McCOOL JUNCTION, Neb. — The town was buzzing.
It was the first round of Nebraska’s six-man high school football playoffs. The McCool Junction Mustangs (9-0) were undefeated and seeded fourth in Class D6. And while the Crawford Rams were 5-4, no one was taking them lightly. The Rams were tall and intimidating.
“They are ranchers,” Jabe Wurtz, a Mustangs assistant coach, said. “Tough kids.”
McCool Junction’s mantra this season has been “FINISH.” Ideally, that would mean getting to the championship game.
Mission accomplished. The Mustangs defeated Crawford on Nov. 1 to move on in the playoffs. With two more wins since then, McCool Junction has advanced to the Class D6 title game on Friday night, when it will meet the Harvard Cardinals on the campus of the University of Nebraska, Kearney.
As the playoffs unfolded, the McCool Junction coaches emphasized the importance of keeping together their football team, with its 16 players and five coaches. One loss, and they would never play again as a team.
“Do your jobs so we as a family don’t have to break up,” Scott Yates, a Mustangs assistant coach, told them at practice the day before their first playoff game.
Six-man football was developed during the Great Depression in Chester, Neb., just 50 miles down Highway 81, so boys from small farm towns could still play. The field is smaller: 80 yards long and 40 yards wide. The game is 40 minutes instead of 48, and a first down is 15 yards. McCool Junction’s head coach, Jarrod Weiss, describes it as “basketball on grass.” He’s not far off.
Football is at a pivot point. Television audiences remain massive, but high school participation has dropped more than 10 percent in the past decade, even in football hotbeds like Texas, Ohio and Florida, as young athletes and their families seek alternatives they perceive to be safer. Fearing an irreversible trend, the most powerful people in the sport have launched a campaign touting the sport as a fundamental part of American culture and trying to shift the narrative away from the sport as a reckless endeavor.
Nebraska embodies both sides of this narrative. Nebraskans love their football, no matter what size, but high school participation is down 24 percent since 2009. Even so, the University of Nebraska football team is the No. 1 sporting attraction in the state. Every game has been sold out since 1962, and on college football Saturdays, Memorial Stadium in Lincoln becomes the third largest population center in the state.
McCool Junction is one of the few small Nebraska towns in the state that is growing. The population is 426, up from 385 in 2000. One school, which also serves students from outside town, serves 260 students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Dade McDonald, the school principal, and Dr. Curtis Cogswell, the superintendent, take an all-hands-on-deck approach to extracurricular activities. “When kids don’t get involved, the superintendent or myself will typically have a conversation with them to see if we can persuade them,” McDonald said.
At a pep rally before the game against Crawford, two of the football team’s four captains played trumpet, another drums. On the day of that first playoff game, school let out early so students could be there for the 1 p.m. kickoff. Fans wore wool hats and carried fleece blankets. Cheerleaders waved their black-and-gold pompoms. Hilary McDonald, the mother of one of the captains, rattled her cowbell. Tadd Barrow, the father of another captain and a member of the first McCool team to win a playoff game, in 1988, stood the entire game.
“Relish the opportunity,” Weiss, the head coach, told them in his pregame pep talk. He was waving a yellow sheet of paper with the word “FINISH.”
Huddled together on the field, the team recited from memory “The Code,” a chant originated by the Nebraska football team and repeated by high school players around the state that ends in triumph: “Day by day, we get better and better! The team that can’t be beat, WON’T BE BEAT!”
At halftime, the team was down a point, but the coaches were not discouraged. “At the end of this game, we will look at the scoreboard and be the winners,” Weiss said.
He was right. Owen McDonald, who hopes to study physical therapy in college, scored four touchdowns. Dana Hobbs, a senior captain who plays offense and defense, scored two. He also made a key interception at the end of the third quarter that shifted the momentum. The final score: Mustangs 55, Rams 40.
The teams then shook hands and prayed together. After the boys cleaned up, the Mustang parents fed the Crawford players and their coaches pulled pork and mashed potatoes from Kerry’s, a restaurant nearby.
The visiting team then boarded its bus for the six-and-a-half-hour ride home to western Nebraska. Because of the size of the state and the nature of six-man football, it isn’t unusual for teams to drive 300 to 400 miles for a game.
Two more wins put the Mustangs in Friday night’s state championship. As their mantra goes, “Finish.”