It sounds a bit like a script for a television show or film under the Disney umbrella. A small high school in a town of 250 people decides to start a football team. The goalpost crossbars are built out of two by fours. The players don’t wear jerseys. They wear sweatshirts with the numbers painted on them. Yet despite the fact no one on the team has played the game before, they not only win their first game, they go a perfect 8-0 in their first season. But was just the beginning of what would become a national record 61 consecutive victories.
Yet as Marc A. Rasmussen’s Six: A Football Coach’s Journey to a National Record details, that’s exactly what the Honkers of now-defunct Claremont High School in northeastern South Dakota did between 1947 and 1953. The win streak wasn’t because Claremont played patsies. Rather, the coach, Willis “Bill” Welsh, made it a point for the team to take on not just nearby schools but powerhouses, often undefeated themselves, from South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Six also provides insight into a unique aspect of American football. The title comes from the fact the Honkers (so named because the town is along the flyway for migrating Canadian geese) was one of several thousand teams in the country playing six-man football. Rasmussen examines the history of six-man football, invented in 1934 by Stephen Epler, a coach in Nebraska. Epler was looking for a way for small high schools to have a football team. At that time, the number of towns with a population less than 500 greatly exceeded those with more than 500 people. Add in the Depression and any football program needed to be as inexpensive as possible. Rule changes, such as an 80-yard long field that was also narrower than the standard field and requiring 15 yards for a first down, made the game a wide open affair.
Claremont was the size community 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 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, it isn’t the winning streak alone that makes this a tale for a family friendly movie. The Honkers didn’t let the end of the streak end their success. The team won its other remaining game that year and went undefeated the next two years, giving it a 78-1 record over its first eight years. Not bad for a student body unfamiliar with the game until they started playing it.
Hardly more than a bump in the prairie … [Claremont had] terrain so flat the ditch beside the road represented the largest change in elevation[.]
Marc Rasmussen, Six: A Football Coach’s Journey to a National Record