How We Play: 6-Man American Football
This high-scoring version of the typical game keeps traditions alive in Marfa, a Texas town that's changing fast.
"How We Play" is a series celebrating athletic communities around the world making sport their own.
It's the second quarter of the Marfa Shorthorns' final American football game in a pandemic-disrupted season. John Aguero, a quarterback/running back hybrid for the Shorthorns, takes a snap and tosses the ball to Ethan Zubia, the starting quarterback, allowing Ethan to advance beyond the line of scrimmage.
Ethan scrambles about 15 yards backwards, deep behind his three-person offensive line (there are only 12 players on the field at a time). He evades one defender from the Van Horn Eagles, then another. Under pressure, he heaves a pass into the end zone towards the Shorthorns' wide receiver Ian Marquez, who leaps and catches it. Touchdown! The Marfa fans, who have driven more than an hour to Eagle Field in Van Horn to support their team tonight, go absolutely wild.
Though the Eagles, with their home-team advantage, are still up 34–12 before half-time, the Shorthorns' trip to the end zone gives them hope of dodging the 45-point mercy rule (which stipulates that a team leading by more than 45 points at the end of or after the first half is declared the winner). In a typical game of high school American football, one team with a 45-point advantage would be cause for great concern. But in this high-scoring version of the game, where one missed tackle often leads to a touchdown, it's not uncommon.
This is not American football as you likely know it.
This is six-man American football.
Marfa's Identity Crisis
Whether playing, coaching or cheering from the sidelines, for the people of Marfa, American football is integral to the town and its identity. The realities of COVID-19 have made locals ever more aware of the importance of keeping the Friday-night lights on—and just how easily they could be switched off permanently.
In recent years, Marfa has developed into a desert oasis of art and culture, with tourists flocking to its fancy restaurants, hip hotels and ironic exhibits. But these changes have been pricing out educators, blue-collar workers and long-time residents whose families have lived here for generations. They're generally unimpressed by the spiralling rents, fancy boutiques and $60 steaks.
In a close-knit community of just 2,000 people that's a little less than 200 miles from El Paso, American football is one thing the residents wholeheartedly rally around. "Coming into town, you see windows painted, flags out, the spirit of Marfa out, the purple and white out", says Shorthorns head American football coach, Arturo Alferez. "You feel special because you're a part of it, like you're a part of bringing out the best of what this town is".
But the exodus of long-time locals meant that in 2011, Marfa transitioned from 11-man to six-man American football.
Let's Throw It Back
This modified version of American football was created by a Nebraska teacher and coach named Stephen E. Epler during the Great Depression. He called it "six-man", and his idea was to give players from towns with dwindling populations an opportunity to play. The first official six-man game took place in Nebraska in 1934, and the sport made its way to Texas in 1938. By 1953, it had spread far and wide to thousands of rural schools.
Today, more than 350 small schools, mostly concentrated in Nebraska, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas, have six-man teams, largely because the same sort of outward migration that diminished rural areas during the Depression is affecting them today. It's estimated that more than 150 schools in Texas will play six-man American football from 2020 to 2022.
- A school must have fewer than 105 students to be eligible to compete.
- A first down is 15 yards (not 10).
- Quarters are 10 minutes (instead of 12).
- Every player on the field is an eligible receiver.
- The quarterback cannot advance beyond the line of scrimmage until a clean exchange is made. To circumvent this, the ball is often hiked to a player who then hands the ball to the quarterback, which allows him to scramble at will.
- A field goal is worth 4 points (instead of 3). A kicked point after a touchdown is 2 points (instead of 1), and a converted run or a pass play is worth only 1 point (instead of 2).
The Game Plan
- Win. Or at least enjoy it.
- Play with discipline and focus. Or else you'll get on the bad side of the defensive coordinator, Coach Josh Kelly.
- Don't punt on the fourth down. Even if it's fourth and 27. Punts are rare in six-man American football, and Arturo Alferez, the head coach, likes to gamble.
- Don't get "45'd". If you're down by 45 at the start of or during the second half, you lose.
- Move. Fewer players on the field means everyone does a lot of running.
The Shorthorns play their home games at Martin Field. Like all six-man fields, it is only 80 by 40 yards, as opposed to the traditional 120 by 53 1/3. Numbers and hash marks are painted on the sun-baked grass, which is well worn and yellowing. The bleachers were full before the pandemic, but a smaller group of hardcore fans remains. Lively practices and end-to-end games draw spectators who live for American football.
