A Marfa Shorthorns six-man football game starts with hand over heart and the American flag undulating sedately above the scoreboard. The student band warbles the National Anthem. Our new band director plays a trumpet. His notes are sure and correct, and the band gamely follows his lead.
This is Marfa’s fourth year as a six-man team. For a long time, the high school student body hovered right around 104 kids, making it one of the smallest 1A schools in the state. Four years ago, the school’s population dipped below 100, and, per UIL classification, we’ve played six-man ball ever since.
Six-man is a different stripe of football than the usual eleven-man version. At 80 yards long and 40 yards wide, the six-man field is shorter and narrower. A down requires 15 yards of advancement instead of 10. Field goals are four points. An extra-point kick earns two points; a conversion by carry is worth one. Any player may receive a pass.
This is a running game and often high scoring too, with a built-in mercy rule. If a team is 45 points ahead at any point from halftime on, the contest is over. It’s called being “45-ed,” and it happens fairly frequently.
Six-man is exhilarating. With so few guys on the field, there aren’t many grinding drives for minor yardage. Teams have that whole field to make something happen, and the plays tend to be open to wild improvisation. At a snap, Marfa zags and zips; the opponent roars in; the action is obscured by a clutch of players; there’s a wobbly, oh-jeez, end-over-end toss; and suddenly a Shorthorn is streaking down the sideline with the ball safely tucked. Hope, despair, and then hope again.
“It’s definitely a faster pace and quite a bit of room for twelve guys to run around on,” explained Wayland Jenkins, the Shorthorns’ head coach and athletics director. “Six-man is like fast-break basketball except it’s fast-break football—go, go, go all the time.”
Jenkins is wide and strong and looks like a former high school and college football player, which he is. He’s a twenty-year coaching veteran from the Houston area who relocated three years ago because his wife’s roots are here. He’s got mojo. Marfa students, boys and girls alike, watch him intently whenever he speaks. “Every one of our kids is a good kid, respectful,” Jenkins said. “They are upbeat and happy, a joy to be around. What happens on the field or on the court is secondary to what we want to accomplish, which is to produce decent men and women.”
Shorthorn colors are purple and white, and you see a lot of purple in Marfa. On game day, bank tellers, city workers, waitresses, teachers, grocery store clerks, retirees, and most everyone else in town dons purple. I long ago stopped seeing purple as exotic and royal. I am no longer struck by the purple-ness of purple. “School pride is the only reason a grown man would ever wear purple,” said a friend, who is not from here.
Martin Field and the playground that borders it are hangouts after school, when groups of ladies get together to walk the track and parents push their little ones on the playground swings. A little more than a year ago, on a late Sunday afternoon, a bunch of kids were goofing around with a soccer ball on the field. Ladies circled the track. Young children shrieked down the slide. It was early fall. Crisp weather. One of the kids playing ragtag soccer, Andrew Madrid, a defensive end and receiver for the Shorthorns’ JV football squad, stopped and complained of not feeling well, then lay down on the field. His friends gathered round. They called for help, and among the first to arrive was a physician, the father of one of the boys. CPR commenced quickly. A volunteer firefighter showed up, then other firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, and Border Patrol agents. Marfa is a small town with only one ambulance crew available at a time. That afternoon, Marfa’s ambulance was already out on a call, so the one that responded was from Fort Davis, 21 miles away. The nearest hospital, in Alpine, is another 26 miles distant. Andrew died that day, despite the heartbreaking efforts of those informed, capable, brave people who tried so hard to save him. Asthma took him. He was fourteen years old.
Andrew is why you see hints of bright green now amid the purple. Green was his favorite color, and in the devastating, low months after his passing, after the football team served as pallbearers at his funeral, green began appearing in the lettering on Shorthorns pride shirts or as an accent color on spirit signs. Remnants of purple, white, and green ribbons flutter on the chain-link fence surrounding Martin Field.
Before the opening coin toss, the Shorthorns, as do many teams across the state, take the field holding hands. The line of Shorthorns always includes two players holding a number 85 jersey between them, Andrew’s number. He is gone, though still very much present. Shorthorns coaches talk about Andrew daily. His practice uniform is folded in his field house locker. He is the team’s honorary captain, and he will continue in that capacity until after his class graduates, in 2018.
“He comes with us to every game in jersey and in spirit,” said Alberto Ramos, a senior running back and defensive end. “He’ll never be forgotten. He’s the reason we go to practice and why we play. We try hard in his honor. That’s what he would’ve liked to have seen from us. We’re a brotherhood.”
And so they play. Marfa’s team assembles in an inflatable purple tunnel before bursting out amid a fog machine and the band’s cheery fight song. Emblazoned on our tunnel is “Shorthorn Stampede.” Nearly every team has a tunnel. The Sierra Blanca Vaqueros have a different message on theirs: “I believe I am somebody.” Depending on how you look at it, this could be a statement of uncertainty or great resolve.
During games, the team and coaches focus only on the field, but there’s a party going on in the stands. Shorthorn basketball and volleyball games can get agreeably raucous, but generally folks stay seated and food isn’t allowed in the gym. You can get up and walk around during football, though. You can munch popcorn, holler, stomp. There are greetings and small reunions in the stands. How’s your nephew? Great to see you—I heard you moved back. Hello, sweetheart. Are you in first or second grade now?
Any Shorthorn touchdown is a celebration. The band plays the fight song and cheerleaders throw plastic footballs to the crowd. Pint-size little girls face the big-girl cheerleaders and mime the cheers right along with them. Hot Cheetos slathered in nacho cheese and pickle pops (that is, shots of frozen pickle juice) are big sellers. When the Shorthorns mascot, Bull-it, has trouble getting the crowd to perform the wave, Julio Baeza, the high-kicking captain of the cheerleaders, buzzes over to help. He commands attention, holding up his fingers and counting off. One, two, three, go!
At halftime, players jog to the field house for their pep talk, and the band forms a semicircle near the stands. The nine band members who are present, aided by a tenth child holding the music, lope through the theme to Jurassic Park. Enthusiastic applause ensues.
By the second half of a recent game against El Paso Home School, the Shorthorns had pulled far ahead of their opponents. Fight song! Cheer! Sometime in the third quarter, Marfa 45-ed the Panthers. Postgame, the Shorthorns surrounded their coaches and the boys each took a knee. They were sweaty and grimy and beaming over their 46–0 win. “You got your first shutout,” assistant coach Joel Natividad exclaimed. “You were perfect, for the most part. I’m proud of you,” he said. “I love you.”
“I love you too, coach,” the boys shouted back.
Marfa’s season has been a solid effort, and although we are not likely to be state champs this year, no one’s enthusiasm has dimmed. This is Texas, after all. Even if you don’t adore football, chances are that you adore someone who adores football. Maybe that’s part of why people show up in droves. We’re telling our kids, the kids from down the block, kids whom we know, and many whom we do not, that we care. Their exploits and joys and sorrows, at least those on the field, don’t go unseen and unnoticed, and we will watch them until there is nothing left to watch anymore.