed after a few missed tackles.
The quarterback — or any other player who receives the ball from a snap — is not allowed to advance the ball past the line of scrimmage without first throwing it, handing it off or pitching it, and offensive units begin on first-and-15 at the start of each drive or after a first down.
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“You have to have versatile players,” Alsea sophomore Chevy Coates said. “You have to have people who, first of all, want to play football. … You just really have to keep thinking about the next play.”
While there is no postseason for six-man programs during the two-year pilot period, 21 schools throughout the state are fielding teams this season. Alsea (2-3) has been effective when healthy and the Wolverines picked up a massive 36-0 win over Eddyville Charter to start the season.
“We’ve got a few schools playing six-man that would not be playing football without six-man,” OSAA assistant executive director Brad Garrett said. “It’s given a breath of fresh air to those schools and the feedback has been really good so far.”
The Wolverines began the year with eight players and had as many as 11 on their roster at one point. But attrition over the past several weeks meant that they entered the Gilchrist game last Friday with just eight healthy players, and by the end of the second quarter they had just five.
When numbers get so thin, it creates a complicated conflict of players wanting to continue playing, but knowing that doing so while fatigued could cause major injuries. Martinez doesn’t want his players to feel that pressure.
“That's where as a parent and as a friend, I have to know that the competitive side of the game is not everything,” Martinez said. “It's about their health and them having fun. I have to be the one that says, ‘No, that's enough for today. I'm proud of you, I'm proud that you want to go back out there. But that's not what we need you to do.’ And it is tough, because you know, we all want to win, we all want to keep going.”
Martinez wants to take what he learned from his own high school sports career and help Alsea’s student-athletes have a more positive experience. He lived in Logden during his early childhood before moving to central California where he excelled in several sports. But he eventually gave that up because, as he says, he stopped committing.
It left him with an empty feeling, and wondering what could have been. He wants to help Alsea’s athletes avoid those same regrets however possible, but knows that can’t happen if the program isn’t growing in a healthy way.
“This town has really come back to life again,” Martinez said. “This town is hungry. This is a winning town. It’s a tough town and they’ve had tough teams with tough kids in the past. They’ve had winning traditions here and I would love to get us back to that. But I just want us to be committed, competitive and have fun.”