Jerry Langford, a student in the Cedar Bayou school system before the merger with Goose Creek, always wanted to watch a six-man team play football. It was on his bucket list.
More than a year ago, his son Rusty researched the subject and found a six-man football game – Aquilla vs. Abbott -- coming up in November 2018 near Hillsboro. The road trip began with Read at the wheel, accompanied by the Bucket List Man, plus Rusty and Jerry’s grandson Kyle.
Let’s start this story with the ending. The trip went beyond Jerry’s greatest expectations. Besides offering a lesson in football history, it gave a glimpse of life in a tiny community, a slice of Norman Rockwell America, a throwback to an era when people knew everybody’s name. Jerry compared the scene to Cedar Bayou in the Fifties.
Aquilla and Abbott teams, both from sparsely populated rural areas, came to gridiron grips on an 80-yard field in Aquilla. (Abbott, by the way, is the birthplace of Willie Nelson.)
From now on, we can call this column a father-son conversation with direct comments from Jerry and Rusty.
Jerry: “From the time we entered Aquilla, I felt a connection to Cedar Bayou of the Fifties. There was no town per se, but a community. The community was built around the school, much like Cedar Bayou. When we arrived in the parking lot, the Cedar Bayou connection seemed even more prevalent. We timidly walked to the two ladies seated at a table at the front gate taking tickets. Pretty informal. As we entered the stadium, the seniors were being introduced, along with their plans for the future.”
Rusty: “In most cases on Senior Night, the senior football players are introduced and escorted on the field by their parents and families. In Aquilla’s case, the entire senior class was introduced. This didn’t take long as there were 16 members in the entire class. The game announcer proclaimed it was Fan Appreciation Night, and everyone was welcome to enjoy free hot dogs served by the Aquilla School Board and high school principal. My guess is they knew every fan on a first-name basis.”
The visiting strangers took their seats at mid-field on the 40-yard line.
Rusty: “We could feel the locals giving us the eye and sizing us up. We obviously were not locals. Everyone was friendly and very supportive of their team. It’s probably no exaggeration to say everyone from Aquilla was at the game. All the fans knew all the players. In fact, the Aquilla fans even knew the Abbott players. Keep in mind these are two towns separated by 20 miles or so. No doubt, many of these families work, play and pray together.”
Jerry: “Abbott looked to be the bigger team, and I thought they would crush Aquilla.”
Rusty: “One strategy in six-man football is every kickoff is an onside kick. Given the probability that a team will score when they get the ball, an onside kick is a way to steal a possession. As a result, kickoffs are a violent free-for-all. Aquilla kicked off, and Abbott recovered the kick, thus started 1st and 20.”
Jerry: “That’s right. It takes a gain of 20 yards to make a first down. Abbott fails to make a first down and punt. Aquilla recovers the no-punt, runs one play and scores. For the extra point, in six-man you get two points for place-kicking the ball and one point for running it over. Aquilla sends out their placekicker. It is No. 14, Hannah -- a girl! She trots on the field with her pony tail hanging out of her helmet. She kicks and makes it. In the next two series, Abbott cannot move the ball. Aquilla had a back, well-built and fast.”
Rusty: “And most likely older than the rest of the boys.”
Jerry: “He scores the next two times he touches the ball.”
Rusty: “Three positions, three plays and three touchdowns – but they have yet to make a first down.”
Jerry: “Hannah made two place-kicks. The center kept hiking the ball too high and this threw off Hannah’s timing. The women behind me kept yelling for Hannah to get out the way when the ball was hiked too high. The fans were very friendly. A lot of visiting went on as everybody knew each other. It was a social event -- i.e., Cedar Bayou. During the game the cheerleaders threw souvenirs into the stands. I missed the first round. The next time a cheerleader threw a T-shirt directly to me. The woman behind me said, ‘That is my daughter and I told her to throw it to you.’ As the game went on, a boy jumped over the fence and ran up to the coach. He pointed out that one of the backs had not scored during the season. The coach heard him out and I think the boy did score later. Have you ever seen a game where a fan jumps the fence and gives the coach advice?”
Rusty: “And the coach takes it?”
Jerry: “There is a mercy rule in six-man. If a team is ahead by 45 points at half, then the game is over. At halftime: Aquilla 46, Abbott 0. Hannah’s extra points had made the difference. After the game was over, both teams took a knee at midfield and had a prayer. This was Americana at it best.”
Rusty: “After the game, the announcer reminded fans about a post-game social at the First Baptist Church for all who wanted to attend. We drove back down the country roads to wind our way back home. In less than a two-hour, it seemed we had traveled back in time 60 years. Attending the game and seeing this community come together felt more like 1958 than 2018.”
Jerry: “Although the game itself was unlike Cedar Bayou football, the atmosphere and the demeanor of the fans was. At least, that’s how I felt. Glad to put this in my bucket.”
Wanda Orton is a retired managing editor of The Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Attention: Wanda Orton.