Wyoming Indian and St. Stephens face off in six-man footballBy Ron Feemster — September 24, 2013
Sport, we are often told, is not about winning or losing, but playing the game. In the local rivalries that shape high school competition, a team may lose, but they can always look forward to the rematch.
But not in Wyoming six-man football. At least not on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Wyoming Indian High School beat St. Stephens 86 to 6 on Friday. Even in the fast, razzle-dazzle game played on an 80-yard field, winning by 80 points is a rout. But the young St. Stephens team is unlikely to see Wyoming Indian again on the field.
Under new WHSAA enrollment cutoff lines for class 1A football, the Chiefs may have to return to 11-man next year after just a season on the six-man field. The Eagles, who are playing their first varsity season after two years of junior varsity play, will continue to compete against the smallest schools in the state.
Wyoming Indian, which did not win a game in its 11-man season in 2012, could choose to play in the six-man league without being eligible for the state tournament. At a school where the cross-country and basketball teams are perennial contenders for the state championship, this would demote football to something like a club sport.
But it would give both schools something intensely important: a local rival. If Wyoming Indian returns to 11-man, the Eagles’ closest rivals will be Farson and Dubois. If they stay, the players can look forward to a game with another Indian school just 20 miles away.
Reservation fans support all teams — perhaps 300 cheered on the teams at a 1 p.m. game on a Friday, when most parents worked and Wyoming Indian students had class. But some fans found themselves pulling for both sides.
“I went to both of these schools,” said Ron Oldman, who stood on the St. Stephens sideline. A member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, Oldman attended elementary and middle school at St. Stephens and graduated from Wyoming Indian in the 1970s. “I played sports for both of them,” he said.
But Friday’s contest may be remembered as a bittersweet anomaly on the reservation, instead of the game that sparked a lasting rivalry. Two teams that never played each other in six-man football met once and are unlikely to ever play again.
The Wyoming Indian game was the varsity home opener at St. Stephens. They see themselves as a young team in a new sport. They are looking at the upside of the game.
“We have 10 sophomores and maybe only one senior,” said Bill Benn, the athletic director of the school. Two juniors also dressed for the game. “The coaches are new to the game as well.”
Melvyn Blackburn, the head coach at St. Stephens, is learning the sport by watching game films of other teams, by reading online, and by watching YouTube videos. YouTube, which is rich in how-to channels, has game films, tutorials and even six-man-football playbooks.
The game is very different from its larger cousin. The center snaps the ball and then becomes an eligible pass receiver. Teams must advance the ball 15 yards instead of 10 for a first down. Kicking an extra point is worth two points because, with fewer blockers, it is more difficult than running or passing the ball three yards. That’s worth only one point after a score. But as in the 11-man game, blocking and tackling are fundamental skills. And it’s harder to learn them if you didn’t play as a child.
“Only about 25 percent of our players have played youth football,” said Blackburn, who describes himself as a certified basketball coach. Kids who want to play youth football go to Riverton or Lander. Basketball rules the Wind River Indian Reservation, where many high school players remember competing in “tiny tot” leagues about the time they learned to run.
“Most of our kids played last year as freshmen for the first time,” Blackburn said. “Two years ago, we had a team with older kids,” Blackburn said. “We were in those games. We should have won some.” But in the meantime, those players have graduated or decided to skip football to concentrate on basketball.
Like Wyoming Indian, St. Stephens is a perennial contender for the basketball state championship. But the Eagles play for the 1A title while the Chiefs compete for the 2A crown. When the two teams do play, it’s a nonconference game.
The St. Stephens football program is open to anyone. The team has two girls on the roster this year, a rarity in high school football. One of the girls was academically ineligible for the Wyoming Indian game, but Tanyka Montoya saw action at linebacker, a very macho position, even for boys.
“Football just seemed fun,” she said, standing in the hall outside the locker room with her shoulder pads inside her jersey.
Not every team has a girl,” said Brandon C’Hair, her teammate on the defense. “Not every girl steps up to play.”
Montoya, who seems to smile constantly but doesn’t say much, made some tackles on the field and sometimes landed on her backside in the grass when opponents blocked her.
“Getting hit is part of the game,” she said. “I can hit them, too.”
Six-man football was not played in Wyoming until 2009. But small towns in other states have played six-man, eight-man and nine-man games for decades. Morgan Tyree has documented the small-town game, mostly in Montana, for 16 seasons. Photographs from hundreds of games can be seen on his blog.
“I thought St. Stephens played pretty well,” Tyree said. “They understood the game pretty well. They ran plays. It wasn’t chaotic.”
And although they let this game get away from them at the outset, Tyree sees some promise in St. Stephens’ performance his year.
“They scored three or four touchdowns against Tensleep,” he said. “And they have a great field. They are lucky to have that. Some schools starting out don’t have such nice facilities.”
Tyree said the rivalry between the two reservation schools could return when enrollments change. It brings to mind the competition between Box Elder and Rocky Boy in Montana, two Native schools on the Rocky Boy reservation. Unlike Wyoming Indian and St. Stephens, the two Montana schools have also fielded the same team as a co-op. This year Box Elder faces off against Heart Butte, a six-man school on the Blackfeet Reservation.
“The rivalries are not permanent,” Tyree said. “Neither is the end of a rivalry. Enrollment might go down at Wyoming Indian or go up at St. Stephens. They could end up playing each other in 11-man. Those class changes happen more often in Montana, but they happen in Wyoming, too.”
For Wyoming Indian and its coach, Taylor Her Many Horses, the win over St. Stephens was the school’s first in six-man football. Like Blackburn, Her Many Horses has never coached the six-man game. He is also learning the game online.
“I’m reading and watching a lot of YouTube,” he said. Her Many Horses is not concerned with competing against the cross-country and basketball programs that define sport for many Wyoming Indian fans.
“Those guys earn their championships,” Her Many Horses said. “We can compete in six-man. I think we will win some games.”
But they will have to win them this year, if the WHSAA changes proceed as planned. Wyoming Indian goes back to the 11-man game. And one of the more interesting sports rivalries in the state will be over, almost before it starts.
(In the spirit of full disclosure, the author notes that he and Morgan Tyree have been friends for five years. They have attended football games together in the past and worked together on coverage of the College National Finals Rodeo for WyoFile.)— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at [email protected]
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