CARIBOU, Maine — In most respects, the scene at Sincock Field was no different from a preseason football scrimmage anywhere else around the state.
The six varsity and junior varsity teams took turns getting their first taste of hostile competition of the year, discovering what was and wasn’t working from the intrasquad practices that preceded this late summer debut.
But there were some differences. Competition was being held on an 80-yard-long field rather than the typical 100-yard surface.
And at least some of the conversation among the 150 or so fans in attendance was spoken in French, reflecting the heritage of some of the players from northernmost Maine and beyond.
Yet the competition was just as intense as any game in the Pine Tree State, and the shared goal of winning a championship come November is just as real.
Welcome to football Aroostook County style, where the Valley Mustangs, the Central Aroostook Huskies and the Houlton Knights spent a recent Saturday preparing for the start of their own regular season as members of the five-team Maine State Eight-Man Football League.
“Ever since I was little, I watched football on TV and wanted to play and was bummed because we never had a team,” said Quinn Harris, a junior at Hodgdon High School who is the starting quarterback for the Houlton Knights. “So the first year they had a team for the younger kids, I played, and then I just worked my way up. This is great.”
For most of the estimated 225 players from grades five through 12 who play football in the three County programs — Houlton and Central Aroostook have developmental teams at the peewee level, and all three programs have middle school-age teams — this sport doesn’t represent a change of athletic heart from what’s available in their local school systems, but instead is merely the right sport for them.
“This is my first actual team that I’ve felt a part of,” said Trey Stewart, a lineman for the Huskies. “For me, it’s like another class, and your homework is to go home and learn the playbook. It’s like another class in school, but you have a lot of fun with it and you learn a lot about football and teamwork.
“Before I started this, I was just a weak, short kid. I’ve become a healthier person, mentally and physically, and football’s a big part of my life now.”
Growing football in The County
Aroostook County is not without a football history — Bill Hanscom, who will be among the first inductees into the Presque Isle Athletic Hall of Fame this winter, coached that school’s 1930 football team to the Aroostook League title as well as co-championships in 1931 and 1932.
More recently, soccer has ruled the County sports scene during the fall months, yet some kids in the region — particularly those of a lineman’s physique — longed for another option.
“I like football; that’s the only sport for the big guys,” said Patrick Chamberland, a senior at Madawaska High School who is beginning his fifth season with the Mustangs. “Basketball and soccer are more cardio, but if you can hold your own on the line and be tough, football’s the sport for you.
“I always was a big kid, so I just gravitated toward football.”
The birth of Aroostook Football in 2003 grew out of a conversation at a local Rotary Club meeting.
“Dick Ingalls, an attorney in Presque Isle, and I, we were lamenting that there was no high school football here, and someone at the table said, ‘You should start it,’” said Huskies coach Stu Wyckoff, a retired psychiatrist and former defensive end at Brown University. “We thought about it and talked about it and finally decided we should do it.
“We borrowed $15,000, bought some equipment and then advertised. We had 13 takers, so we divided them up seven and six, played six-man football and played each other five times. That was our first season.”
A year later, Aroostook Football fielded enough players for three teams of six-man competition. By 2005, a team based in Madawaska joined the ranks, and the program expanded to an eight-man format.
Junior varsity teams subsequently were added, and the local teams soon began to look beyond the county line for further expansion.
Like-minded rural teams from Bradford-Corinth-Hudson, Milo and Howland joined the schedule, and there was an additional attempt to add a team from Fredericton, New Brunswick.
This fall, the three County teams are joined by two central Maine teams, Milo and the BCH Knights, in the eight-man league, with each team playing an eight-game schedule leading to the crowning of a champion on Nov. 6.
“Houlton, they had a great year last year and they’re the team to beat right now,” said Jordan Mitchell, a third-year lineman with the Huskies. “We’re just working hard right now to try to get to that point and hopefully win the championship this year.”
Filling the rosters
Today, the Aroostook County high school-age teams are relatively stable in numbers. The Houlton-based Knights have nearly 35 players on their high school-age roster, while the Huskies and Mustangs have 25 to 30 players each.
“Overall, the league has grown every year, and now we have three groups that are solid, financially well-heeled, well-outfitted, well-funded,” said Wyckoff. “We’re set, and we’re not going away.”
The three teams draw not just from core communities. The Mustangs get players from Madawaska, Fort Kent, Grand Isle and Edmundston, New Brunswick.
The Huskies this year include players from Presque Isle, Caribou, Mars Hill, Washburn, Ashland, Limestone and Fort Fairfield.
The Knights draw from Houlton, Littleton, Monticello and Hodgdon and have had players from Woodstock, New Brunswick, on their roster. With its peewee, middle school and high school-age teams, the Houlton program now has nearly 90 youngsters playing football.
