When you hear “UFL,” you may think of the start-up professional football league that is home to the Las Vegas Locomotives and Omaha Nighthawks, and a refuge for players and coaches hoping to get another NFL gig.
But in San Marcos, Texas, “UFL” refers to a league whose teams play five-on-five football*.
Players in the Unicycle Football League, like players in more conventional football leagues, rush, pass, block, and kick. They just do it all while balanced on a single wheel.
The UFL is the brainchild of Marcus Garland, who created the game in 2007 as a senior at Texas State University in San Marcos (between Austin and San Antonio). He hoped the game would appeal to people who wanted to get involved in team athletic competition but didn’t have a traditional sports background.
Garland and other first-generation unicycle football players honed their skills at an abandoned San Marcos gas station before moving to a church parking lot then a farmers’ market.
The league has a permanent home at the San Marcos Activity Center, a city-owned facility that welcomed the UFL after the league purchased an insurance plan. UFL public relations director Dickle Smallworth says that games at the Activity Center now attract on average between 100 and 200 spectators.
The season culminates with playoffs and the Stuporbowl, the UFL’s championship game. Stuporbowl VII is slated for April 14.
A Particular Set of Skills
The ability to pass, catch, and block while riding a unicycle requires a particular set of skills, but UFL teams haven’t had trouble filling out their rosters.
The league welcomes newcomers who are committed to learning the art of unicycle football.
“New players often think this is a joke until we call on them to play in a pinch,” Smallworth says. “We usually will have them play center, which doesn’t require as much unicycle riding skill to start.”
He adds that center has also become the preferred position of certain veteran players “who can take a hard hit from a nose guard, hike the ball, and then take out additional rushers.”
Many newcomers have little or no experience on a unicycle. Smallworth says that with regular practice new players can become comfortable on one wheel in about six weeks.
Current UFL players range in age from 20–44. Players must be legal adults to participate, and Smallworth says that the game starts taking a real toll on the body when players hit their mid-thirties.
The UFL welcomes men and women, but the league currently has only a single female player, Lady Bird of the Ill Eagles. A few other women have played in previous seasons.
Smallworth says, “Usually the women will hit harder because they feel they have to prove themselves. We only make them prove themselves drinking beer.”
Unicycle Football vs. Pedestrian Football
Anyone who is familiar with regular pedestrian football will have no trouble following a unicycle football game:
- UFL teams can advance the ball by running or passing, pick up first downs, and attempt field goals.
- A player in possession of the ball is ruled down if he or she dismounts his or her unicycle.
- A player without the ball who dismounts the unicycle must make one full revolution, forward or backward, before receiving the ball, pulling a flag, or making any other play that affects the game.
- Touchdowns are worth 6 points as usual, but extra point values are reversed. Teams can kick a short field goal for 2 points or opt for a one-point conversion.
Unicycle football, unlike its pedestrian cousin, doesn’t use a coin flip. Instead representatives from each team joust using the “multipurpose-use UFL stick” to determine the opening possession.
Though there is no tackling in unicycle football, it is very much a contact sport—a contact sport played on concrete.
The league requires players to wear a helmet and encourages them to wear shin guards, knee pads, and elbow pads. Smallworth explains that most UFL injuries are related to learning to ride a unicycle rather than getting hit during games.
He says, “The injuries in the games are usually not that bad. It will be bruises, pedals cutting into your shins and calves, accidental eye-pokes or unintentional helmet hits. We do occasionally have more severe injuries such as bruised ribs or fingers caught in pedals and spokes.”
Former University of Memphis running back Carlton Pride, who had a brief professional career in the Canadian Football League and with the Packers in the NFL, is the league’s head referee and author of the UFL rulebook.
Pride, the son of country legend Charley Pride, also fronts the San Marcos-based reggae outfit Carlton Pride & Mighty Zion. (Smallworth isn’t worried about the NFL hiring away Pride as a replacement ref. “I doubt that the NFL can offer him what we do in the UFL.”)
Smallworth notes that the UFL does not have cheerleaders. Instead, the league has a team of “jeerleaders” called The Unibrawdz.
He says that the Unibrawdz “pretty much run everything off the field. They control most of the first half but by the second half they are drinking beer, and the crowd has to try to control them.”
“We would kick them out of the league but all the players are too afraid of them.”
“The Unicycle Football Mentality”
Thanks to the Internet, the UFL has made fans far away from Central Texas.
Smallworth says that the league has a surprisingly large following in Asian nations. The UFL has had teams based in nearby Austin, and players have taken road trips to play exhibitions to audiences outside San Marcos, including at a Texas Rollergirls match and an Austin Turfcats Arena Football game.
But the UFL has no plans to expand outside of San Marcos, a city, Smallworth says, that “seems to have the Unicycle Football mentality built into it.”
He adds, “If another town wants to create a league, we will help them but they will have to come to us to play.”
Even if unicycle football never gets a foothold in other parts of the country, its founders and participants see a bright future for the game in San Marcos.
“We hope to be around in twenty years,” Smallworth says. “We hope to have our children play the sport when they get older. If it catches on, we will be happy but most players do this for their own pleasure and competitive spirit. It really has seemed to grow in the last two years so who knows what we will be like in another five.”
* * * * *
* An earlier version of this article said that the UFL plays “five-on-five flag football.” The league actually refers to its style as “flackle”: full tackle football in which players have the option of pulling a flag to record a down.
** An earlier version of this article said that the UFL has five teams. It has six.
Here’s the longest field goal in UFL history, courtesy of Coathanger of the Hot Dogs:
Here’s the play of the game from the 2011 “Stuporbowl”:
This video of an exhibition at a roller derby match gives an idea of what a unicycle tackle looks like: