Sep. 23—Thanks to the unwillingness of small communities to cut ties with their football programs, athletes like Leighton Vander Esch, Tarik Cohen, Spencer Brown and Isaiahh Loudermilk made their way to the National Football League.
Not just small schools. More specifically, those small schools that don't have large enough enrollments to be able to support an 11-man football team anymore. So they chose to play the reduced-player version of 8-man football.
That's right, Vander Esch (Dallas Cowboys linebacker), current free agent Cohen (former Chicago Bears running back), Brown (Buffalo Bills offensive tackle) and Loudermilk (Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end) all played 8-man football in high school.
The most notable of professional football players coming from 8-man programs might just be two-time pro bowler Chad Greenway. Greenway spent all 11 seasons in the league with the Minnesota Vikings. The linebacker tallied more than 1,100 total tackles during his career.
Two area schools that have recently transitioned from 11-man football to 8-man football are Jasper and Liberal.
The Jasper Eagles just made that change in 2020 and the Liberal Bulldogs did so just one year prior in 2019.
Head coaches Garrett Zoucha (Liberal) and Mark McFarland (Jasper) have vastly different backgrounds that brought them to become familiar opponents in the Western Missouri Conference for 8-man football. The Eagles and Bulldogs will meet each other Friday night in Week 5 action.
As for Zoucha, it's all he's ever known.
"It is my world," Zoucha said. "It's cool to be on the cusp of maybe being one of those 8-man guys that's around forever. I've been around it my whole life."
Zoucha played 8-man football at Bruning-Davenport High School in Nebraska. Then he coached 8-man football at Homer High School (Homer, Neb.) as well as Thayer Central (Hebron, Neb.) for six years before coming to Liberal in 2021.
McFarland, on the other hand, was forced to make a transition.
While coach McFarland is in his 35th year of coaching, he spent 33 years coaching at three different 4A schools in Kansas. The experienced game manager was at Girard most recently for 22 years. Prior to that, he spent six years in Columbus and five more at Louisburg. All of which played 11-man football, of course.
Both coaches are in their second season with their current teams.
Schools everywhere are faced with the possibility of having to cut sports programs. Luckily with football, there are reduced-player options like 8-man football and even the less popular versions of 9-man and 6-man football.
With small communities changing constantly due to people leaving for larger areas, a lot of towns have had to decide if they should keep a football program because of a lack of kids to play the game.
It isn't just in the state of Missouri, it happens everywhere.
Both Zoucha and McFarland don't want to see those places cut their football program out completely. Whether it's 11-man, 8-man or any other form of football, seeing the kids get their opportunity to play the game they love is worth keeping it going.
"As we see smaller towns across America, across Missouri, and our area getting smaller, people are moving to bigger cities," Zoucha said. "It's hard to tell a generation of kids, 'Your dad might have played, your grandpa might have played and your uncle might've played for this school, but you're not going to play for this school.'
"It's important to keep these communities alive, and I think sports help."
"I think the only thing that would hurt a community is if you just didn't have it (football)," McFarland said.
Just like kids playing at programs that still have enough of a student body to support playing 11-man football, the kids playing for schools in small communities want to play the sport competitively. They can have the same dreams and aspirations as those in large cities.
The coaches would also like to see the sour taste some people may have about the reduced-player version of the game be removed. Any negativity about it not being "real football" or not being as good of a game is not what they believe to be true.
"There's the stigma, 'It's not the same. It's just 8-man football,'" McFarland said. "Having done both now, I can tell you, the reason these kids deserve the same status is they do the same work in the weight room, they do the same work in practice, they probably get less rest and recovery time during a practice or a game. ... They're ironman. They're going both ways all the time and playing special teams."
It isn't about trying to be as good as 11-man football or showing how 8-man can be better. Rather, it's about giving every kid who wants the opportunity to play for their hometown a chance to do that.
Both coaches discussed the pride of the town and how that extends from their football programs and how Friday nights can bring the community together. Seeing fans returning every Friday night to watch the hometown team play.
It may be in a different capacity, but coach McFarland knows anyone doubting the game would have their mind changed if they just showed up to watch two 8-man programs battle it out on the gridiron.
"Go watch a good football game," McFarland said. "Go watch two good 8-man teams compete on a Friday night and I think that they will see that it's fun, it's physical, it's fast, there's talent, it's exciting, the fans love it and winning and losing mean every bit as much as they do in 11-man."
It's still football. The rules don't change. You can't tackle your opponent by their facemask just because there are six less players on the field. You can't jump offsides before the snap just because you have three less teammates to help you rush the quarterback.
The only difference is that you play on a smaller football field. The traditional field is 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. In the 8-man game the field is reduced to 80 yards in length and just 40 wide.
Which makes all the sense in the world with less players. The scoring opportunities would be even greater if an offense had the larger field with all that extra space to get playmakers open out wide.
"I would say it's better for the game, the smaller field," Zoucha said. "If it was wider, you could create one-on-one matchups all over the place."
Even with the smaller field, less players leads to more openings, which leads to more offense most times. Eight-on-eight doesn't allow a gameplan to double team your opponent's best skill player. Instead, you just have to put your best defender on him and hope your guy wins the one-on-one battle on the outside.
"You can't double-cover kids, you don't have the bodies," McFarland said. "If you don't make the tackle with your first guy there, it could turn into something big."
For McFarland, he doesn't see that his coaching style has changed all that much going from 11-man to 8-man. While he acknowledges some things are different, he feels as if he's doing things the same, for the most part.
"I thought it would be more difficult than it was," McFarland said. "You teach blocking, you tackle, you run, you pass, you play good defense. ... I have learned it's still all the fundamental things. There's still a lot of physicality in the game. The biggest difference is speed is king.
"You'll see scores of 90 to 60 or something and that blows my mind. I'm like, 'I don't know how you even score that many times.' So that's been different. Being a D-coordinator, that probably bothers me more being on either side of that."
Zoucha, 31, sees his experience in the reduced-player version of the game from player to coach as a benefit to his learning. Despite only being a coach for eight years now, he also sees his many years of playing in the game as added knowledge.
"Just in a sense of X's and O's knowledge it's nice that I have a few years on these guys while in coaching I don't," Zoucha said. "Their practices are probably better, their scouting's probably better. Just in terms of X's and O's, it's nice that I'm already 10-12 years deep."
Zoucha also sees himself as a defensive-minded coach and mentioned the high-scoring games taking a toll on his coaching style.
One downfall to 8-man football may be the exposure the kids are able to receive from scouts at the next level.
"It's tough because you're a product of your circumstances," Zoucha said "You could be a crazy athlete, but you're in Liberal, Missouri. That doesn't take away the fact that you're a crazy athlete. I think it's awesome to see those guys in the league. It shows that if you can play, the league's going to find you. Colleges are going to find you. It may be a little harder, but if you can play, you can play."
ABOUT THE TEAMS
Jasper and McFarland enter play at 2-2. The Eagles jumped out to a 2-0 start before dropping consecutive games to Lockwood (2-2) and Drexel (4-0).
The Eagles and Bulldogs have only met one similar opponent so far this season.
Liberal also faced Drexel earlier this year. In Week 1, the Bulldogs lost to Drexel. Since then, they've rattled off three straight wins to bring their record to 3-1 entering Friday night.
This 8-man matchup will be played at Liberal at 7 p.m.