High school teams from the United States and Canada play a sport called gridiron football, which they call “High School Football.” It’s one of the favourite sports that schools compete in. According to The Washington Post, the count of students taking part in High School Football games dropped by 9.1 percent from 2009 to 2019. This sport is the first step into playing tackle football.
In the United States, there are more boys than girls who play HS Football. Very few American HS Football players, less than half of one percent, have been girls over the last ten years. Even though a type of football called flag football (which is less rough) is allowed in high schools of eight states, the version with tackling is not available for girls. In 2021, a case was brought to court in Utah claiming that not letting girls play this sport broke the rules of Title IX, but the case was thrown out.
Origin of High School Football
High School Football, also known as HS Football, has its beginnings back in the late 1800s when several College Football programs were set up. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many High School teams started competing against each other. They have their own traditions like pep rallies, marching bands, mascots, and homecomings, similar to what you see in college football.
Friday night High School Football games are a big deal across the country and are a significant part of American culture. People of all ages and skill levels can join in, and there are different versions of the game, like 6-player, 8-player, and 9-player football.
High School sports are quite special among American school activities because coaches can really influence their players by teaching them both the basics of the game and important values.
In the United States, High School Football follows a set of rules made by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). In Canada, Football Canada takes care of High School Football. Most Canadian provinces use a version of Canadian rules adapted for high school play, except for British Columbia.
Texas stands out as the only state that didn’t use the NFHS rules for High School Football in the 2019 season (with some exceptions mentioned below). Up until the 2018 season, Massachusetts followed the NCAA’s standards, but they switched to the NFHS rules for the 2019 season.
High School Football Rules
The game is divided into four quarters, and each quarter goes on for 12 minutes. But in college and pro football, a quarter goes on for 15 minutes. (In Texas, they stick to the 12-minute quarters as set by the National Federation of State High School Associations.)
In High School Football, kickoffs are a bit different from NFL and college football. Instead of starting at the 35-yard line, the receiving team starts at their 40-yard line. This is the rule accepted in Texas following the National Federation of State High School Associations.
If a team tries to kick a field goal but misses, it’s treated like a regular punt. The other team then gets the ball from their own 20-yard line. But if the ball doesn’t go into the end zone and is caught, it can be returned just like a punt.
In High School Football, players can use a kicking tee for both field goals and extra points. Even though the NCAA stopped using tees for kicks in 1989, Texas goes by the NFHS rule and allows them.
When a kick is returned after crossing the goal line, it’s called a touchback.
Every touchback, whether from kickoffs or free kicks after a safety, means the other team gets the ball at their 20-yard line. However, if a kickoff or free kick after a safety leads to a touchback, following NCAA and NFL rules, the ball is put on the receiving team’s 25-yard line.
When a player signals for a fair catch and catches the ball, the team gets the ball at that exact spot. If a fair catch is made inside the receiving team’s 25-yard line during a kickoff or free kick after a safety, it’s called a touchback according to NCAA rules (but not NFL rules). In this case, the ball starts at the 25-yard line.
If the defense commits a penalty called defensive pass interference, they get a 15-yard penalty, but the offense doesn’t automatically get a first down. (Before 2013, this penalty also resulted in an automatic first down.)
When the offense commits pass interference, they’re penalized 15 yards from where they were previously, and they don’t lose a down.
The defense can’t run back an extra point attempt for a touchdown, except in Texas where this rule is different.
If a defensive player crosses over to the offensive side before the ball is snapped, it’s a “dead ball” encroachment foul, and the defense gets a 5-yard penalty from the previous spot.
Before 2013, if the offense committed pass interference, they were penalized with a 15-yard loss of yardage and a loss of down. Starting in 2013, the part about losing a down was changed. In college and the NFL, pass interference by the offense results in a 10-yard loss of downs.
Deciding whether to have overtime and what kind to use is left to each state’s organization. They can choose different overtime rules. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) suggests a certain overtime format like the one used in Kansas Playoffs, but it’s not required for everyone to follow.
If a quarterback throws the ball away on purpose, it can be considered a penalty for intentional grounding, even if the quarterback is outside the area where tackles happen.
