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Six-Man Football Still Holds Big Appeal

STRAWN, Texas - The best little rivalry in Texas high school football will resume Friday night in rural Palo Pinto County. The Strawn Greyhounds host the Gordon Longhorns in a backyard battle between schools so small they play six-man football. The schools are tiny, but the appetite for football is big.

"It's like a little Super Bowl," says Mary Jane Tretter, who runs Mary's Cafe in Strawn. "When the game is here, people will park at the field the night before to get a good spot."

The towns are 8 miles apart and almost equidistant between Fort Worth to the east and Abilene to the west. The game often determines a district championship and has featured a state champion four times in the last 13 years. Gordon won two state titles in the 1990s under former coach Nelson Campbell. Strawn has captured two this decade under current coach Dewaine Lee, including last season.

Six-man football is played on a smaller field with some different rules and high-scoring results. Three players are on the line, but the center is not necessarily in the middle. There is a quarterback and two receivers-backs.

It's played at 125 schools in Texas with enrollments fewer than 100 as well as in five other Western states, a 16-member association in Florida and one school each in Ohio and Georgia.

According to the city halls, Strawn's population is estimated at 725, Gordon's 535. Gordon's school district also encompasses the one town between them, Mingus (population 225). According to a website dedicated to Gordon football, Gordon and Strawn have beaten each other 27 times and tied three times since first meeting in 1923. Each has been playing six-man since the mid-1950s.

How much does winning this game mean? Jonathan Parsons, one of three brothers who played on Strawn's 2003 title team, recalls losing to Gordon and being awakened early the next morning by his father to chop wood.

Last season, the teams also met in the playoffs for the first time. Strawn avenged its only regular-season loss, beating Gordon 89-58 before a crowd estimated at more than 5,500.

"In the first game, we got big-headed and they walked all over us," says Johny Abbott, a Strawn senior in 2008 who was selected as the state's top six-man player. "The second time, we knew what to expect."

The rivalry's following extends beyond the locals. Palo Pinto County is prime hunting country, and dozens of outdoorsmen have become fans of six-man play. Strawn Mayor David Day says it was common for hunters to phone City Hall to check on the date of the Gordon-Strawn game.

"We don't get many calls about that anymore," Day says. "Now, they check the Internet."

Hunters aren't the only long-distance admirers. Fort Worth attorney Brandon Boehme, a University of Texas graduate, "adopted" the Gordon Longhorns because of the nickname and persuaded business associates to attend games with him. They once arrived for the Strawn game in a stretch limo that turned heads when they ate at Mary's Cafe. "That limo was about as long as the restaurant," Boehme says.

Part of the rivalry's appeal is the constant crossing of school lines. Former Gordon coach Campbell, an alum, previously coached Strawn. His daughter married a former Strawn player. Gordon's first-year coach, Shane Mallory, is a Strawn grad ... whose wife graduated from Gordon.

Senior-laden Strawn comes into Friday's game 7-1 and ranked second in Texas' six-man Division I. Most of its games have ended early because of the state's 45-point mercy rule for six-man play. This year's halftime homecoming festivities took place just after the game was stopped.

Lee, also Strawn's principal, expects Gordon to play its best. "No matter the records, it's a pride thing," he says.

Gordon has no starters from last year's 11-2 squad, starts mostly sophomores and is 0-8. Longhorns fans are encouraged about the program's future under Mallory.

"They're very good and very experienced," Mallory says of Strawn. "I expect our kids to come out and fight."

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