Will dwindling participation lead a resurgence of 8-man football?
Dwindling participation and safety risks have made it harder for hundreds of high schools to play football in its traditional form. But when one door closes, another one opens.The drop in participation for 11-man football has given new life to the eight-man game, which for decades has flourished in some states but is still largely unfamiliar to the majority of fans. Since 2011, nationwide participation in eight-man football has grown 15 percent, while 11-man football — still America’s most popular high school sport — has lost close to 13,000 players. Concerns over injuries, primarily concussions, are just one of the reasons for the decline.
At Bishop Grimes High School in New York, the change was a long time coming. Athletic Director John Cifonelli said his predecessor began pushing for eight-man football 12 years ago, and this fall the school will compete in a four-team league culminating with a championship game at Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome. It’s a small step, but one that Cifonelli believes could ignite rapid eight-man growth throughout the state.
“Football is one of those sports where there are purists and traditionalists, and it’s almost blasphemous to speak outside of tradition,” he said. “But finally, we’ve broken through.”
Playing the game
Numbers aside, eight-man football is not all that different from what fans are accustomed to watching each fall. Fields are typically shortened to 80 yards and the sidelines are brought in by 13 yards. In moving from 11 to eight players, coaches usually take two players off the line and one from the backfield.
The biggest change comes on the scoreboard. With just one safety and fewer defensive linemen, skill players like receivers and running backs are primed for big games. It’s not uncommon for eight-man teams to run the no-huddle offense and score more than 60 points in one night. “You can transition from eight to 11 pretty effectively as long as you don’t think that you have to change everything.”
“You can transition from eight to 11 pretty effectively as long as you don’t think that you have to change everything.”
“In 11-man, if you’ve got a tremendous wideout you can do things to take him away,” said Rod Brummels, head football coach at Osmond Senior High School in Nebraska. “In the eight-man game, that’s almost impossible. You just don’t have the bodies to spread around.”
Nowhere is eight-man football bigger than in Nebraska. Brummels, who also is president of the state’s Eight-Man Football Coaches Association, played the game in high school and last fall finished his 39th year coaching it. Throughout the state, he’s seeing more programs switch to eight-man football because they can’t get enough kids to safely field an 11-man team.
Brummels said for transitioning coaches raised on traditional football, the learning curve is mild. Playbooks and schemes must be modified, but at the end of the day, it’s still football. Brummels called eight-man football a great training ground for young coaches, because the Xs and Os are simpler and there’s an emphasis on fundamentals.
“You can transition from eight to 11 pretty effectively,” he said, “as long as you don’t think that you have to change everything.”
Cody Caswell made the switch in 2013 after five years as a head coach in the 11-man game. Participation at Lawrence High School (Michigan) was on the decline, and Caswell said the team was forced to start freshmen and sophomores, players who otherwise might spend time on the bench to develop physically and learn the game. Administrators eventually had enough.
“Kids were getting hurt,” Caswell said. “It’s our job as the authoritative person to do what’s best for the kids, and that’s what we came up with — going to eight-man.”
Caswell was reluctant. He was a “football purist,” and he wasn’t sold on whether the eight-man version would resemble the traditional game. He immediately reached out to a high school eight-man coach in Oklahoma, who shared film, playbooks and tips on managing the game. It took some time, but once Caswell overcame his own insecurities, he started to warm up to new challenge.
Making the switch
Most schools adopting eight-man football today arrived there because they could no longer meet the demands on the traditional game. For some, that meant participation numbers and, for others, it was about safety.
At Bishop Grimes, not only was participation declining but players were significantly outmatched. Cifonelli said 160-pound players would line up across from opponents 70 pounds heavier, so a change was critical to keep athletes healthy.
“It’s still football, so we don’t like to use the word safer,” he said. “But it seemed logical to go this route, and for our student body it seemed to fit perfectly.”
Schools don’t easily come by the decision to switch. Eight-man competition can be hard to find in some states, making it difficult to build a full schedule. There’s also pressure from the community and those within the schools who are loyal to the sport’s traditions.
Winning student-athlete support is critical, and it’s not as difficult as some might think. Caswell recalls some players who were turned off by the change, but the majority welcomed it with open arms. One showed up to a school board meeting to speak in support of eight-man football, and he shared his experience being taken away in an ambulance after playing against a bigger 11-man team.
Caswell said the change probably helped his program gain more kids than it lost. One student who broke his arm in a middle school football game wasn’t going to play, but he changed his mind after the switch. He was eventually named an all-state quarterback.
Participation growth is certainly a possibility with eight-man football, with kids attracted to its explosive nature. Lawrence High School couldn’t field a junior varsity team with an 11-man program, but it’s now able to do so every year.
“It’s been a great switch for us,” Caswell said. “I don’t envision us ever switching back unless we’re forced to.”
Another obstacle is overcoming the myth that recruiters don’t want eight-man athletes. That’s certainly not the reality at Lawrence. College coaches scout players as often as they did with the 11-man team. Caswell said a recruiter’s greatest interests are whether a kid can run, hit and play the game at a high level, regardless of what type of football they’re playing.
“We had a kid who was reluctant at first, and he’s playing at Elmhurst (College) now and almost won the starting job as a sophomore,” Caswell said. “Recruiters don’t care if you play eight-man or not.”
Brummels said that’s also the case in Nebraska. Because eight-man players often fill multiple positions, their versatility is viewed as an asset by college coaches.
“Eight-man players tend to play both ways because they don’t have the numbers,” he said. “They’re multifaceted, and they aren’t afraid of that work going to the next level. So, in some ways, it’s an advantage for them.”
Future of eight-man
Coaches believe eight-man will continue its nationwide growth, but obstacles remain. Football is typically a school’s most popular sport, and some athletic administrators fear dropping traditional 11-man football will not only turn away players, but fans too.
In Brummels’ experience, the sport has the opposite effect. High-scoring games and no-huddle offenses tend to attract large crowds, and schools are taking notice. The bigger challenge, he believes, is convincing coaches and athletic administrators to abandon their traditionalist views and give it a chance.
“I think there’s an audience for it,” Brummels said. “There have been some schools in northeast Nebraska that have fought it forever and would play 11-man with 18 kids and have 110-pound cornerbacks. Then they went to eight-man and said, ‘Why did we wait so long?’
“The stigma is still there.”
Caswell said gate revenue for some games at Lawrence nearly doubled when the school switched to eight-man, and he believes the faster pace is part of the reason. There might be leaders within schools that resist transitioning to a new game, but Caswell encourages them to consider what’s best for the young athletes in their programs.
“This can help you build your program,” he said. “The game is still blocking, tackling and teaching life lessons. The only thing that’s different is making those adjustments in the Xs and Os.”
Cifonelli is just months away from seeing his school play its first eight-man game. He believes by the end of the season, more schools across New York will consider a switch. For others, it’ll take time. But he’s confident eight-man football will eventually win over athletic directors who are uneasy about its place in high school sports.
“There are going to be some people who cross their arms and turn their backs to this, probably for a long time,” he said. “But I think this (season) is going to generate a lot of buzz for those who haven’t seen it. People fear that it’s this awfully different thing — it’s not.”