In the game, the team playing at home has to wear black jerseys, and the visiting team wears white. In NFL and SEC conference games, the home team gets to decide which jersey color they’ll wear. As per standard NCAA rules, the home team might wear white if the away team agrees, or both teams can wear colored jerseys as long as they’re easy to tell apart.
A move called the “pop-up kick,” which was used for free kicks and onside kicks and involved kicking the ball into the ground to make it bounce high in the air (to prevent a fair catch), has been against the rules since 2018.
Starting in the playoffs of 2019, the groups that are part of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) could decide to use replay review.
Before that time, even though the technology was there, they didn’t allow replay review. In Texas, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) oversees public schools and only permits replay review for state championship games. On the other hand, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), which manages non-public schools, continues with the rule that was in place before 2019, which means they don’t use replay review.
Types of High School Football Games
Nine Man Football
When there aren’t enough players for a full 11-person team, High Schools play a changed version called “nine-man football.” In the United States, states like Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming have High School nine-man football state championships.
In nine-man football, the playing field is often smaller compared to regular 11-man football. For instance, some states have a field that’s 80 yards long and 40 yards wide, which is the same size as used in eight-man and six-man football. Others might keep the length at 100 yards but reduce the width to 40 yards. In some cases, they might use a full-sized field that’s 53 1/3 yards wide. When the field is 80 yards long, kickoffs start from the 20-yard line instead of the usual 40-yard line.
In smaller schools in places like Saskatchewan and Alberta, and in community leagues in British Columbia, a nine-player version of Canadian football is played on the standard Canadian field of 110 yards. This version is also used for kids aged 8 and 9. For flag football games with younger kids aged 5, 6, and 7, the field size is cut in half to 50 yards by 50 yards.
In nine-man football, the offensive team needs to have four players in the backfield and five on the line of scrimmage, following the rules. The typical setup includes a quarterback, a fullback, a tailback, and five linemen. There are rules about where players like tight ends and wide receivers need to stand based on the formation. The fourth backfield player usually acts as an extra wide receiver or tight end.
A common defensive formation is the 3-3-3, which has three defensive linemen, three linebackers, two defensive backs, and one safety.
Six Man Football
In Six Man Football, there are fewer players on each side compared to the usual eleven or twelve. Instead, there are just four players. This type of football is mostly played in more remote areas of North America.
Back in 1934, during the time of the Great Depression, a person named Stephen Epler from Chester, Nebraska, came up with six-man football. It was made for smaller high schools that couldn’t easily gather a full football team. The very first game was played on September 27, 1934, in Hebron, Nebraska. About a thousand people came to watch it played under the lights.
This game was meant to see if coaches in Kansas and Nebraska were interested in this new six-man format. The two teams, Hardy-Cheste and Belvidere-Alexandria, played after two weeks of getting ready, and the game ended in a 19-19 tie. After that, around 60,000 coaches all across the United States received a copy of the rules for this new game.
Jack Pardee’s journey in football began when he was a teenager. He joined the six-man team in Christoval, Texas, and quickly became well-known. He played as a linebacker for Texas A&M, and he was so good that he made it to the All-American team. He also played in the NFL, being selected for the All-Pro team twice while he was with the Los Angeles Rams (in 1963) and the Washington Redskins (in 1964 and 1971). His understanding of the unique six-man game was quite helpful when he became a coach. He’s one of the few players who made it to the NFL after playing six-man football.
In 1939, Ed Sprinkle was a standout six-man football player for Tuscola High School. He got the nickname “the Claw” because he was known as one of the toughest players in professional football. While he was at Hardin-Simmons University in the early 1940s, he did really well in both football and basketball. He got three varsity letters and was recognized as an All-Border Conference player in both sports.
In Six-man American football, the field is usually 80 yards long and 40 yards wide. But, if teams and leagues want, they can play on the standard 100-yard by 53 1/3-yard field used for 11-man football. To get a first down, a player needs to move 15 yards from the line of scrimmage (where the play starts).
Six-man Canadian football is quite similar to the American version, but the field is longer, either 100 or 110 yards, and it’s still 40 yards wide. Both 10- and 20-yard end zones are allowed. Regular Canadian 12-man fields are 110 yards long, 65 yards wide, with 20 yards at each end. In the Canadian 12-man game, getting a first down requires moving 10 yards, and the offense has three tries to do it instead of four like in the American version. The six-man Canadian game keeps these rules.
In the American version, all six players can be receivers, while in the Canadian version, the guy in the center of the offensive line can’t catch the ball. On offense, you need three linemen on the line of scrimmage before the play starts. The player who gets the snap can’t run past the line of scrimmage to avoid certain plays.
But, if the ball is passed to another player, that person can run or throw it, and the one who got the snap can still catch the ball. If the center catches the snap, any pass they throw has to go at least one yard forward in the air.
In six-man American football, scoring works much like in regular 11-man football, except for the point after touchdown (PAT) and field goals. In 11-a-side football, a point-after kick gets two points, and running or passing the ball to score is worth only one point.
Additionally, a field goal gives you four points instead of three. This change happened because it’s harder to attempt a kick with fewer blockers than defenders in this type of game.
Just like in American football, Canadian six-man football flips the values for PATs and conversions. But, it keeps the three-point field goal and the one-point rouge, which is a special point in Canadian football.
Eight Man Football
Eight-man football is a different version of gridiron football. It’s usually played by high schools that have fewer students compared to a regular football team. In this type, there are only eight players on each side, not the usual 11, and the field is a bit narrower, 40 yards wide instead of the usual 53 and a half yards.
Even though some places have started playing on shorter fields that are 80 yards long, many still use the regular 100-yard fields. Eight-man football, along with six-man and nine-man football, is a kind of football with fewer players that has become more popular in the United States.
As of 2015, there are 1,561 schools across 30 states that have this kind of football, with 1,161 teams playing in eight-man leagues, 284 teams in six-man leagues, and 116 teams in nine-man leagues.
For states that have playoffs, they use the records from the regular season and how teams did in their conferences to figure out who gets to play in the playoffs and how they’re arranged in the matchups. The bracket for the playoffs changes to work with different classes, divisions, and the size of the district. The tournament goes on until a champion is found for the whole state.
Bowl Game Setup
In some places, they choose to use a bowl game format, also known as a Jamboree. Teams are ranked based on how well they did in the regular season, and they’re paired up against other teams with similar rankings. For example, the best-ranked teams play each other, the second best play against the third best, and so on.
Unlike the usual playoff setup with multiple rounds, in this setup, there’s just one match at the end of the season. Each team only plays one game in the postseason. Wisconsin’s current eight-man football postseason games use this format.
Every state has a group that accredits public schools. For private schools, they usually have their own separate group that oversees their sports competitions. In each state, the organization divides the member schools into different parts based on where they are located and then puts them into smaller classes, like two to eight size categories, depending on how many students go to the school.
A school’s size category might change if more or fewer students enroll. In the smallest schools, like those in rural areas or small private schools, it’s common to have six, eight, or nine players on each team instead of the usual eleven (or twelve in Canada).
Sports for High School Students and Homeschooling
There are teams that are not connected to any particular school, often made up of homeschooled students. These teams compete in high school football against other independent schools and sometimes even against small public schools. In places like Florida, the law lets homeschooled students take part in sports teams from their local school district.
An example is Tim Tebow, who was a highly regarded quarterback prospect and was homeschooled. He could play for Allen D. Nease Senior High School Football team because he and his mom moved into that school district.
The Alabama State Legislature is discussing a bill called the Tim Tebow Bill. This bill would let homeschooled students in Alabama have similar opportunities. Tim Tebow himself played in a nationally televised game, even though his team lost to Hoover High School in Alabama.
Getting ready for the season usually starts with weightlifting and other training to get in shape. This can begin in August in some places or a few weeks after the last season ends in others. While some places allow seven-on-seven practice games, in many areas, official practices aren’t allowed for most of the summer. Double practice sessions, where they practice in the morning and afternoon, usually start around mid-August and go on for about a week or until school begins, depending on the students’ schedules. After double sessions end, regular practices happen every afternoon on weekdays except for game days. Sometimes, practices can also be on Saturdays, but it’s rare to have them on Sundays.
