Small towns turn to 8-player game to preserve football

North Dickinson began playing eight-player football this season. Eight-player football team enrollment is up 12 percent since 2009, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. (John McDonnell/Washington Post)

Editor’s note: This story has been reprinted with permission from The Washington Post.

By Jacob Bogage

The Washington Post

FELCH — Teachers, timber truck drivers and lumber salesmen gather here before sunrise at the Nordic Trading Post to sip black coffee and eat fried eggs alongside former miners who call themselves “semiretired,” given that the mine shuttered more than three decades ago. They wear Carhartt jackets and worn-in jeans, work boots and camouflage hats. Old lumber saws hang on the walls. “Fox & Friends” plays on a small television in the corner.

And because rifle season for white-tailed deer doesn’t open for another month, the main topic of conversation is high school football. It’s Senior Night, when North Dickinson County School will honor the team’s four seniors, and while the ceremonial flourishes may distract from the central attraction of the game, these fathers and uncles — some grandfathers, too — promise to be there to watch it all, even if this season is a bit different.

North Dickinson did not make the state playoffs in its first season of eight-player football. (John McDonnell/Washington Post)

North Dickinson County School, 254 students combined in grades K through 12 in one building, held onto football as most of the country knows it for years. But thanks to declining participation in an aging town, the Nordics will soon finish their first season of eight-player football in decades.

As the game of football faces challenges nationally — head injury concerns, rising costs, sport specialization — the effects are being felt first and most acutely in small towns such as this outpost in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“Your football team is really on life support when you’re on eight-man, because there’s no place to go after eight-man,” North Dickinson Athletic Director Michael Roell said. “We’re hoping we can still have a football team for school pride, for homecoming, for all the things that should stay in high school.”

The eight-man version of the game is played on a narrower field. Offenses typically eliminate two linemen and a fullback or tight end. Defenses drop two defensive backs and a lineman. The rules and fundamentals are mostly the same as the 11-player version; you still have to block and tackle.

Michigan has lost 57 11-man high school football teams in the past five years, but most, state officials say, moved to the eight-player ranks. The state has poured resources into creating separate junior varsity leagues, varsity conferences and playoffs for eight-player teams.

North Dickinson players Jacob Butterfield, left, Michael Miller, center, and Matthew Bruette sit before they play Phillips. (John McDonnell/Washington Post)

Proud football towns in the Upper Peninsula resisted the adapted version of the game as long as they could. Now, they embrace it in much the same way residents here did the Louisiana-Pacific lumber mill after the iron ore mine closed: with resignation over how times change and determination to preserve what matters most.

Shifting landscape

Michael Miller studies a geometry work sheet while bouncing his leg up and down and reaching for his right hip pocket as if his phone is soon to buzz. He is a senior offensive guard and the Nordics’ kicker, and he is waiting for the all-clear to play in his final home game.

A week ago, he left the second half of the North Dickinson’s loss to Superior Central because of a concussion. He looked ready to return for senior night, then took a turn midweek when he couldn’t remember some of what showed up on the game film of Phillips High, this week’s opponent.

North Dickinson’s trainer is scheduled to make his final decision at 4 p.m., and then Coach Mike Christian will decide whether Miller should start in his final home game.

Miller’s leg keeps bouncing. It is 8 a.m.

North Dickinson's entire football team, consisting of 15 players, stands for the national anthem. (John McDonnell/Washington Post)

If he is able to play, Miller will replace his usual No. 50 jersey — maroon with plain white numbers, no logos or stripes — with a No. 35 to honor his father, a linebacker from the Nordics’ class of 1995, who has said he’ll be in the stands for his son’s last home game.

Miller is expecting a girl from a town over to attend the game, too. Of course, none of it matters if he isn’t able to play.

Down the hall, Christian, the coach and kindergarten teacher, is working with two dozen 5- and 6-year-olds on handwriting and sight reading. While students eat snacks or go outside for recess, the coach has taken to counting the number of boys in each class in the middle and elementary schools: seven in eighth grade, seven in seventh grade, but just three play sports.

His kindergarten class last year had 13 students and three boys. In 2015, he had 26 kids and 4 boys. This year’s football team has just 15 players.

“It is a numbers game,” he says.

North Dickinson defensive coach Chris Mattson draws up a play on the white board in the locker room before a game against Phillips. (John McDonnell/Washington Post)

Felch hasn’t gotten smaller; since 1990, the town has had around 700 residents. But it has gotten older. High school graduates have left town, and they haven’t come back. The median age is 42.7 years old, compared to 37.9 years old in the rest of the country, according to census data.

The bell rings, and it’s time for Miller to take a bus to a nearby vocational school, where a third of the high school learns trade skills. Business is good in Felch for carpenters, plumbers and electricians, the men at Trading Post say. There are car repair shops in Iron Mountain, 30 miles south, that could use another mechanic.

But Miller wants to study computer science, and there’s not much in Felch to help with that. Learning a trade could help, he reasons, if that goal doesn’t pan out. He weaves through the middle school by hanging on the left side of the hallway, where the lockers go unused.

