Friday night lights on the Prairies

Photo: Kiriako Iatridis/Sportsnet magazine

This is what life is like if you are a boy growing up 200 km dead south of Saskatoon in Central Butte, Sask.: You start out in kindergarten at the same school where you’ll graduate from Grade 12. As you tear around the playground, Troy Wist, the principal and longtime head coach of the six-man football team, is taking note of how quickly you run, if you can throw, whether you’re a leader or a shy guy, whether you have more brains or brawn. By Grade 4, when the girls start taking longer in the change rooms after gym class, you and the other boys wait in the hallway and talk football with Mr. Wist: how the Bulldogs look this year and which position you might play someday. Then—finally—Grade 9 arrives and it’s your turn. You don’t worry about making the team, because the school’s tiny enrolment means they take everyone who throws on the pads. Six-man football is such a long-awaited honour, almost a sacrament, for the boys of Central Butte that they’re ready to run through walls when it’s their time to wear the blue and white. That’s how, in this town of 365 people, the school has built a Prairie powerhouse.

Six-man football, which produces fast-paced action and demands multi-talented athletes, is perfect for small-town high schools that have plenty of football worship but lack the manpower. It was invented in the 1930s by a Nebraska coach who wanted to give his small high school a chance to play. It’s now widespread in Texas and played in pockets of Florida, Alabama, Idaho, Colorado, Alberta and Manitoba—but Saskatchewan is ground zero in Canada, the only province to include six-man football as an official high school sport until Alberta followed suit a couple of years ago. In Saskatchewan, the game is played in 12-minute quarters on a field 100 yards long and 40 yards wide.

The league is split into divisions for smaller and bigger schools (“big” being a relative concept since only schools with fewer than 86 high school boys can play six-man). Central Butte, with a team that dates back to the 1950s, is perpetually one of the tiniest schools in the smaller division—school enrolment is 114 this year; 21 of the students are football-eligible boys in Grades 9 to 12, and all but two came out for the team. And yet, it’s been punching above its weight for years. Starting in 2001, the Bulldogs went on a decade-long run reaching the provincial semifinals or better, including two undefeated seasons, and, in 2004, they were crowned Saskatchewan champions in their division. Wist remembers the snickering when the opposition arrived a few hours before the 2004 championship final. His Bulldogs were set to face the Kerrobert Rebels, whose hometown boasts 1,000 people, and Central Butte’s undefeated season didn’t seem to be striking fear into their hearts. “How many people live here? Three?” the Rebels sneered as they got off their bus. Wist smiled to himself. “This will be good,” he thought. A few hours later, in front of an ecstatic crowd, Central Butte dismantled Kerrobert 40–22 to take the provincial title. No one jeers about size anymore. “When you show up to play Central Butte, it’s not gonna be a pushover,” says Brennan Peterson, quarterback on that 2004 team who now teaches at the school and is one of Wist’s assistant coaches. “We try to give our players that mentality: a really gritty team that doesn’t give in. If things are going bad, we find a way to fight back.”

Wist, 45, grew up in Luseland, Sask., and started playing six-man in the early 1980s. He went to the University of Saskatchewan before moving to Central Butte to take a teaching job, and started coaching in 1990. For years, his team played on a field next to the town’s pool, where the grass was perpetually fried from chlorine when they drained the pool. This was “bush league,” Wist decided, so they built a new field at the school in 1996. The municipal water supply only reached the sidelines, and Wist spent four years dragging around a fire hose and a six-foot-tall crop sprinkler he got from a farmer. Then he and his boys built a two-story “doghouse” to store their practice equipment, with an announcer’s booth and filming platform on the upper level. Before there were bleachers, people would park their trucks along the sidelines at 7 a.m. on playoff game days and then walk back home. When they returned for the game, they’d have warm, reserved seats in the cabs of their trucks, but Wist can remember a few players bouncing off bumpers. They finally added a steel railing to keep the players at a safe distance.

In 2002, when Central Butte hosted its first of two Can-Am Bowls, an annual all-star clash of players from north and south of the border, the whole town pitched in to give the field a makeover. A construction company added tin walls to the doghouse, a local welding shop built bleachers and the co-op donated the lumber and stain for the seats. The team spent $4,000 of their fundraising money on an electronic scoreboard. Before long, other fields around the league started to look a lot like the Bulldogs home turf. (About a dozen years ago, the Bulldogs also enjoyed a nice edge on the field after the introduction of a spread offence, before other teams closed the gap by imitating them; one rival coach smiled sheepishly at Wist on the sidelines one afternoon and explained: “Biggest form of flattery.”)

The second Can-Am Bowl they hosted, in 2007, inspired Central Butte to import a little Texas glitz. Wist had coached in and sent players to an annual “Texas-versus-the-world” six-man game in the Lone Star State, and a player’s father returned home blown away by the spectacle. “He said, ‘We need to play under the lights,’” Wist recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, how the heck would that work?’” They came up with a very Prairie solution, renting four huge generator-powered construction lights used on oil rigs, and Wist scheduled the game so dusk would fall around halftime. When they flicked the switch on the first six-man game to be played under the lights in Saskatchewan, Central Butte transformed into this gorgeous, glowing football fantasy. Since then, two other teams have called for advice on how to set up their own six-man game under the lights, and Wist arranged it so his Bulldogs played in both games. “It feels big-time. It really does,” he says. “It just feels like on TV.”

Bulldogs football anchors life in Central Butte. It’s even superceded the national religion at times. When the team was deep into their 2004 playoff run and the hockey coach wanted to start his season, his players—who were also the football players—tiptoed through practices, saving themselves until after they had the provincial crown sewn up. Fridays at 4 p.m. during the regular season and Saturdays at 1 p.m. for playoff games, everyone knows where everyone else is in town. “It is the talk of coffee row whenever there’s a game day,” Wist says. The best dinner in Central Butte in the fall is the famous beef-on-a-bun his wife, Tracey, cooks and sells out of a booth in the doghouse. The team draws crowds of about 100 for regular-season games and 300 (nearly the whole town) in the playoffs.

For the players, football has a way of smoothing the rough edges. The aimless energy of a bunch of teenagers crammed into one building settles during football season, and so do instances of boys picking on each other. Even before Grade 9 players walk into their first practices vibrating with pride and nerves, the coaches hammer into the Grade 12s that this isn’t about power-tripping on the rookies. Because this is what happens when you’re a Central Butte alumnus: Next fall or a few years down the road when you’re out in the wider world, you’ll come back into town. You’ll spend a Friday night eating beef-on-a-bun and watching Bulldogs football while you and your buddies trade dog-eared memories of your triumphs and near-misses. And down on the field, the team you grew up worshipping and waiting to be part of will now belong to the younger guys you helped teach to carry your legacy.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.