Four area prep schools have taken the lead in a football phenomenon that just might sweep the small high school landscape.
Forman, The Gunnery, Millbrook and Pomfret are forming a league of eight-man football teams planning to begin play this fall.
Why should three less players make a difference?
Start with these excerpts from a story by Julie Mack at MLive.com from 2013, titled “8-man football provides alternative for schools struggling to field teams,” about its impact on a small high school in Michigan.
“A year ago, Lawrence High School officials took stock of their football program and the picture was not pretty,” Mack writes. “A major stumbling block to improving the program was simply finding enough bodies: Lawrence only has about 100 high school boys, and a decent football program with varsity and junior varsity squads would need at least a third of them to play the sport – a challenging prospect considering the other sports and extracurriculars vying for students.”
It’s familiar terrain in this area for public and private schools alike.
Lawrence switched to eight-man football. The four area prep schools are doing it on a two-year trial basis. If their experience is like that of Lawrence, they’ll stick with it.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to us,” Lawrence Athletic Director Eric Adams told MLive.com after the switch. “The fan base has really increased. More kids are showing an interest in competing. People can really see the benefits.”
But still, three fewer people?
“We were down to 25 people last year, where we’ve had 35 or 40 people in the past,” said Scott McCarty, athletic director at The Forman School in Litchfield, with about 220 students. “In eight-man football, with 18 or 19 kids, you can practice.”
Forman, established in 1930, has had a traditional football program for the past 18 years, along with The Gunnery and Pomfret. Millbrook will begin football with this program, officials said.
“The headmasters from The Gunnery School and Pomfret (Peter Becker and Tim Richards) were talking about it last fall and asked if we’d be interested,” said Forman Headmaster Adam Man. “I said we would. It’s a faster game, a lighter game and it made a lot of sense to play schools in closer proximity.”
“The league we’ve been playing in (the Hudson Valley Athletic League) has gotten bigger,” said McCarty. “We’re travelling to New Jersey. The schools we’re playing now, we know.”
But finally, it’s the game that sells itself.
“Eight-man football is still about blocking, tackling and hitting,” says an online guide to the variation.
The playing difference comes from the positions from which the three players are removed and the different strategies involved in those absences. On offense, it generally results in a three-man backfield. On defense, either the secondary is cut or the line – opening either new running or passing lanes and more scoring possibilities.
The field is also narrowed. In sideline spots, no longer is a sweep available on either side. Passing becomes a key. Still, for all the benefits of the game, it’s the personal aspects that are most compelling for the four prep schools involved.
“These schools are doing it for philosophical reasons as well as economic,” said McCarty. “At Forman, we stay away from specialization. We try to find kids who can come to our school and make a difference – not just for football. We look for the complete child.”
The elephant in the sports world is concussions, especially in a heavy contact sport like football.
“Our headmasters want to change the approach to football,” said McCarty. “With this new alignment, you don’t have to be 240 pounds.”