“The equipment room’s basically empty on all levels, which is a good thing,” said Knights head coach Brian Reynolds. “We’re having to order more equipment, and that’s great to see.
“We’re four years running strong. In my mind, our level of play is improving every year, our numbers are growing every year.”
Enticing youths to give football a try is an easy sell in some cases but also requires more traditional recruiting measures.
“Some of the schools let us come in and tell them it’s there, and there are some ads in the newspaper, so it’s publicizing what we’re doing more than anything,” Wyckoff said. “People find us on the website [Aroostookfootball.org], and every year, I go to all the high schools and middle schools in the Central Aroostook area, and we pick up a few kids that way.
“But these are the best recruiters,” he added, pointing to the players on the field. “If they have fun and they tell their friends, then we’ll get kids.”
Each player is responsible for a $150 registration fee to play in the league and offset costs that include insurance, lights and field rental, the reconditioning of helmets and shoulder pads, and the annual postseason awards banquet.
Much of that money comes from fundraising such as car washes, bottle drives and some corporate donations, but one popular way of generating that money is less typical.
“My wife and I have a time share that we donate to the program,” said Wyckoff, part of the all-volunteer crew of coaches and officials. “So if your kid plays, he gets 15 $10 tickets to sell for a chance to win the time share, and if he sells those, that pays for his registration.
“For some kids, they just don’t have that $150, so it’s a way for kids who may not have it to raise the money. Plus, if a kid works for that money, he’s less likely to quit, and I kind of like that.”
A complementary relationship
As for the product itself, eight-man football is similar to the 11-player game except that it typically has two fewer down linemen and one less person in the offensive and defensive backfields.
“When I go to coaching clinics and take in what they’re teaching, I usually have to modify it slightly, but you can run pretty much the standard plays,” Wyckoff said. “You just have to adjust for what you don’t have on the field.”
Reynolds, who works as the tribal administrator for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, grew up playing 11-man football in southern New Hampshire, but has coached the Houlton eight-player team since its inception in 2006.
His grandfather Wally LaFountain was a longtime football coach in Winslow as well as one of the founders of the Maine-Nebraska Friendship Series wrestling exchange held each summer.
Nebraska has a thriving eight-man football program within its high school ranks, and Reynolds has drawn upon that connection to enhance his own knowledge of and passion for this variation of the game.
“When I started coaching, being a veteran of 11-man football, I thought this was crazy,” said Reynolds, whose uncle Mark LaFountain is the varsity football coach at Mount Ararat of Topsham.
“But I talked to my grandfather, and because of the Maine-Nebraska Friendship Series, I got some exposure to the eight-man football that is played in Nebraska. I actually prefer it now over 11-man. It’s more wide-open; I can get real creative with play designs, and it seems like there are more long runs.
“I’d love to see the [Maine Principals’ Association] take a look at eight-man football as an option for smaller schools,” he added.
Some of the players within Aroostook Football wouldn’t mind having an affiliation with their local schools.
“Not too many people in school are into it right now,” said Eddie Flint, a Houlton High School senior who plays fullback and linebacker for the Knights. “It would be nice if they were, but it’s still kind of a new thing, and some people see it as taking kids away from their sport.
“But some of the kids come to the home games and they seem to like it.”
Others are content with Aroostook Football as an independent entity.
“It would be nice if it was part of the school,” said Stewart, “but I think it’s more fun this way because the seriousness isn’t there the same way it would be if it was a school sport.
“But you also don’t have as many perks as you would if it was through the school.”
It’s likely Aroostook Football will remain independent for the foreseeable future, given both the prevailing economic doldrums and the fact that the Mustangs, Huskies and Knights are largely regional teams, and individual schools in the area might be hard-pressed to come up with the numbers needed to sustain a place in the 11-player football ranks.
“You would have to find some private stream of funding to make it a go at the high school level,” said Reynolds. “But we have the uniforms, we have the same colors [as Houlton High School], so it wouldn’t be a major transformation.”
Wyckoff had hoped that by now, eight years into its existence, Aroostook Football would be bigger than it is.
“I imagined by now we’d be on our own fields and we’d be bigger,” he said. “I grew up in Texas, and football’s big there. I didn’t realize how hard a sell football would be here.
“In some ways, we’re still a pretty good secret. I’d be really surprised if in my time doing this [the schools would] take it over.”
But there is satisfaction among the league’s organizers in its ability to fill a need for some of the region’s youngsters.
“You get a group of kids who normally aren’t joiners to join a positive group,” Wyckoff said. “They’re in a positive culture where they get self-respect and self-esteem, they get self-pride, they learn accountability and responsibility, and they become better people.”
And the players are appreciative for the opportunity to live the football life.
“Everyone can come out and play football,” said Harris, the Houlton Knights’ quarterback. “No matter your size or ability, there’s always a place to play football. In football, it takes every single guy doing his job to make it work. That’s what I like about it.”