It’s easy to hear the pride in Randy Jewett’s voice when he talks about his school’s football heritage. He stands in Camas County High School in Fairfield, and points to class pictures that line the main hallway. He says in the 1970s, the Mushers were regulars in the state championship.
Jewett is the school’s athletic director. He’s also the former head football coach and a current assistant. Someone from his family has been involved in football here nearly every year for the last five decades. So it was painful to watch last year as his school struggled to find enough players to field an eight-man team. Some games got so out of hand, officials ended them early.
“A couple of the state playoff teams really handed it to us,” he says. “We have the mercy rule in Idaho. And we had one team that beat us 60-0.”
Enrollment at the high school in Camas County is 37 students - about half of what it was 30 years ago. Jewett says the school may never be able to consistently field eight-player teams again. So he helped lead an effort to get the state to sanction six-man football. Last December, the state athletics association approved a three year pilot project.
On a Friday afternoon in Fairfield, about two dozen people sit in stands overlooking the football field. Six players from Camas County line up against six players from Lima, Mont. The teams play on a smaller-than-normal field in the shadows of the Soldier Mountains.
Sonja Short’s son Trent is one of the Camas County players. The family moved here recently from a larger district where Trent tried – but didn’t like – football. His mom says he kind of got lost in the shuffle.
"But this year he has shined so much,” she says. “And next year as a senior I can only imagine what it’ll do for him, for his confidence, and graduating high school, for the rest of his life, possibly. I think that has been a turning point for him.”
Jeff Rast saw what athletics could do for students when he was a science teacher at the school. Now he’s the principal and wants to see football survive.
“These are opportunities to build kids, to build discipline to give them sense of self esteem, to give kids a reason to come to school when they may not otherwise have one,” Rast says.
Rast has been thrilled with the switch to six-man. He says the game is perfect for remote communities like his. The population density in Camas County is one person per square mile. Other Idaho schools, though, haven’t shared his enthusiasm.
“It’s been an uphill battle trying to get six-man football going back in a state that hasn’t had it since 1947,” Rast says. “You’ve got other states like Texas, Wyoming, Montana where it’s still very big. But for us it represents a big shift. And for a lot of schools it’s a plunge they’re really not willing to take yet.”
Two examples are Hansen and Murtaugh in the Magic Valley. Just before the season, a lack of players forced them to combine their programs. The towns are located 11 miles apart, making the co-op possible. Athletic directors at both schools say they weren’t familiar enough with six-man to seriously consider it and probably won’t in the future.
In fact, the only other school to play six-man football this year was Clark County in eastern Idaho. It also played games against schools from Montana. That state has sanctioned a six-man division for more than 30 years, and the number of schools playing in it continues to increase. But John Billetz, the head of Idaho’s high school activities association, says there’s resistance here.
“We’ve always been an eight-man state,” Billetz says. “I think schools want to hold on to their eight-man identity as much as they can. And as long as they can field eight-man teams, they want to do it. I don’t think its reached crisis proportion yet where schools can’t participate at the eight-man level.”
In Fairfield, Randy Jewett’s sense of pride gives way to concern when he talks about the future of Camas County football. The remote nature of the county means sharing with another school isn’t possible. It’s clear he’s worried what the overall lack of interest in six-man football will do to the program here.
“We’re not a small school anymore, we’re a teeny tiny school,” he says. “It gives you a chance to keep playing football. I don’t want to make any changes. God love the soccer people but I want to play football.”
School officials in Clark County have already decided to field an eight-man team next year. They say it was too difficult to fill up a schedule with only one other Idaho school playing the six-man game. And in Fairfield, that will likely force Camas County to make the same move. It also means a return to the struggles and uncertainty that comes with the eight-man game here. Jewett says the boys in next year’s high school classes will probably be able to field an eight-man team. But he’s not sure how long that will continue.
That leaves Principal Jeff Rast to ponder the question: What’s lost in this tiny community if football goes away?
He takes a long pause.
“That’s a hard question to answer,” he continues. “A lot of tradition. And tradition is big in any community, even large cities. But in a small town, traditions are much more of a glue that holds things together. And there will be a void that people will really feel if we lose that.”
Here's an idea of what six-man football looks like.
(Clarification: We originally reported the mountains that sit adjacent to the town of Fairfield as being part of the Sawtooth Mountains. They're actually the Soldier Mountains and are located in the Sawtooth National Forest.)
Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio