It is a coincidence, really, that the opponent on October 12 was Veribest, because Richland Springs is indeed the “very best” six-man football team: not simply in the state, but, according to those who know, the nation, too.
It is a most pleasant, 17-mile drive down US 190 West from San Saba to reach this community of 350. You pass signs to Algerita and Harkeyville. The high school was built in 1927, before the depression, before FDR was president, before the stock market crash of ’29; there are 73 students. When you arrive on campus, there are so few cars, it looks like there may be a school board meeting in progress, not classes.
None of that means too much to the fans who love the six-man football Coyotes: state and national champions in 2004 and ’06 and ranked number one in both polls this season. The tally has reached 48 wins in 49 games for Jerry Burkhart’s team.
“We have a thousand people at our home games,” Burkhart says, “and we had close to 13,000 at the state championship last year in Abilene. There can’t be a better place to be than Richland Springs because of the kids, the coaches, and the community.” Burkhart is in his fifth year as head coach of the Coyotes.
Ten or eleven boys are the main participants on this team, but Tyler Ethridge is the quarterback-running back who has posted some incredible numbers in his four seasons. He has thrown for more than 9,000 yards and over 200 touchdowns. These are national, career records. Ethridge has also run for more than 4,000 yards and 80 TDs. He was profiled in a lengthy story in the popular 2007 “Texas Football” magazine. The title of the article was : “The Best Dang Football Player in Texas You’ve Never Heard Of.”
“It’s been an exciting time,” Ethridge declares, “and it never gets old scoring as many points as we do. I feel like I’m a winner and the team’s a winner. I have great athletes around me.” Burkhart adds, “It’s a great opportunity to coach a young man like Tyler; actually, he does things that are uncoachable. He has God-given talent and he’s very athletic.” Wide receiver Mark Williams contributes, “Tyler sees the whole field when he’s about to pass; off the field he stays humble, and he wouldn’t have to with what he’s accomplished.” Williams doesn’t mention what he’s accomplished: most yards receiving and touchdown catches in the state in 2006. “He’s a great kid and a great athlete,” Burkhart points out. “Everyone knows how hard he is to cover.”
Ethridge can discuss history and football at home with his dad, Harley. He’s a history teacher and offensive coordinator for the Coyotes. Tyler, a confident young man, is not afraid to say he and his father disagree sometimes, and it shows on the field. “We have our ups and downs,” (as if the parent of a spelling bee champion and his child don’t argue over the best way to memorize 12-letter words). “Overall, I know what he’s thinking, and that helps, and I think it’s a blessing.”
So Friday night after Friday night, Richland Springs beats Happy, Texas, 78-32; Gustine, 68-6; North Side, 62-16; and Happy Hill, 80-8. How does the coach get his team ready Saturday through Thursday? “We try to get them fired up,” Burkhart explains, “and I’ll tell them so and so can hurt us. Of course, then we win big, and they think I’m a liar!” No one accuses him of that. “Seriously, we look at film in the days following the game, and our staff points out mistakes to them. We saw mistakes in a 72-0 win over Faith Christian, errors which will get you in trouble down the road. We really don’t overlook anyone. We lost in the state semifinals in 2003 in the last three seconds, and we learned our lesson then never to take any opponent or any lead for granted.”
“Every game is a stepping stone to the postseason,” Ethridge discloses, “and we imagine every game as a playoff game. Yes, I’m hoping we’ll win another state title; it feels right at this time, because our work ethic is good, but I’m like the coach, I don’t want to start looking too far in the future.”
Six-man players are often asked about the more traditional 11-man confrontations. Ethridge admits he’s had offers to play for a bigger high school, but he notes, “I enjoy six-man way too much; there’s a great bond with my teammates, coaches and community people. I know I’d miss that.” College possibilities? Both Ethridge and Williams would like to play at some level in college. “It’s every football player’s dream,” Tyler says, and the coach interjects, “We’ve had calls from Division 1-A and Division 2 schools; Mark and Tyler have lots of talent, and if they apply themselves and keep their grades up, somebody will pick them up.”
Back in Richland Springs, near the Blue and White signs which let people know, “Champions Play Here”, Williams declares, “We’re getting better every day, and if we keep working hard, we’ll make it all the way again.” Veribest won’t argue with that. The Coyotes whipped the Falcons, 84-0.