Six-Eight-Eleven is a photo-essay project about small town high school football focusing on the small town football games and programs in the bypassed communities of Wyoming and Montana (mostly). Despite the decadence of American Football at the professional, college, and some high school levels, this body of work illustrates that there are still places in this country where football’s innocence is preserved and celebrated in a grass roots setting. This project commenced in 1997.
To many people, Ennis, Montana means one thing: fly fishing on the Madison River—one of America’s greatest fishing holes. And one pass through this town of 800 permanent residents, you’ll find an assortment of businesses that cater to all things that are fly fishing and a bit more.
I’m ignorant about what or who is the runner-up to fly fishing in Ennis, but if someone told me it was football, I’d believe them given the number of “Mustang Football” signs posted throughout the community.
Starting this year, the Ennis High School football team finds itself back in familiar territory—Class C eight-man football play. “How familiar,” you might ask? In 1978 and 1982 the Mustangs won the Class C state title and in 1983 they were the runner up. Their football reputation might not be up there with the likes of Wibaux or Absarokee, but it is undoubtedly reputable.
Like Superior and Absarokee, Ennis is one of those schools that walks the pesky and fine line defining Class B eleven-man and Class C eight-man. Pesky in that the goal post and football field must be reconfigured each time there’s a switch between these two states of play.
Not that I’ve been to every small town football field in Montana or Wyoming, but I have seen more than my share. Up until my visit to Ennis this last week, I had declared Harlowton as the best lit field for Friday nights. However, as long as Ennis is playing Class C, they are the undisputed champion when it comes to playing under the lights. This is one beautiful facility. And when you stand at the top of the hill overlooking the gridiron, you can watch the setting sun (coming from behind you) reflect off of the high peaks of Madison Mountain Range just over the trees that surround the field. If the Rocky Mountains extending from Canada down into New Mexico were a football team, then the Madison section would be one of the lineman.
In past writings I’ve always downplayed that “Friday Night Lights” thing, declaring that once it’s dark and the floodlights come up, visually speaking, every football field is the same and thus looses its sense of place. That was somewhat challenged when I was watching the game between Ennis and White Sulphur Springs—the Mustang’s homecoming to boot. Because after my intoxication with the sublime wore off and the sun was long gone, I realized there was a great football game playing out in front of me—one of those games that’s played so hard by both sides, you hate to see either one lose.
In the context of this project, I suppose there’s no need in mentioning who won or who lost that night between Ennis and White Sulphur Springs. What I do need to state here is that sometimes there is magic in the game itself—when two teams are so perfectly matched up, you really have no idea how the game will end. There are also times when there is magic in the setting of the game—the wide open spaces beyond the gridiron or the mountains that tower above. This second option is common and rather unique to Wyoming and Montana. But on those rare occasions, the magic of the setting and the game will marry and you’ll find yourself wondering how you got to be so lucky—as I did in Ennis, Montana the other night.