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When Sharks ruled the gridiron

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By The Staff

Editor's Note: This week, in celebration of the Heisman Award and high school state championships, the Beacon is looking back to the days when Cedar Key School still played football.

Did Cedar Key ever have a football team?

Now, during the exciting postseason playoff games for state high school titles, college conference title games, bowl season announcements, Heisman Trophy presentations and National Championship aspirations, the answer reminds me of the response to a young girl's question regarding the existence of jolly old St. Nick.

This child wrote to the most reliable source that she could think of; the editor of New York Sun, who assured her, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." So, this is my chance to assure you, that, "Yes, Virginia, there was football in Cedar Key!"

My father has always encouraged my love of the gridiron sport. All my life we either watched football games together, or we discussed them afterwards. Some of my earliest football memories are of packing the car with a pillow and blanket before heading to Cedar Key to watch my brother Johnny Stephens play football for the Cedar Key High School Sharks in the early 1960s.

When we arrived from Gainesville, our first stop would be to see my Grandmother, or "Bubba," as we called her. Then, we would head to the field to get a good parking spot and check in with my brother before the game.

The football field at Cedar Key in the 1960s was an interesting place. If you have been to the CKS Gym recently, the bumpy area that you drove over and parked on used to be the Sharks' football field - sandspurs and all. The field was marked off, complete with end zones and goal posts. Of course, one of the end zones always faced the marsh, which resulted in an occasional delay while a field goal or extra point ball was retreived from the mud.

For these high school games, cars and trucks could pull up on either side of the ropes that cordoned off the side lines and team benches, and the fans could sit on the hoods of their cars to watch their team play ball.

In the 1950s and 60s, football in Cedar Key was not the game that most people recognize today. Because of the size of the schools in the area and the availabity of players at those schools, the Riverland Conference, of which Cedar Key High School was a member, played six-man football.

In 1933, Stephen Epla, a Chester, Neb. high school football coach, worked out the ground rules that started six-man football, because of the lack of players in local high schools in his area.

According to Epla, the size of each team on the field was fixed at six players because this would allow an even split between ends and backfield. In this fast-moving variation of 11-man football, all players are eligible to catch and run with the ball. Because the length of the playing field was reduced to of 80 yards long by 40 yards wide, fans of the game could easily follow the tremendous effort of boys who played both offense and defense.

In addition to the field size, there were several distinct differences in the rules. Instead of the traditional 10 yards needed for a first down, six-man football required a gain of 15 yards from the line of scrimmage for a first down. Following a touchdown, the traditional point-after kick only registered one point, while a pass or run scored two points in the six-man football rule book. As for field goal attempts, a successful kick scored four points instead of three points in 11-man regulation play. Famous for its high scores, six-man football had mercy built into the rules. The ?slaughter rule? stopped a game when one team lead by 45 points.

In the C.H. Underwood book, Six Man Football, A Coach's and Players Guide with a History of Championship Teams, the author tells us, "Six man football is in many ways more strenuous than 11-man football...demanding better physical conditioning and making for extremely aggressive contact. Fans who enjoy good open-field running, blocking and tackling enjoy the six-man game."

While the game of football is exciting no matter how many players are on the field, I imagine that your next question might be..."Did Cedar Key ever have a "NORMAL" football team. The answer is, "Yes, Virginia, ..." Oops, there I go again. I mean, "Yes, there was 'normal' football in Cedar Key!"

According to stories that I have heard throughout my life and pictures that hang in my parent's home, 11-man football was played at CKHS in the years before six-man football became the norm for area teams. According to CKHS graduate and local historian, Dr. John Andrews, 11-man football dominated local fields until the early 1940s.

"The Cedar Key High School football team played with 11-men until the war (World War II) started, when the number of students declined at the school," Andrews told us. "My brother Dan played football for Cedar Key, but when the war started, they suspended the play of all high school sports, due to gas rationing," says Andrews.

"That's the reason I didn't get to play."

While reminiscing about some of the stories that I have heard throughout my life, I asked Dr. Johnny about the rumored headline in the Jacksonville paper that declared in bold letters, "Cedar Key Wins The Gator Bowl!" According to Andrews, Red Bethea, a 1930s-era Cedar Key High School running back who went on the play football at the University of Florida, made history as he ran for the winning touchdown in the final seconds of a regularly scheduled Florida vs. Georgia game in Jacksonville.

Dr. Andrews also told me where the Cedar Key Sharks of the 1930s and 40s, played their football games. Apparently, the original Sandspur Stadium got its start at the area that is now the home of the George T. Lewis Airstrip. Years before there was any sort of development at the airport, a field was roped off and marked in the traditional 100-yard grid. The sandspurs were so bad, that prior to game time, the players would wrap an oil drum in burlap, then roll it back and forth over the area to pick up some of the sandspurs.

A former Bronson High School player, Don Duden, once told me that his entire team would have to pick thorns out of their arms and legs for weeks following any game in Cedar Key.

"But, they never seemed to bother the Cedar Key boys!"

Between the sandspurs and the sand gnats, that's an impressive home field advantage.

For every story that I have heard and for every picture that I have seen of the football games that my dad played, I'm sure there are dozens of the same type of wonderful stories and photos cherished by his teammates. But it saddens me to know that the students who played ball during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, are leaving this earth, taking their memories with them. Hopefully, they shared those memories with their children and grandchildren they way my father did.

The football teams that took the field for Cedar Key School, during the 1950s and 60s, were a part of something that has been forgotten as schools continue to get bigger and bigger. Six-man football was designed for those towns that were unable to field an 11-man team, and during these two decades, schools in this area fit the description perfectly. Unfortunately, times change and as area schools returned to "normal" football, six-man football was no longer an option in Cedar Key.

Despite the fact that there is no longer a football team at CKS, they do have volleyball, cross country, basketball, softball and baseball, tennis and track teams. These hard-working student athletes are making the sports memories of tomorrow. Perhaps, now would be a good time to ask them about their experiences, before they become just a memory and a picture in an album.