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Better Eight Than Never : An Abbreviated Version of Traditional Football Makes Its Mark at High Schools

October 23, 1987|STEVE SPRINGER | Times Staff Writer

Eight-man football.

The very name seems to indicate an inferior brand of football. Inferior and informal.

Remember those pre-teen fall afternoons, playing football in the street or on a lot with anywhere from four to eight players on a team? Go long, you would tell a receiver while diagramming a play with your fingers in the palm of your hand, and make a sharp left at the station wagon.

Fun it was. Football it really wasn't.

Great for youngsters, but 8-man football at the high school level? That would seem to be the type of radical departure from tradition that would mean a travesty in most sports. How seriously could you take seven-man prep baseball, with perhaps an outfielder and a shortstop missing, or four-man prep basketball, minus a guard or a forward?

But the result in high school football, for the most part, has turned out to be anything but a travesty.

Instead, those high schools across the country that use the 8-man format have produced a wide-open, exciting game that is often a dream situation for the kind of coach who likes to while away spare time drawing X's and O's on everything from napkins to old laundry receipts.

Got a crazy formation? This is the place to try it.

Let's see, we could go with four receivers and no running backs. Or, we could place the quarterback and the center in the middle of the field with the other six players split to one side, making the center eligible. Or we could split three men to one side and three to the other.

On defense, we could go with a two-man line, three linebackers and three defensive backs. Or how about a 3-3-2? Or even seven on the line and one back.

All of the above and more have been used in the 8-man game with varying results. It's not always good, but it's rarely dull.

Recently, punter Don White of Campbell Hall, a North Hollywood school that plays the 8-man version, booted a disastrous kick. The ball traveled three yards forward and then bounced back to White in the backfield. He picked it up and ran 46 yards for a touchdown.

Football at every level has its crazy plays, but the 8-man game often seems to be a never-ending highlight film simply because there are fewer bodies on the field to maintain order.

Eight-man ball is not a game of gang-tackling because it is difficult to get the whole gang together at any point on the field. It's much more of a man-to-man game.

"Eight-man football is a defensive nightmare," said Chris Schultz, head coach at Buckley School in Sherman Oaks. "There is no way to defend realistically because you're missing one defensive back. In a one-on-one situation, just about anybody can be beaten. Since you don't have that extra safety to help out, if the cornerbacks take one step up, they can get beat."

No argument there from Harry Morgan who has been coaching 8-man football at Faith Baptist in Canoga Park for a decade.

"In 11-man football, the defender gets a little help," he said. "He doesn't have as much responsibility as he does in this system.

"Eight-man football takes a little more intensity, better tackling techniques. But, it's a pretty good game. It really is. You don't gamble as much defensively because if you get out of position and leave a hole, the man is gone."

Kirk Duncan, head coach at Campbell Hall, believes football is football.

"I don't buy the wide-open theory," he said. "I think 8-man football turns out not to be more wide open. Like any level of football, people get real comfortable doing certain things, like running the ball.

"But if you throw the ball, you can rack up some numbers in this game. Because you have to go one-on-one, you can get these kids turned around trying to cover a receiver."

When it comes to turning youngsters around, Duncan has a quarterback--Ty Leatherman--who can make defensive backs look like whirling dervishes. In a game against Webb, Leatherman connected on 26 of 53 attempts for 412 yards and 6 touchdowns. In the school's first five games this season, Leatherman threw for more than 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns.

"I'd rather watch an 8-man game over the 11-man game," Schultz said. "There is always something happening, always the chance of a big play, always the chance for a touchdown. It's a speed game. And it's not unusual to score 40 points in a game."

But 8-man football was not created because of the resultant numbers that would be put on the scoreboard. It was created because of the numbers on the bench.

There are a lot of high schools that simply don't have the enrollment to field a full-size squad, which can number between 30 and 35. For example, at Rio Hondo Prep in Arcadia, the total enrollment is 35. And that is a co-ed school.

So the answer is the 8-man game, where the majority of players play offense, defense and even special teams.

"About 11 guys wind up playing," Morgan said, "or maybe 12 or 13. You put in any more than that and you're not going to win much."

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