Wild West Bowl

Wild West Bowl
Javon Letsch stiff-armed a defender.

How fitting that Dodge City, known for its wild west heritage, hosted the Wild West Bowl, the championship game of 6-man football, on October 30.

The once chaotic cattle town is steeped in western history. Legendary lawman Wyatt Earp once controlled the partying cowboys letting loose after months of driving cattle from Texas to Kansas. Those drives began to arrive in 1875 with more than 75,000 head of cattle shipped annually. Gunsmoke, the long-running television series based on Dodge City, starring lawman Matt Dillon and saloon keeper Miss Kitty, debuted in 1955. The show ran for 20 years to perpetuate the history of the great cattle town in western Kansas.

Fortunately, 6-man football captured the spirit of those unbridled times beginning in 1935 with wide-open attacks featuring football-slinging and stampedes up and down the field. Out of desperation, the game proved to be the solution to keep football viable in the state’s western regions at high schools with shrinking attendance.

This past season 15 schools played in the 6-man Football Association. However, in a recent unanimous vote, the Kansas State High School Activities Association elected to sanction those teams and other new schools to help the classification reach the mandatory 24-team limit.

The game is played on turf 80-yards by 40-yards. Most 6-man schools fit their gridiron on that standard. However, in Dodge City, the smaller dimension was lined on a regular 100-yard field. The extra room allowed Laura and I to photograph the game on a football field, something I always weirdly hoped to achieve. I did make one rookie mistake, however. I forgot extra points are attempted using the setup of the regular-sized field. An official kindly reminded me to move out of the regulation endzone, which I did, filled with embarrassment.

That leads to one of the 6-man game’s anomalies. A kicked extra point converted is worth two points. A running or passing play for a conversion is worth only one point. A kick attempt takes three players for the snap, the holder and the kicker, making attempts much harder.

Other rules justify the use of the word, wild, in the bowl’s name. First, everyone on the offensive side of the ball can catch a pass or run with ball. That led to another first for me, a touchdown run by one of the centers. Natoma center Derek George scored two touchdowns and ran for 51 yards.

The quarterback cannot cross the line of scrimmage without another player possessing the football first. From an I-formation, the quarterback often tosses the ball to a second quarterback who can run and pass as needed. It took time to adjust to all the whirlwind offensive sets. Cunningham used three wide receivers and one wide-out to the opposite side to spread out the opposing defense.

We have noticed that both the 6-man and 8-man defenders quickly build speed, leading to fierce bone-crushing tackles. A friend once told me, “Those players are hard as nails.”  Unfortunately for Cunningham, an ankle of their top runner and passer proved to be the team’s “Achilles Heel.” Luke McGuire was tackled from behind on an early touchdown run. He gamely limped through the rest of the game. Sadly, that TD run was nullified due to a penalty to add to his misery.

Early in the game, Cunningham’s defense held down the league’s offensive player of the year, Natoma’s Kayden Martinez. However, the second half belonged to the hard-running senior. He scored four touchdowns, most on runs that turned into a helpless track meet for the Cunningham defense. Natoma’s passing game added to the scoring as Cunningham’s frantic effort to keep the game close led to fumbles and interceptions. All that led to one of the game’s unique rules and another first for us.

Games are immediately called once a 45-point difference is achieved. With 37 seconds left in the third quarter, Natoma tacked on another touchdown and “45ed” Cunningham by a final score of 60-12 in the climatic Wild West Bowl.

Despite the announcer’s disregarded pleas for Natoma fans not to storm the field, players were quickly engulfed by joyous fans. What could possibly keep them back, given that only two weeks before, the school won their first playoff game in 47 years? Thus, the school and the city 150 miles northeast of Dodge City finished their drive to the final Wild West Bowl title.

In the city once called the “Queen of the Cowtowns,” the Natoma team became the “Kings of the Cowtown.”

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