Eight-man football players still overcoming little-school stigma

Adjusting to more players on the field provided some initial trepidation and later adaptation for Dean Steinkuhler after he played eight-man high school football.

But as soon as Steinkuhler started scrimmaging at Nebraska, he was confident he eventually would be able to play for the Cornhuskers. Even if it meant adjusting to three new teammates on the field.

"There were a lot of good players back home playing eight-man ball," Steinkuhler said. "A lot of times those guys just never get any opportunities [in college]. I knew within a week after arriving that I could play up there. It would just take some time for me to get used to the speed of the game."

Steinkuhler is one of the rarities in college football. He developed from a player with an eight-man background to an All-American offensive lineman with the Cornhuskers. Steinkuhler's prowess enabled him to win the Outland Trophy in 1983. He was the second pick overall in the 1984 NFL draft and later played seven seasons with the Houston Oilers before retiring in 1991.

But before that, Steinkuhler had played eight-man high school football at Sterling (Neb.) High School when growing up in nearby Burr, a small town about 40 miles southeast of Lincoln. Steinkuhler helped the town of 110 earn the distinction of being the smallest town at the time to produce a consensus All-American.

"Football is still football, even with the eight-man kind," Steinkuhler said. "The standout player on an eight-man team has to do a lot of things. And I think in some aspects that makes you a better football player. I know I had to help my team wherever it needed it. It might be at fullback, offensive line, defensive line or linebacker. I played all over, and most other players are like that who play eight-man."

Nebraska traditionally has been willing to consider those players because of its vast walk-on program and the number of six- and eight-man high school teams scattered across the state. New coach Bo Pelini hopes to rejuvenate Nebraska's walk-on program, stocking the program with players from the small programs across the state.

"One thing we have going for us is that there are players from Nebraska who really want to play here," Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne said. "We get many qualified players who are willing to walk on, many from six- and eight-man teams. If they have the ability, we will encourage them and in some cases they'll have a chance for a scholarship."

Not only will that help the Cornhuskers deal with the limits of an 85-man scholarship roster, but it also will build on the Cornhuskers' fanatical following across the state.

"I think it's been good for us," Osborne said. "Many of the small towns have had players end up on Nebraska's roster over the years through our walk-on program. It connects those small towns to the university and has been a big source of pride for our fan base."

Most Division I-A schools rarely recruit six- and eight-man players because their talents seldom have been tested in high school. And even some Division III schools are hesitant to consider six-man and eight-man players because of a perception that those players haven't been challenged as much as players from 11-man programs.

"The exposure for them isn't like it is for the other kids in high school, and there's just a basic unfamiliarity with the game," Baylor coach Art Briles said. "It's really hard to evaluate the kids from the six-man game because of the techniques involved. It's just hard to compare to the 11-man game."

But as college football evolves with spread offenses that place a premium on getting players into space, there could be a place for gifted athletes who develop in six- and eight-man programs. The key for them will be getting the exposure to let college coaches know of their abilities.

"If they come to camps and show people what they can do, a school might be willing to consider them because players are players," Briles said. "If coaches think they can play, they'll get a chance somewhere."

But some standout six-man players say they were dogged by a stigma because college coaches don't judge them the same as 11-man players.

Former Eastern New Mexico running back Fide Davalos earned a scholarship opportunity after a standout six-man career as a spreadback in 2001 at tiny Floyd (N.M.) High School. Davalos' high school senior class had 14 members; his football team had 11 players on its roster.

"There were no stoplights, no gas station and no grocery store where I grew up," Davalos said. "All we had was a post office, a school, a football field and a baseball field. We were just a bunch of tough farm kids who wanted to play. Whether it was raining or snowing or whatever, we were excited about getting our chance to play."

And none more so than Davalos, who rewrote the national six-man record book during his career there.

Despite feelers from schools such as New Mexico and Colorado that offered him a chance to walk on, Davalos accepted a full scholarship at Division I-AA Eastern New Mexico. And he used that education to earn his degree that has helped prepare him for his current work at medical school.

"I don't have any regrets, but I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had taken a chance to play at a bigger school," Davalos said. "I had a certain level of security with the Eastern New Mexico coaches and I got a starting job as a freshman. But if I had been at a bigger program, I would have competed and tried my best. And who knows how it all would have turned out?"

Tim Griffin covers college football for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.