It’s odd when you think about it, that the best sports movies of all time are rarely about sports, or at least the sport in question isn’t the centerpiece of the film. Let’s face it, nobody watched “Rudy” because of the football footage; “Bull Durham” just happens to take place on a baseball diamond, there’s lots of running in “Chariots of Fire,” but that running took place about a century ago.
What makes these and other top-flight sports movies work so well is not primarily the sports action that takes place on-screen, but the film’s characters participating in that action. We care about them, so we care about the games they play on-screen.
On its surface, director Alan Barber’s debut documentary “Six Man, Texas” simply covers the regular season and play-off run of the Aquilla Cougars, complete with scores of each game and informative sub-titles to show us why what we’re watching is important. We meet the team’s old-school football coach as well as the tough yet affable young men on the team. We also meet the townspeople themselves, for whom high school football is a heady combination of pride, pageantry and passion. We’re reminded again why the book, movie and television series “Friday Night Lights” took place in Texas and not, say, Rhode Island.
Even if “Six Man, Texas” stopped here, it probably would have been enough. The film would simply have been a solid, if perfunctory look at a slice of Americana… and we never would have known what we were missing.
Thankfully, Barber takes this concept a step further in “Six Man, Texas.” For those of you who aren’t sports fans, Six-Man football is a modified form of football, played on a slightly smaller field and featuring teams of six players on each side of the ball. Think summer camp or high school PE flag-football games crossed with the ever-more-popular arena football game and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Six-Man Football is all about.
The game is played throughout Texas in parts of the state where the school is too small to field full, “regulation” football squads. And here can be found the seeds that elevate “Six Man, Texas” from perfunctory sports doc to sociological study. For although the film is packed with loads of you-are-there, from-the-sidelines football action, the film elevates its message by exploring the declining populations in these small, mostly West Texas towns, and examining how this decline often results in the merging of school districts with its accompanying loss of local pride and identity. State Champions today, your entire high school bulldozed to its concrete slab tomorrow. It’s a heart-wrenching phenomenon that’s happening not just in the Lone Star State, but in smaller locales across the country as well.
At their best, sports are the face of a community and the source of much civic pride. For the small towns whose sons (and a few daughters) play six-man football, the poignant and haunting “Six Man, Texas” reflects how that pride can all-too-easily disappear, like the towns themselves, into the west Texas desert.