Six-Man Comeback?

18 January 2019

On 11 November 1948, the people of Claremont, located northeast of Aberdeen, prepared for the most important six-man football game of the year, which pitted the Claremont High School Honkers against the Hankinson High School Pirates from North Dakota. Many fans arrived early, parking their cars around the perimeter of the field. The vehicles acted as seating for the spectators, and their headlights illuminated games that crept into the evening. With automobiles so close to the playing field, the young players had to find ways to save themselves from injury when heading out of bounds. Some slid under the cars to avoid impacting fenders and bumpers, while other players left cleat marks on the car hoods as they took the “high road . . . to dissipate [their] momentum” (Rasmussen, Six, p. 5). Six-man football has a long history in South Dakota and may soon have a bright future once again.

For many who grew up in small towns during the Great Depression, six-man football was a community event. According to Marc Rasmussen, author of the South Dakota Historical Society Press book Six: A Football Coach’s Journey to a National Record, football had grown in popularity throughout the nation by the 1930s, but many schools on the Great Plains could not field the traditional eleven-man team due to a lack of players, financial instability, or both. One high school coach in Nebraska, Stephen Epler, invented “six-man” in 1934 so that local boys and townspeople could participate in live football games rather than live vicariously through radio broadcasts or newspaper reports of games in larger communities. One year later, small schools had created an estimated one hundred fifty teams. By 1940, the national association for the sport counted almost five thousand programs in existence.

Between the mid-1930s and the late 1960s, rural high schools in South Dakota embraced the game, and the Claremont Honkers dominated it. Between 1947 and 1953, Claremont set a national record with a sixty-one-game, seven-year winning streak. During Coach Willis (“Bill”) Welsh’s eight-year tenure from 1947 to 1955, they compiled a record of seventy-eight wins and one loss, which came late in the 1954 season. During the 1960s, however, six-man football declined in South Dakota as schools closed and consolidated. Even when a newly combined school came up short in fielding a traditional eleven-man team, they adopted either eight-man or nine-man football instead.

In 2017, in response to dwindling enrollments at rural schools, the South Dakota High School Activities Association laid plans to reintroduce six-man football beginning with the 2019 season. On 8 January 2019, however, the assistant executive director of the association, John Krogstrand, recommended postponing the move for two years as “only a handful” of schools “indicated a serious commitment” to supporting six-man teams. While six-man fans will have to wait for the return of the high-scoring, fast-paced game, discussions have begun, and we may yet see its comeback.

 

Michael Burns

 


 

In the image at top, the Claremont Honkers play the Hecla Rockets with fans’ cars lining the field in 1950 during their undefeated streak. Marvin Rasmussen Collection