It's no secret why 8-man football is growing exponentially in Illinois.
"I'd have to say what prompted it was numbers," said Flanagan-Cornell athletic director Brian Yoder, whose Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland (FCW) co-op football program will be leaving traditional 11-man IHSA football and joining the Illinois 8-Man Football Association (I8FA) this upcoming season. "Last year, we only had 14 guys by the time the last game came along.
"The alternative to 8-man was the death penalty, no football, and we did not want that."
Following a nationwide trend which has seen 8-man football surpass 1,000 programs, the I8FA will be expanding from a six-team league in 2018 to at least 15 and likely 16 programs for 2019.
"I kind of expected (this kind of growth), in all honesty," said John Lalor, I8FA president as well as coach and AD at Alden-Hebron. "The new district model coming (in 2021, with the IHSA setting schedules for all teams based on enrollment and geography) just sped things up. ...
"I think everyone is realizing that once you start losing numbers at the lower levels and start having to put freshmen in those freshman-senior matchups, it takes a pretty special freshman even at the 1A level to match up. And once they get discouraged, you start seeing your program going in the wrong direction."
Sixteen teams — and even the 20 the I8FA will reach at minimum when four additional committed members join in 2020 — are too few to warrant consideration for 8-man football to be added as an official IHSA sport and taken over by the organization. That's the ultimate goal, Lalor said, adding he expects somewhere in the neighborhood of 28 to 32 teams is the target to seriously contend for full IHSA status.
The sport has already been added to the IHSA's list of emerging sports and had its petition to hold a playoff in 2018 approved, important steps toward that goal.
"It's coming," Lalor said. "We only need about eight or 10 more and I think (the IHSA) will look at us and say, 'It's time.' "
Returning from last season are defending Illinois 8-Man playoff champion Milford-Cissna Park, runner-up Alden-Hebron, Lake Forest Academy, Rockford Christian Life, Judah Christian (which did not play 11-man football previously, forming its program strictly for the 8-man game) and Illinois School for the Deaf.
The list of new members signed on to play an I8FA schedule includes the aforementioned FCW, River Ridge, Cuba North Fulton, Edwardsville Metro-East, Pawnee, Bunker Hill, Westminster Christian, Danville Schlarman (leaving the Hoopeston Area co-op) and Polo.
"We considered either a co-op or 8-man," Polo head coach Jeff Bumsted said. "I can't count how many hours I spent surveying our kids, calling other coaches that have 8-man and researching everything I could on it.
"The whole idea behind it was to be competitive. We can't do that with freshmen playing on varsity. It's also discouraging for a 14-year-old that has never played to have their brains beaten in by a senior from Stockton that has been lifting weights for four years. ...
"As a coach, I want to keep the program thriving and fun for the kids."
Bumsted, a native of Iowa who also coached 8-man some 20 years ago in Missouri, has already seen the growth of the game in those states.
The game itself isn't all that different than the game most high school football fans already know and love.
Off the field, schools are required to follow all current IHSA eligibility, practice and safety rules. On the field, the differences include:
• Three fewer players (two fewer linemen, one less skill player) on each side of the ball
• Only five men required on the line of scrimmage at the snap
• No jersey number restrictions
• Four players must be on the front line for kickoffs, with no more than four players on either side of the kicker
• Instead of a standard 53 1/3x120-yard playing field (including end zones), 8-man fields are just as long but narrower — 40x120 yards (including end zones).
Part of the challenge of attracting new members has been the stigma of 8-man "not being real football." Those who have already signed on and played it, however, disagree ... and as the rapid rise of membership indicates, that sentiment is growing.
"A lot of schools have been talking about 8-man, but without anyone else in the (Northwest Upstate Illini) Conference making the commitment, it's a bit scary," Polo principal Andy Faivre said. "Somebody has to take the leap of faith. Maybe now someone else will say, 'Polo did it, so why not us?' "
Polo — enrollment 160 — is joining the I8FA coming off a playoff season in 11-man football, having gone 5-5 last season to cap a stretch of making the IHSA postseason four of the past five years and nine of the previous 14.
"Compared to finishing 5-4 and getting killed in the first round of the 11-man football playoffs or having the chance to compete for an 8-man title, I like the idea of being in an 8-man playoff," said Bumsted.
Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland, too, has a strong football history.
Before the co-op, Flanagan won the IHSA's first state championship, the Class 1A title in 1974. After beginning a co-op with old Midstate Conference rival Streator Woodland in 2006 to keep the programs alive and well, the re-branded FWC (now FCW after Flanagan-Cornell's change of school name) Falcons started a run of nine straight playoff appearances in Class 1A and 2A.
Since then, though, decreasing numbers and the rise of the 1A/2A powerhouse Heart of Illinois Conference have hit the program hard, and FCW — combined enrollment right at 300 — enters the I8FA having gone three consecutive seasons without a victory ... or in truth, without having played a competitive contest.
"I was probably that guy saying 8-man isn't real football a year and a half ago," Yoder said. "But I go to these meetings and see the passion in John (Lalor's) eyes ... and the bottom line is, the kids are playing football. At the end of the game, you look those kids in the eye and can't tell if they just played 8-man or 11-man.
"We have a good tradition, we have some good kids around here who still want to play football, we have three proud football communities ... and what we're trying to do is give them a chance to play. We appreciate this league.
"The guys behind it are the ones keeping high school football going for a lot of schools like ours."
— Friday Night Drive's Andy Colbert contributed to this article.