Long before football became a television and popular culture behemoth, the sport found most of its success in the amateur ranks. But the many towns and high schools in rural areas faced a problem. They didn’t have enough students for an 11-man team.
A partial solution came during the Depression, when a coach in Nebraska created six-man football. The game arrived in Claremont, a town of roughly 250 in northeastern South Dakota, after World War II. The town was barely “a bump in the prairie” and surrounding area was so flat that “the ditch beside the road represented the largest change in elevation.”
The signs were not auspicious when the team started in 1947. Only one student on the team had seen a football game. The goalpost crossbars were built out of two by fours and the players wore sweatshirts with the numbers painted on them. Yet as Marc A. Rasmussen details in Six: A Football Coach’s Journey to a National Record, all this was irrelevant. Not only did the team win its first game, it went a perfect 8-0 that season. But the Claremont Honkers (so named because the town is along the flyway for migrating Canadian geese) were just warming up. That season was the start of what would become a national record 61 consecutive victories between 1947 and 1953.
Played on a field only 80 yards long and narrower than standard football fields, the game could be a wide open affair. Claremont not only took advantage of that, setting a national scoring record one year, it posted a number of shutouts during the streak. But the win streak didn’t come from playing patsies. Lacking any sort of state championship structure, the coach, Willis “Bill” Welsh, made it a point for the team to take on powerhouses, often undefeated themselves, from South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Six provides insight into the unique aspect six-man game. Rasmussen examines its history and how it arose during a time when the number of towns with a population less than 500 greatly exceeded those with more than 500 people. Claremont was of a size for which the sport was intended. Before closing in 1970, the high school never exceeded 40 total students. Despite that, the team would draw 1,000 people or more to some of its games during its streak. Although South Dakota would eventually go from six-man to nine-man high school teams as consolidation meant fewer and fewer very small schools, the six-man game remains very popular in Texas.
Rasmussen breaks the story down into three basic parts. Readers learn some basics about Welsh, the sport, the team and the community in an introduction built around a November 11, 1948, game in Claremont against Hankinson, N.D. The game was billed as being for the six-man championship of the Dakotas — and was indicative of the types of opponents Welsh would seek out. Although Claremont was 17-0 at that point, Hankinson came into the game with a 36 game winning streak, one which ended by a score of 40-0.
The first major section of the book is a well researched and nicely written biography of Welsh. Despite a relative paucity of sources, Rasmussen initially takes the reader from Welsh’s success as a high school athlete in Aberdeen, S.D., to his first year as a running back at the University of Illinois, where he was Red Grange’s backup. Injuries quickly ended his Illinois career and Welsh would return to Aberdeen, where he attended and played football at Northern Normal College, a teacher’s college that is now Northern State University. Six describes not only his journey as a successful coach in football, basketball and track in South Dakota and Iowa but his family life and the death of his only son at age five, a tragedy that would eventually lead Welsh to Claremont. There, he served as a second father to the boys he coached. The last section of the book covers the winning streak itself and some of the regional and national attention it garnered.
Six is aided by Rasmussen’s straightforward prose and a narrative style that helps the reader better grasp the times and community. Still, despite the book being only roughly 150 pages long, there is some repetition, particularly between the introduction and section describing the winning streak. Perhaps more frustrating is that the latter consists in large part of one paragraph recaps of the games, the leading scorers for the game and who was on the team each year. It is short on personal recollections or stories, or at least there are very few directly quoted. Granted, more than half a century has elapsed since the games were played but Rasmussen notes in his preface that he interviewed a number of the players, cheerleaders and fans.
Adding more of a personal touch from those individuals would have bolstered the story of the streak. Still, the book stands as a readable and pleasant recounting of a part of sports history that might otherwise soon be forgotten.
By the way, the Honkers didn’t let the end of the streak mean the end their success. The team won their other remaining game that year and went undefeated the next two years, giving it a 78-1 record over its first eight years. Not a bad showing for a group of kids from a bump on the prairie.