Pilot Rock, a lumber town of just 1,500 people, sits in eastern Oregon tucked right off highway 365. “The Rock,” as it’s known by its locals, is located right on the base of the Blue Mountains, a mountain range that stretches all the way to southeastern Washington.
Within the town’s few streets, all of the essential businesses are tucked away: grocery stores, a police and fire station, banks, a church and a high school. Pilot Rock High School is home to the Rockets, a football team run by head coach Mike Baleztena.
Baleztena coaches an unconventional type of football: eight-man football.
The eight-man game is a high-scoring, fast-paced iteration of the sport, with a few tweaks to make up for smaller roster sizes. It is the game that has become a central pillar in the Pilot Rock community.
In traditional football, one player will stick to just one position on either defense or offense. In eight-man football, the quarterback plays on the other side at defensive end, the running back plays defensive back and many of the men on the line play both sides. Often, there are not enough men for substitutes so many will play the entire game.
Tanner Corwin, a quarterback at Pilot Rock, had 68 total touchdowns, making him eighth all-time in the state of Oregon. He broke his school record for most touchdowns in a game with six against Ione just last month.
During Corwin’s freshman year, he played strictly defense and special teams. His sophomore year, Corwin stepped in at quarterback. Besides playing quarterback, he played cornerback and even came in on special teams. The only time he came off was during timeouts and breaks between quarters.
By his junior and senior year, Corwin only sat out on special teams.
Just 15 players round out the team’s roster, so camaraderie is crucial.
“Once we are on the field, everybody gets along because we are all brothers,” Corwin said. “Everybody becomes super close because maybe this year we had about 15 people total.”
While eight-man football is known for its fast-paced action, there’s a stigma that comes with it. Since eight-man teams come from very small schools, many college recruiters don’t even bother to visit. Players like Corwin, as dominant as they are, seldom get looks from programs, let alone scholarship offers.
The impressive accolades and stats that have built Corwin’s football resume will almost definitely go unseen. Players like him and others from eight-man programs fly under the radar during recruiting season, despite plentiful talent.
Baleztena will send the local colleges such as George Fox, Lewis & Clark and Eastern Oregon, highlights of his players but none will give his players a look.
“You have to play so good, It doesn’t look like you belong.” Baleztena said.
Baleztena is a firm believer that his quarterback can play at the next level. He just needs to help him get on the radar.
“He's a 6-foot-3, awesome, smart kid, and I am trying to find a spot for him right now,” Baleztena said. “But there are all these quarterbacks from the 6A level they want to look at first.”
With Pilot Rock playing in a 1A, small school conference, many scouts from colleges overlook them for larger, 11-man programs in 5A and 6A divisions.
Terry Corwin, Tanner’s father and assistant coach of the team, shared similar feelings towards the bias.
“I would like to see more scouts at the smaller schools,” Terry said. “There are those handfuls of kids that are getting missed.”
Hoping to get rid of that stigma against the sport, Baleztena, Terry and Tanner Corwin all had their own messages when it came to what they wanted for people to know about eight-man football.
But more importantly, they wanted people to know what Pilot Rock football is all about.
“We’ve always been known as a hard-hitting team. I always tell the boys to keep working hard and we are on to the next play,” Terry said.
“Just wish more people would come out to watch it, see what it is really like,” Tanner said.
“The only message I’d put out is that if no one has ever seen an eight-man football game,” Baleztena said, “they need to go out and watch it.”