In the tiniest of the tiny Oregon towns, high school football is still very much a part of the fabric of the community.
It may not be traditional 11-man football. It’s not 8-man — that’s reserved for the “big” little towns.
It’s 6-man football. And in three tiny towns in Eastern Oregon, they’re combining their schools and athletes to field one 6-man team.
Head east from Central Oregon — way east — and eventually you’ll find yourself in Wheeler County. It’s the least populated county in the state.
Way more cows than people. The entire county only has a population of 1,300 people — give or take. But what they do have is a high school football team that happens to be the reigning 1-A Oregon state champions.
The Wheeler County Rattlers.
The Rattlers aren’t the only team playing 6-man football across the state, but they are the only team that has to combine three towns with three different high schools to field just one 6-man football team.
The towns of Mitchell, Spray and Fossil combine their schools, their resources and their athletes to make up the Wheeler County Rattlers.
There are all kinds of unique challenges. Practices rotate from school to school, forcing players to be bussed to and fro up to an hour each way.
Home games rotate fields. Friday night lights literally don’t exist — games start at 2 p.m. and are played under God’s light.
And teammates might never attend the same school.
This is cowboy country. The football field in Spray is part of the rodeo grounds. Cattle shoots line the edge of the field. The rodeo arena flows right into the grass and there’s all kinds of home field advantages.
The Rattlers are chasing another state title after going undefeated in 2021 — quite the turnaround for a team that had gone a combined 2-14 the previous two seasons.
Deschutes, Multnomah, Clackamas — those counties might have the people. But in Wheeler County, they’ve got the cows and they’ve got the horses on the field — figuratively and literally.
Wheeler faces Powers Saturday. The winner heads to the state title game.