It's not just the players who make up the DNA of this sport; it's the coaches, administrators and long-time fans who pack the sidelines game after game, no matter the score. This village is what keeps six-man alive.
"It brings small schools [the opportunity] to even play American football. That's what's great about six-man", says Ian, who had barely played a down of the sport before this season. As a freshman, he opted not to play, a decision that shocked his parents because he comes from a long line of athletes and devoted American football fans. His older brother, Angel, is a six-man legend, renowned locally for scoring 10 touchdowns in a single game. By his junior year, however, Ian finally suited up and has become a standout. "He transformed the type of attack we can run", Coach Alferez says, because Ian's athleticism allowed the Shorthorns to throw the ball downfield more often.
"The Teddy Bear"
Head American Football Coach
Coach Alferez has led a number of sports at various schools in Texas for two decades. His students and fellow coaches call him a teddy bear and the heart of the Shorthorns. "It's an emotional attachment for me, coaching American football here in Marfa", he says. Coach Alferez is bent on instilling new traditions directly related to American football—like winning, for starters—and some that aren't, like ballet folklórico, a traditional Mexican folk dance that he choreographs for performances and encourages his players to learn. Though he frequently jokes about retiring, it's clear he wants to turn the programme around. "I keep telling them, 'If your [end] goal is not to win some hardware—trophies, rings, etc.—then I think you're on the wrong team'", he says.
Justice admits he doesn't even watch American football on TV. He likes video games—Call of Duty, Red Dead Redemption 2, Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft. When he's not on the field in his purple jersey, he likely has a game console in his hand. So why does a slender boy who doesn't even care for American football all that much decide to play for the Shorthorns during his junior year? "To make memories with friends", he says. "To be a part of the community".
"The Chip Off the Block"
Offensive Line/Defensive Line
Tristan's father, Coach Kelly, is a maths teacher and a former six-man player for the Sanderson Eagles, who came within 5 points of an undefeated record and a state championship when he played for them in 2002. Tristan, a freshman, has shown immense promise when stacked against older opponents, but he's also a maths fanatic who wants to study engineering at the University of Texas. Though Tristan is following in his father's footsteps, he wants to blaze his own path. "I'm trying to push myself to be better than he was", he says. "When I have kids, I want them to be better than me, because that's how it should be".
"The Marfa Natives"
Armondo and Lucy Garcia
Ages: 83 and 81
Married in 1957, the Garcias are born-and-bred Marfans and high school sweethearts. Armondo's military service took them all over the country, but in the '70s they found themselves back in Marfa. Their connection to the team is deeply emotional: their children played American football and were cheerleaders for the Shorthorns, and their great-grandson, Diego Estrada, is a freshman on the team. Their son Sammy, an artist who died at 19, designed a logo for the Shorthorns that the team still uses. "Whenever I see that", Lucy says, "it brings tears to my eyes".
The Last Snap of the Season
In the end, the game in Van Horn is a blowout. It's the Eagles' first season of six-man, but they're already too much for the Shorthorns. With just 1:15 left, Marfa got 45'd, 75–26. After the game, the Shorthorns coaches gave heartfelt speeches to the boys huddled around them. "The strides that we've taken as a programme, we will get to where we need to be", Coach Alferez says. "Thank you again. I respect you guys, from the bottom of my heart. I love you guys. I love you". Sniffling teenagers respond with a chorus of "I love you, too".
It's Saturday afternoon following the game, and a few players— Justice, Cristian Ontiveros and Uriel Torres—are at Ian's house. His father is grilling in a "disco" (a large disc-shaped grill used for Mexican cuisine), making tacos and getting ready to watch the Texas Tech game on TV. The boys hang out, lamenting some mistakes from the night before, talking about video games, music and the faulty perception that outsiders have of Marfa. "There's good people here", Cristian says. "I feel like we're more than just the art".
During Coach Alferez's years in charge, the team has posted a winning record in only one. But after this season, he's optimistic for the next. "We progressed", he says. "We were able to put points on the board. We were able to be competitive".
The team has formed a family-like bond. Their games keep the spirit of the old days alive and bring the town together. And, thanks to players like Tristan and Ian, American football in Marfa lives on for another generation.
Words: Drew Blackburn
Photography: Cengiz Yar
Illustration: David Linchen
Reported: November 2020