National sports network preparing future documentary on six-man football
RICHLAND SPRINGS — Why did ESPN send producer Scott Harves and two cameramen to Richland Springs last week?
For the same reasons they went to Balmorhea. And Harrold. And Mount Calm. The same reasons they’re going to Calvert.
We Texans take the uniqueness of six-man football for granted because we’ve had it since 1938. Of the 11 mostly Midwestern states that have six-man football, Texas has far and away the most participation with almost 260 public and private high school teams at last count.
Most boys in Texas want to play football, and six-man gives them the opportunity at schools that don’t have enough players to field 11-man teams.
“The national audience has no idea this exists,” said Harves, who came to Texas from his native Minnesota to pursue the six-man story for ESPN.
Harves had no idea teams like Richland Springs and Balmorhea existed, either, until a few years ago when he stumbled onto the six-man game while doing some internet research for a documentary about 11-man football in California and Alabama.
“It was something I was really interested in pursuing if I was ever free during the fall,” said Harves, who has worked with college football for the last 13 of his 19 years with ESPN. “I made a pitch to my bosses about going to five or six small towns in Texas. I sold it as the smallest of the small — towns with 200, 300, 400 people that still play high school football.
“It was not a hard pitch once my bosses found out what six-man football is about. It’s something different. It’s a little foreign to the mainstream football audience.”
Harves said small schools in Texas are different than where he’s from because we’re not so quick to consolidate. He said one school in Minnesota is a consolidation of four different schools. In Texas, small communities fight to the bitter end to keep their schools open because they know that if the local school closes, the town will eventually disappear as well.
Harves — who played high school soccer, hockey and baseball in Minnesota — came to Texas not only looking for “great” teams to focus on, but intriguing story lines as well.
“There’s a different story in each town we’ve been to,” he said. “Harrold recruited a girls’ volleyball player (Olivia Perez) to play football to have a sixth player so they could field a team. The same kid (Brady Blakely) at Harrold carries the ball 90 percent of the time, and he’s getting blasted. But he keeps putting his heart into it.
“There’s a story there in how hard it is for some schools just to have a team,” Harves said of Harrold, located 35 miles west of Wichita Falls.
“At Mount Calm (20 miles northeast of Waco), they’ve got one kid (Melvion Pimpton) who’s got a Division I body. He’s 6-foot-3 and weighs 195 pounds and runs a 4.4 in the 40. Will it happen – that he’ll get a chance to play Division I college ball? I don’t know. We’ll find out.”
If he does, perhaps Pimpton will become the Jack Pardee of his generation.
“At Balmorhea, you’ve got a legendary coach and an impressive-looking team, plus a community in the middle of an environmental crisis. They’re trying to protect their water,” Harves said.
Vance Jones, the legendary coach, ranks No. 5 in Texas six-man football for career wins with 222 – even though he hasn’t coached the sport for half of his 46-year career. He won a state championship at Marathon in 1976 and two more at Garden City some 33 years later — in 2009 and 2010.
Environmentally, there are concerns that nearby drilling for oil could damage the Balmorhea Springs, which provide 20 million gallons of spring water per day for drinking, agriculture and the famous swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park in far West Texas.
At Richland Springs, Harves got to know a program that has won seven state championships in the last 12 seasons. The Coyotes have put up a 200-11 record in the last 16 years. They’re so good they often have trouble finding teams willing to play them. This season the Coyotes will only play seven or eight regular-season games.
ESPN, which spent parts of three days at each Texas six-man school, visited Richland Springs last week as the Coyotes, ranked No. 1 in Class A Division II, hosted Sterling City, the No. 3 team in A Division I. Richland Springs won 48-0 in a game called by the 45-point mercy rule midway through the third quarter.
“Six-man is definitely a different brand of football. We haven’t seen a game that wasn’t a mercy-rule game,” Harves said.
Richland Springs coach Jerry Burkhart initially was concerned about ESPN’s presence hurting his team’s focus, but just the opposite happened.
“We didn’t get fancy for the cameras,” Burkhart said. “We just invited the world into what we normally do. The kids were aware of the ESPN presence, and they were really focused in practice. They wanted to look good with the cameras rolling.
“We were blessed to have this opportunity. These kids make the town what it is during the fall. They’re the entertainment in town.”
Despite not focusing just on winning programs, Harves hopes to return to Texas during the playoffs for follow-ups on some of the teams he has visited. A Richland Springs vs. Calvert matchup — they’ve met in the playoffs six times in the last 10 years – would be ideal.
Equally appealing is the idea of videoing the “smallest of the small” playing their state championship game in the grandest of the grand stadiums. AT&T Cowboys Stadium in Arlington holds the NFL attendance record at 105,121 and has a 60-yard-long video screen hanging above the field.
“You can see the glimmer in the kids’ eyes when they talk about the possibility of playing in that stadium,” Harves said. “So many of these teams think they have a shot to get there.”
Harves said the ESPN plan is to air a shortened version of his six-man production on “SportsCenter” and have the complete version aired as a “SC Featured” – a show that will last an hour or so. He said it likely would air in February.
Besides the vastly different story lines, Harves and his camera crew enjoyed the Texas hospitality.
“They’ve all been very accommodating,” he said. “We’re asking for an all-access look at their programs. We’re listening to their private conversations. They’re putting their trust in us so we can tell a story that’s real.”