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Small School Districts Find New Football Life Moving To 8-Man Game

8-Man Football is gaining a following in Illinois
Illinois High School Association
8-man football is gaining a following in Illinois.

The Flanagan-Cornell-Woodland football team last year didn't score on its opponents until its 6th game, when it tallied 8 against Minonk. It went scoreless the rest of the year after barely having enough students to finish the season due to injuries and players quitting.

This year the school will play in the fledgling 8-man football classification after decades as a traditional 11-man squad. The rules for 8-manare very similar to 11-man. The playing field is 100 yards long, but the width is 10 feet narrower.

IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson

Illinois High School Association Executive Director Craig Anderson says 8-man football in Illinois was birthed two years ago. 

“We had our first three or four schools that decided they were going to try this. Because there were so few schools, they obviously had to go out of state to find opponents. Last year we had about eight schools,” said Anderson.

This year, 17 schools have opted in. Anderson said most of these schools choose this route for the same reason Flanagan-Cornell Woodland did: Numbers.

He added the ISHA hasn’t yet provided recommendations to school districts on when to consider the move from 11 to 8-man, but believes a 20 or under threshold of interested players is a good working number. And that planning a year or two out is a good idea.

“Whether they’re doing interest surveys of students in anticipation of whether they’re going to have the numbers available to maintain an 11-man football team. It’s not something in June where you see numbers aren’t where they’re going to be and jump into 8-man football (in the fall),” said Anderson.

Finding opponents would be quite difficult, as schedules are created well in advance of that time, and it would also give scheduled opponents an unexpected open date.

Travel is one concern about jumping into the 8-man game. The 17 teams are spread across the state, and none are affiliated with a conference. So, some schools including Flanagan-Cornell-Woodland will have some long bus rides for away games. But Anderson pointed out some larger schools playing 11-man football also travel long distances for road games in order to play schools in their comparable class.

Anderson cites tradition and community cohesiveness as factors for districts to consider retaining at least 8-man football, despite travel potentially causing a slightly heavier financial burden.

“The ability to have football and all the traditions that goes along with having a football team in your community … there are a lot of benefits to that,” said Anderson. “You maintain homecoming and you maintain all the things that happen within a school at the start of the year in the fall. I think these are important to schools. As a result, if they’re taking on a little additional financial burden for maintaining football, even though it’s 8-man football, I think they’re finding the benefits of that for the camaraderie within the school.”

Anderson also believes a player good enough to play college ball will not be penalized for playing with three less players on the field.

“I don’t think it’s that big a concern because the same skill set is necessary. You’re still blocking and tackling and able to showcase your ability to run, maneuver and pass. So, the concepts are very much the same,” said Anderson.

The 8-man football organization website even has a link to recent 8-man football grads moving on to play at the collegiate level.  

Anderson also believes the 8-man game could maintain or even revive the small-town football in the state.

For examples, when one co-op dissolves, they may form another team in another area, or two schools that had 11-man together now dissolve their co-op to each have their own 8-man team may absolutely create more teams in Illinois, but more 8-man than 11-man, said Anderson.

You can also listen to the full interview:

WGLT's full interview.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.