By Dan Hardenbrook

High school football season came to an end last Saturday when the Pickford Panthers claimed the MHSAA State Championship at the Superior Dome in Marquette. It was a perfect end to a perfect season for the Panthers, but more than anything it proved that eight-man football is here to stay, and the EUP may be a power for years to come.

The unique style offers thousands of combinations on offense, and challenges defenses to develop strategies to stop them. Everything may seem smaller at first glance, but if you look closer, the game just may be bigger – and better – than ever before.

The Newberry Indians moved to the eight-man ranks last summer and spent the offseason transitioning their entire program, JV and youth levels included, to the new look for one of America’s oldest sports. After months of re-thinking and revamping coaching strategies and techniques, as well as re-teaching players, the Indians made the transition and finished their inaugural season at 5-4, just missing the playoffs.

Eight-man football is not new to the Eastern U.P. In fact, Newberry was one of the last schools to switch over. Engadine helped launch the revolution years ago with an exhibition game against Carsonville Port Sanilac. With the eyes and ears of the state locked in, the Eagles won the state’s very first eight-man football game and the sport was never the same. The old EUP Conference, which is still in existence for basketball, track, cross country, and other sports, soon saw its member schools make the switch.

Accomplishments abound: Cedarville has been a perennial playoff team; Engadine has made the playoffs nine years in a row, good enough for the longest active streak in the U.P.; in Rudyard, eight-man football saved the sport for their school. Pickford has played in two straight state championship games. Brimley was able to bring back football after shutting down its team a few years ago. Now Newberry is looking to find new life at the ‘lower” level. Soon St. Ignace will slide down. Only the Soo, with five times as many students as any other district within an hour’s drive, will be left playing the traditional eleven-man format.

So what makes it work? Opportunity. Schools can bring back programs they may have punted earlier. Brimley, Carney Nadeau, and the soon-to-be defunct co-op that goes by the name Gogebic, which includes players from 3 schools that will soon split and start their own teams, all have football for the first time in forever. Smaller schools can still play by needing fewer players, therefore not sacrificing their youth or JV teams to make a varsity squad. This keeps kids developing, and offers playing time to those who stay interested and involved.

The game is different. The field is different. That means the game is built differently. You no longer have to be the biggest dude on the block to be successful. Eight-man football is made special by smart athletes who can see the field and use space. These are great athletes who can move. It’s speed over strength. Brains over brawn. This makes the game easier to adapt to for smaller kids who couldn’t get on the field before. It’s also safer, because freshmen and sophomores aren’t forced to join varsity squads and play against seniors. Thirteen and 14-year-olds aren’t facing off against 18- and 19-year-olds anymore.

I’ve watched eight-man football from all angles. I was in the booth that day in Engadine when state officials weren’t quite sure what they had. I’ve now broadcasted two full seasons of it. This fall, I got to take a shot at coaching. I’ve seen the impact it has had on small schools and communities, and the kids that call them home.

The game is free flowing and fun, with a world of possibilities. With so many eight-man teams in the Eastern half of the U.P., schools will be back to playing close to home. No more four-hour bus rides, sacrificing a whole Saturday. Schools will save money on transportation. Parents aren’t pressured to take time off work or worry about getting their kids to and from games. Newberry will soon no longer have to go to Gaylord, or East Jordan, or Frankfort just to find a game. But the biggest winners may be the fans. It’s fun. Fast-paced. Full of excitement.

Isn’t that what the Friday night lights are all about?