Plains Folk



When he was growing up, Marc Rasmussen used to be brought back for family visits in Claremont, South Dakota, where his father had gone to high school. By this time the town was a mere shadow of its former substance, but there were stories—most prominently, stories of the glory days of six-man football when Rasmussen’s father played for the great high school coach, Willis “Bill” Welsh.

During the Welsh era, the Claremont Honkers compiled a streak of sixty-one straight wins, a national record. There were a lot of lopsided victories, and there were some hard-fought contests against regional rivals. In the middle of it all was Coach Welsh, a remarkable sports entrepreneur and community builder.

Rasmussen tells the story of the Welsh six-man football dynasty in a new book from the South Dakota State Historical Society, entitled simply Six, and subtitled A Football Coach’s Journey to a National Record.

A word about the six-man game, for those too young to remember (which is just about everybody these days). The game was a feature of high school athletics before general school consolidation, when the landscape was spangled with high schools turning out maybe a half-dozen graduates every commencement—too few students for eleven-man football, in other words. Basketball was a matter of community interest bordering on mania, but people still wanted a fall sport.

In 1934 Stephen Epler instituted the six-man game in Chester, Nebraska—I have stood on the field where the first six-man game was played—by reducing teams to three linemen and three backs each. The field was cut down to eighty yards by forty, and the rules required fifteen yards for a first down. Six-man football developed as a wide-open contest, great for boys and fans alike.

Rasmussen opens his narrative with the story of the legendary Armistice Day game of 1948 when the Hankinson, North Dakota, Pirates came to Claremont to play for the “mythical three-state football championship,” as they called it, of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The Honkers took to the snowy field warm with enthusiasm stirred by Coach Welsh’s pep talk recounting the exploits of Jim Thorpe. Hankinson fell hard that day, 40-0, and the Claremont legend lived on.

Bill Welsh was raised in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and was recruited to play alongside the Galloping Ghost, Red Grange, at Illinois—but on account of an injury, ended up back at Northern Normal of Aberdeen. Graduating in 1930, he went into teaching and coaching, enjoying success in several places, but most of all at Claremont, 1947-54.

I said Welsh was an entrepreneur and a community builder, by which I meant he constructed the Claremont sports program from the ground up, and that meant building a community to support it. Under his urging, the people of Claremont built a gymnasium and a field (for which Welsh scrounged a lighting system from his alma mater in Aberdeen). To read of the positive attitudes of those community builders, and of their unabashed enthusiasm for their teams, is to be transported back to a generation on the plains such as we have difficulty understanding, or even imagining, today.

And oh yes, the book is full of football action, and small-town heroes galore. It seems to me that underneath the narrative there may lie a certain darker, or sadder, side to the life of Coach Welsh, but we need not dwell upon that. For now, the lights are on, the field is lit, and the community is full-voiced.

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