CLERMONT — For longtime football fans, something might seem amiss when Real Life
Christian Academy takes the field for a game.
Like the number of players.
Rather than having 22 players on the field, there are only 16 when the Raptors and their
opponent line up to play. Also, the playing field is considerably smaller — just 80-yards long by
40-yards wide, instead of 100-yards long and 53 1/3-yards wide like every other high school
field in Lake and Sumter counties.
Traditionalists, however, need not fret.
No one forgot how to count or use a tape measure.
Real Life Christian is the only school in Lake and Sumter counties that plays eight-man
football. The Raptors are charter members of the Sunshine State Athletic Conference’s 8-Man
Premier League, a three-division, 14-team loop with programs across the state, extending from
Jacksonville to Vero Beach.
“It’s been a lot of work getting this programs off the ground,” said Raptors head coach David
Rivette, “But it has also been a tremendous amount of fun. We have 15 players, but only two
played football before this season, so we’ve spent of lot of time teaching the simplest of things,
like how to put on equipment. Truthfully, we probably spent more time teaching than
coaching when we first started practicing.
“These kids, however, showed up with great attitudes and a willingness to learn how to play
the game. Some have needed more work than others, but our core group have a lot of positive
energy and I think that’s rubbed off on the rest of their teammates. They’re extremely
respectful, they take coaching well and this has been a very positive experience for everyone.”
Eight-man football is a variation of the 11-player game and is particularly prominent in the
Midwest. Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma are three of the four states with more than 80
eight-man teams. California is the other.
According to longtime SSAC President Stuart Weiss, his organization is the only one in
Florida offering eight-man football this year.
While many playing rules are the same as 11-man football, eight-man teams often eliminate
two tackles and a skill position player on offense and one defensive back, one linebacker and
one lineman on defense. Games tend to be faster paced and higher scoring, with winning
teams often scoring 40 — or more — points.
And the Raptors proved that to be the case in their first regular-season game.
Just a week after splitting two quarters at its preseason jamboree, Real Life kicked off its season
in convincing fashion. The Raptors blasted Winter Haven Oasis Christian 50-12 behind a total
team effort that limited the Lions to just 141 yards of total offense, including just 7 yards
It was a perfect start for the upstart program.
“At Real Life, one of our values is excellence,” said Athletic Director Debi Lawson. “So we
didn’t want to add football just to say we have football. If we were going to do this, we wanted
to do it the very best we could and then continue to improve on it every year.”
Lawson is in her 11th year as athletic director at Real Life. During her tenure, Lawson has
overseen the start of countless varsity programs at the school, including baseball, basketball,
volleyball, soccer, golf and softball.
The baseball team, in fact, advanced to the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 2A
Final Four last season in just its fifth year of existence.
Once the decision was made to look into starting a football program, Lawson spoke with
colleagues at other schools — one of which fielded an eight-man team. Through her own
legwork, she learned the SSAC was looking at starting an eight-man league for the 2019
“We have only 145 students — boys and girls — in grades 9 through 12, so 11-man football
didn’t seem practical for us,” said Lawson. “I met with officials from the SSAC and asked a lot
of questions. Afterwards, I went back to the school and spoke with some of our high school
boys to gauge their interest in playing, and found out there were 15 to 20 boys who were fired
up about playing.”
One of those “fired up” to play was senior Colby McCoy. A linebacker/running back and one of
the Raptors’ tri-captains, McCoy played tackle football in the Central Florida Youth Football
League when he was in elementary school, but had played mostly lacrosse in recent years with
the Scorpions, part of a youth lacrosse organization based in Clermont.
“I’ve always loved football,” said McCoy. “When I learned last year that we were going to have
a team, I was all in about playing. Everyone else is, too. We’re working hard and trying to win
every game we play.”
For many smaller schools like Real Life — which often struggle to offer student-athletes the
chance to compete in interscholastic sports — the SSAC has been a godsend.
The SSAC began in 2008 as a one-sport league — 11-man football. Over the years, it has grown
steadily and now sponsors championships in several varsity sports, including boys and girls
basketball, boys and girls volleyball, girls beach volleyball, and soccer for boys and girls, in
addition to 11- and eight-man football.
It boasts a membership of more than 120 schools, many of which are smaller, private
institutions. Two area schools — Mount Dora Christian Academy and First Academy of
Leesburg, — are charter members.
Weiss said the decision to add eight-man football was based on the needs of its member
“The SSAC has always been about offering small schools the opportunity to compete against
other like-minded programs,” said Weiss. “Over the past five years, we had lost 12 schools
from our 11-man league for a number of reasons. They were good members and we didn’t
want them to leave. We looked into the reasons and felt that starting an eight-man league
would benefit past, current and future members.
“We are absolutely thrilled with how (our eight-man league) has come together and are
incredibly happy that programs like Real Life Christian Academy have decided to join us.”
And by all accounts, the feeling is mutual.
Rivette, who has led his 8-on-8 youth team in St. Cloud to four state championships, makes a
drive of more than 80 miles — round trip — from St. Cloud to the Raptors’ practice and game
field in Palatlakaha Recreation Park — Park Pals— at least four times a week. It’s a drive that
likely would be nuisance to many.
“I have no regrets,” said Rivette. “These kids have already made the first football season at Real Life Christian Academy a tremendously successful one.”