In most areas, there are about ten games planned for the regular season. The first game is often in early September or late August, and the last regular game is usually in mid to late October. But this can change depending on where you are and what the weather’s like.
During the regular season, there might be weeks when a team doesn’t play. Bigger schools, especially those with strong teams, can get thousands of fans even for regular games. Because of this, some schools choose to play their home games in big college or professional stadiums.
Most High School Football games happen on Friday nights, but Thursdays and Saturdays are used too, just not as much. In some bigger school districts, where lots of schools share the same facilities or the field isn’t lit up for nighttime play, they take turns using the field on different days.
Postseason and Playoffs
Back in the 1970s, many states decided their champions based on polls, but now almost everyone uses playoff systems. Over time, more teams and categories have been added to each state’s playoffs. Teams that win their regions compete in elimination playoff rounds to find the state champion in each size group. This way of doing things comes from professional football rather than college football.
New Jersey and Massachusetts don’t have a single state champion, but instead, they have regional winners (though New Jersey does have state winners for non-public schools). They started a state championship in 2014.
In New York, the titles are supposed to be for the whole state, but they only include upstate New York. The regions that cover New York City and Long Island (where most New Yorkers live) don’t take part. In some places, public high schools have their own “city leagues” and might never play against teams from outside of them. This happens in many big cities like Pittsburgh, Virginia Beach, New York City, and Los Angeles. On the other hand, states like Illinois and West Virginia don’t have regional championships. Instead, they organize their playoffs based on the regular season standings across the whole state.
The championship games usually have a lot of fans attending. They’re usually played at a neutral place, like a college or NFL stadium. Since these games usually happen in late November to mid-December, the college and professional stadiums can handle tough weather conditions.
Publications and websites often make national rankings based on polls or math formulas that look at different things like how much a team wins by and how strong their opponents are. Teams that come first in these rankings, especially the USA Today poll, are seen as true champions.
Playing high school football on Thanksgiving is a big tradition, even though it’s not part of the playoffs. Since Thanksgiving weekend and the playoff season overlap, many teams have special rivalry games instead of focusing on the playoffs. Often, teams only play a rivalry game if they’re not in the playoffs anymore.
It’s not a coincidence that the final rounds of many state tournaments happen on the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Finished-the-Season Matches in Canada
Similar to American college football, high school teams in Ontario, Canada, take part in a “Bowl.” But, for some bowl games, they pick teams based on how close they are to the school, not just their record. There are five bowl games that represent different areas: Northern Bowl, Golden Horseshoe Bowl, National Capital Bowl, Western Bowl, and Metro Bowl.
To figure out who gets to play in the National Capital Bowl, teams from Bay of Quinte, Simcoe County, Kawartha Lakes, Ottawa Valley, and East Ontario have matches.
For the EOSSAA (Eastern Ontario Secondary School Athletic Association) finals, KASSIA and other regional groups choose who will represent East Ontario. Schools like Sir James Dunn (Northern Bowl), Notre Dame (Golden Horseshoe Bowl), St. Peter’s (National Capital Bowl), Mother Theresa (Western Bowl), and Markham (AAA Bowl) have been recent AAA Bowl champions (winners of the Metro Bowl). The divisions in the OFSAA Bowls depend on the school’s size: either A/AA or AAA/AAAA.
In the A/AA and AAA/AAAA bowl games, two schools from the same region can win. These bowl games are similar. Most teams have different uniforms for their junior (9th and 10th graders) and senior (11th and 12th graders) teams. But junior-level teams don’t take part in bowl games for now. Similar to how states in the United States have playoffs, other provinces in Canada group schools based on how many students they have.
Just like college and pro teams, every high school football team in each state has its own mascot and unique name. Many of these names hint at qualities like strength, speed, or bravery. But sometimes, school teams choose names connected to important local places or things from the area’s history.
For example, Yuma Union High School in Yuma, Arizona, is called the “Criminals” because it’s near the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park. When new schools start or schools merge, students often get to “vote” on what their mascot or team name should be.