It came about as a product of the Great Depression.
Limited enrollments made fielding an 11-man football team a challenge, while continued economic woes made it nearly impossible for most schools to sponsor a team even if the numbers were there.
In 1934, Stephen Epler, an assistant coach from Chester, Neb., came up with a solution: Six-man football.
Part of a graduate project at the University of Nebraska, Epler’s version of the game featured a shorter field, an altered scoring system and, in its initial incarnation, did not allow for players to wear cleats, meaning a team could equip the starters for less than $100.
Described as “basketball on grass,” six-man football was fast-paced, high-scoring and cost-efficient.
It was an immediate hit in South Dakota.
With interest and participation growing over the mid-to-late 1940s, the state provided its first six-man coaching clinic in August 1949.
By 1951, 83 South Dakota schools were participating in the sport, ninth most in the nation. A year later, that number grew to 110.
Though the game was still growing in South Dakota during the 1940s, a national powerhouse had already been born in a small town outside of Aberdeen.
In 1947, Willis Welsh started a six-man football team at Claremont High School.
That first team, which had just one player who had seen a live football contest, wore old sweatshirts with numbers painted on them, old leather helmets and a very basic set of pads.
The Honkers beat Hecla 43-6 in their inaugural game. That was the first of 61 straight wins for Claremont, a national record which still stands today.
The streak spanned over six perfect seasons before coming to an end against the team that it started against, Hecla, which beat the Honkers 26-0. It was the lone blemish on Willis’ record at Claremont, which went undefeated – again – a year later.
The Honkers’ success was the highlight of six-man ball in South Dakota. But as schools began to consolidate and enrollments started to grow, the game’s popularity started to fade.
By the early 1960s, the six-man class folded. In 1969, a nine-man class was introduced.
More than 50 years later, those trends have begun to reverse and it appears six-man football could be on the verge of a rebirth in South Dakota.
“It’s not necessarily something new, but maybe an option that we can go back to again, something that would work for some of our smaller schools,” SDHSAA executive director John Krogstrand said.
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen.