A few weeks ago we drove out to the Bohemian Hall south of Mandan, where every August Chuck and Linda Suchy organize a concert bringing together family, friends, and a mixed bag of musicians. I played a set in the middle, and had to compete for attention with a full moon rising over the Huff hills.
People started to arrive ninety minutes early, they sat on chairs they had brought or they lounged on the ground, there was pulled pork and juneberry pie, and the thing turned into a grand picnic. The prairie landscape and the languorous dusk provided the setting, and the musicians the diversion, but the stars of the night were the attendees, a cordial community gathered under the sky.
A lovely woman named Joan Lennick walked up and handed me a package, for which I thanked her, and then when I got home, I had the opportunity to examine the contents. Inside were two documents originating with her father-in-law, A. W. Larson, whom I knew as the founding father of six-man football in North Dakota.
This may be something of a narrow characterization, because Larson had a distinguished career and a full life. He was school superintendent in several towns, he wrote and lectured extensively, and for some thirty years he served as executive director of the North Dakota State Teachers Placement Bureau, after which he also served as executive secretary of the North Dakota School Administrators Association.
Still, it was an interest in the history of six-man football on the plains that drew me to A. W. Larson, and led Mrs. Lennick to hand me these two documents. From them, if you are an empathetic reader, emerges a flourishing society of communities on the plains just as animated as the one gathered the other night at the Bohemian Hall.
The first document is the Larson Simplified Scorebook for Six-Man Football, copyright 1937. Its blank table-pages have place for players, numbers, positions, plays attempted, gains, losses, and points scored. Any score was to be indicated by a slash (/) in a table cell, but if all cells were filled, then the scorer could start in again by adding cross-slashes, making Xs. Six-man football, you see, was a high-scoring game. The sample score page is filled out to indicate Sykeston High School running up 66 points against a mythical Shadyside High School.
“For complete information on Six-Man Football,” the preface to the scorebook advises, read ‘Six-Man Football Manual’ by A. W. Larson, Bismarck, N. Dak.” And that manual was the second document Mrs. Lennick handed me.
More specifically, it was the 5th edition, dating from 1952, but the preface speaks right from the 1930s, when Larson brought the six-man game into North Dakota. “I have long felt the need for a fall sport in the small high school,” he writes. “I have tried fall baseball, and early basketball, but have concluded that every sport is seasonal. That there is a time of the year when a sport has more attraction to the players and more interest to the spectators than if played during some other season. . . . Hence, I believe, even the small high school should have football in the early fall. The answer is Six-Man Football.”
Now I turn to the back of the manual, to the section on formations and plays, and I am transported. Every man eligible, every man scoring, reverses and end-arounds and deception plays, with mobility, not mass, giving the victory. Truly, this was the game of the plains, and I want to be there, even if only to park alongside the field and help light it for the game with my truck headlights. Thank you, Joan.