Note from the Digital Content Manager: When I asked our staff to send me their suggestions of their favorite stories we did this past year, this — by far — was the one on most people’s lists. Several of us even went to the state title game at Caldera High School to watch them defend their title — Travis Pittman
“It showed the heart of rural Oregon and the passion three towns can bring to put a highly competitive team on the field… AND win the state championship! I felt it had a Norman Rockwell feel to it… giving us a look at some hard working young men who may not go to college, may not ever play football again but they put everything they have into the game and bring a huge sense of pride to what they do and how they play.” — Allen Martin, Central Oregon Daily News Anchor
“Sometimes you hear about a story that sounds great and when you go to do the story the reality doesn’t live up to the hype in your head. But sometimes a story sounds incredible, and the reality is even better! The latter was the case for the Wheeler County Rattlers. Three years ago, Dave Jones told me about a 6-man football team in Wheeler County that had to combine two tiny towns/high schools to form one 6-man football team – I wanted to do THAT story. The pandemic put my plans on hold, but I never forgot about Dave’s pitch. Fast forward to 2022 and I finally circled back to the “tiny town” football story. In reality there were three towns/schools joining to make one team and it just kept on getting better. From a football field in the middle of a rodeo arena, to blowing stuff up for fun (you have to watch the story), to an incredible state title run – this rural football story had it all. Ultimately though, it was the people that made the story for me. Great kids, great coaches and Tommy Bunch’s moustache (you have to watch the web extras too)!” — Eric Lindstrom, Central Oregon Daily News Storyteller
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.