Why small-school Texas high school football is so special

Photo by Russell Wilburn

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Like moths to a flame, Texans are inherently drawn to the biggest. Whether it’s hats or food or animatronic state fair mascots or the literal geographic expanse of the state, Texans have a predilection for the large.

It makes sense, then, that our very favorite sport — football — would follow the same trendline. Just look at our stadiums as an example: from high school (like Kimbrough Memorial Stadium in Canyon — capacity: 20,000) to college (like Kyle Field in College Station — capacity: 102,733) to the pros (like AT&T Stadium in Arlington — capacity: 80,000), Texas builds cathedrals for football as grandiose as our love for the game.

That uniquely Texan affinity for the biggest means that fans inherently tend to devote the majority to the largest version of football available — the Cowboys and Texans; the 12 FBS teams in the college ranks; and, inevitably, Class 6A and Class 5A in high school.

Let’s focus in on the high school portion of that for a moment. Even setting aside Texans’ love for big, it’s easy to see why people gravitate toward the biggest classifications — Texas high school football in Classes 6A and 5A is sensational! The athletes and coaches are so talented and the action is so spectacular that you can often forget that most of the players can’t vote yet. It’s that good.

But here’s the thing: there’s a whole ‘nother world out there. If you’re only paying attention to the largest classifications of Texas high school football, you are missing out on so much more than you know.

High school football in Texas below the 5A level may not get the headlines that the big schools do, but it’s certainly not for lack of entertainment. It’s got everything you could possibly want in a gridiron experience.

Looking for great coaching? Some of the finest coaches in Texas — and, therefore, the nation — ply their craft at places like Carthage (enrollment: 794) and Canadian (enrollment: 280) and Crawford (enrollment: 172) and Calvert (enrollment: 47).

Looking for inventive strategies? You’ll see everything from the Air Raid to the Slot-T, from pro style to wholly original offensive schemes if you look around the small-school ranks enough.

Looking for superstars? They may not have as many FBS-bound players as the big schools — players in 4A and below signed a combined 31 FBS letters of intent in 2019, compared to 82 for 5A and 182 for 6A — but the small schools have players you have to see to believe. Like Melissa QB Brendon Lewis, a 3,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last year. Or Diboll RB D’aris McMillan, who topped 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns rushing a year ago. Or Mason DL Slone Stultz, who completely took over the state championship game last year. Or McLean do-it-all athlete Ben Crockett, a player who routinely looks like they put a grizzly bear in pads.

Looking for can’t-miss rivalries? You’ve got the most-played rivalry in history in Bay City-El Campo; blood feuds like Cuero vs. Yoakum; under-the-radar tussles like Goldthwaite-San Saba, Karnes City-Kenedy and Haskell-Stamford; and many, many more.

(And if you’ve never seen six-man football: find a game and go. SixManFootball.com puts out a map each week telling you where the games will be played. It will take you a minute to adjust, but it’ll change the way you watch football.)

Big school football is obviously amazing. Watching teams like Aledo, Allen, Highland Park, Katy, Lake Travis and Galena Park North Shore is without parallel anywhere in the country.

But small-school Texas high school football is a culture unto its own, where strategy must overcome a lack of depth, where playing both ways isn’t a novelty but a necessity, where blue chips are a little more rare but blue collars are not.

My plea to you, fair Texas high school football fan: if you’re a 6A and 5A fan, expand your horizons, and make sure you’re taking in the sport in its complete majesty.

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