The future of high school’s iconic sport may depend on eight-man football

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Foothills Christian fully embraces the pageantry of high school football.

Before its game against Hesperia Christian at Junior Seau Sports Complex last Friday, the Knights greeted the 8u Grossmont Warriors on the field. Each pee-wee player sprinted alongside a high schooler, touching a shiny steel helmet before lining up for the national anthem.

Nothing seemed unusual until Foothills Christian (3-1) and Hesperia Christian (3-0) each sent eight players onto the field for the kickoff.

Foothills Christian fully embraces the pageantry of high school football.

Before its game against Hesperia Christian at Junior Seau Sports Complex last Friday, the Knights greeted the 8u Grossmont Warriors on the field. Each pee-wee player sprinted alongside a high schooler, touching a shiny steel helmet before lining up for the national anthem.

Nothing seemed unusual until Foothills Christian (3-1) and Hesperia Christian (3-0) each sent eight players onto the field for the kickoff.

“Eight-man game is a great game for schools our size,” Knights head coach Joe Mackey said with his trademark Texas twang. “It gives these kids an opportunity to play the game that they love.”

Eight-man football is generally played by schools with low enrollment — small private schools like Foothills Christian and rural public schools like Julian.

“It doesn’t mean the athletes are any less,” Mackey said. “It just means there’s less of ‘em.”

In the 2018 NFL Draft, for example, former Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round. Vander Esch grew up playing eight-man football in Riggins, Idaho.

To accomodate fewer players, eight-man football narrows the field from 53 and one-third yards to 40 yards, putting the sidelines just outside the numbers on a traditional field.

“I’m sure the defensive coordinator’s glad because trying to cover this wide field with eight men would be impossible,” Mackey said with a chuckle.

Foothills Christian lost 38-12, though Mackey said he is proud of how his undersized team performed. The Knights only have one player listed at more than 200 pounds while the Patriots had six.

“If we want to get better, we’ve gotta play the best,” Mackey said. “I’m proud of those guys. I think we tired out a little bit. I think they wore down playing people a little bit bigger than them.”

Junior quarterback and defensive back Tony Mroz said the loss was a strong performance against a Hesperia Christian team that won its first two games by a combined score of 142-0.

“I think this is definitely a great learning experience, a great challenge for us, and I think that when we get in conference we’re gonna be hitting harder, we’re gonna be playing better because of this,” Mroz said. “Yes, it is a loss, but I’m glad that we can learn from it and I think we’re going to do great this season.”

The Washington Post, New York Times and Chicago Tribune have all written about the nationwide decline in youth football enrollment over the last year. Even Warriors head coach Jason Robinson, also Steele Canyon’s boys basketball head coach, said it is tougher to field a full team.

“We’re losing kids by the dozen, but kids aren’t playing football anymore,” Robinson said. “We know that. And if we can just keep football going, if eight-man football has to stay so we can play, so be it.”

Foothills Christian hosts Chadwick (3-0) this Friday at Junior Seau Sports Complex in its final nonconference game of the season.

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