Practical problems

A quarter of the Nordics’ football team is in Chris Mattson’s 1 p.m. physics class on Fridays. Most players already have started their game preparation. They bob their heads as Mattson speaks, staring into empty space, filling the moments before class starts.

Mattson, the defensive coordinator, sketches a problem on the projector as the bell rings:

North Dickinson in Felch has embraced the eight-player game to preserve football in the face of dwindling participation. (John McDonnell/Washington Post)

There is a 20-point white-tailed deer 400 yards away. The bullet from the rifle you are shooting travels 2,500 feet per second. The deer is running perpendicular to you at 20 miles per hour. How far in front of the deer do you have to shoot to kill it?

This is not a problem out of a textbook. It is a practical skill.

North Dickinson thought it could be pretty good at eight-player football entering the season, but the new game has its own calculus.

Christian began the season attempting to implement the run-heavy wing-T offense, which the Nordics have used for decades, but there were no offensive tackles to open up gaps. He tried throwing the ball but realized the field was too narrow for the Nordics’ usual passing game.

The coaching staff revamped it all, but half the team had never played organized football before and needed more coaching on the fundamentals of blocking and tackling than on how to read a defense. In its first game, North Dickinson lost 60-0 to Powers-North Central, a team coming off back-to-back eight-player state championships.

North Dickinson, which made the state playoffs for 23 years running from 1990 to 2013, realized it had work to do before it could become an eight-man competitor.

“Every week we learn something new,” Christian says.

Fewer players on either side of the ball opens up broad swaths of space on the 100-yard (plus 10-yard end zones) by 40-yard field. Some states play instead on an 80-yard (plus 10-yard end zones) by 40-yard surface.

Eight-player football team enrollment is up 12 percent since 2009, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, the national governing body of high school sports, as more states encounter declining football participation. Washington, Wisconsin and Hawaii have added eight-player football leagues since then.

Players and coaches from the Upper Peninsula still pine for the 11-man game, though. North Dickinson administrators waited until a large, talented senior class graduated in 2017 to change over.

“Nobody wanted to go, but nobody said anything bad about it,” North Dickinson senior tight end Jared Miller said. “It was this or nothing. We only would have had eight players on varsity.”

To hit that whitetail, Mattson solves, aim 14 feet ahead.

The next problem, calculating a football punt’s hang time, will be on the upcoming test.

Miller, back from vocational school, pops his head into classroom.

“I’m clear,” he shouts at Mattson.

“Good,” Mattson shouts back. “Now get your mind right.”

Game night

Jon Jungwirth, the school’s athletic trainer, arrives at 3 p.m. to Mattson’s physics room and cleans off a lab table with a bleach wipe. He unloads the contents of his morning shopping spree: whole wheat bread, peanut butter, strawberry jam, bananas, cheese sticks and mini Gatorades. Soon, the players are watching game film while munching PB & Js and downing bananas in three quick chomps.

In the locker room, they put in earphones and dress silently until it’s time to heave those maroon jerseys over tight shoulder pads.

“Thirty-five?” defensive lineman Jacob Butterfield says as he helps Michael Miller with his gear.

“My dad is coming,” Miller says. “He wore 35 in high school.”

Jungwirth tapes ankles and wrists. Christian scribbles reminders on the whiteboard. Seated players bounce their legs up and down. Then, 30 cleats clack on tile floors as the Nordics rush out the door, around a corner, through an alleyway and toward the stadium.

When they reach the field, they hold hands in a circle and pray, then break into warm-ups that don’t last very long.

The Nordics receive to start the game, and on the first play from scrimmage, the Phillips defensive tackle bursts through their undersized offensive line and forces a fumble. The Loggers recover and score on the next play.

North Dickinson fires back. John Nelson, the senior quarterback, hits tight end Jared Miller on a deep play-action pass, then a rotation of running backs hammers away at the Loggers’ defensive front. Nelson drops back on third down-and-long and lobs another pass to Miller, who catches it in the end zone.

A substitute teacher in the stands rattles a cowbell as five cheerleaders sing the fight song in praise of “Nordic High.”

But Phillips goes on a tear on offense and wins, 48-18. In its first season with eight-player football, North Dickinson won only one game. It will not make the playoffs.

Parents and classmates and girlfriends meet the team’s seniors on the field, and take enough pictures and make postgame plans until they all smile again and trudge into the locker room cold and wet.

Michael Miller peels off his No. 35 uniform and stares at his phone is his locker.

His father did not make it to the game. He couldn’t get off work.

The girl who came to see him had sent him a message on Snapchat from the stands.

He smirked and showered, then walked out of the locker room last.

There is only one business in Felch open late on Friday nights: a coffee shop named “Alex’s Place,” in the back of an old church. Almost all of North Dickinson’s senior class was waiting there, sipping hot chocolate and eating brownies and wondering what to do next.

© 2017 The Washington Post

North Dickinson football coach Mike Christian teaches kindergarten and keeps track of the number of elementary-age boys with an eye on the future. (John McDonnell/Washington Post)