Since the game began with 25 players on each side playing with a soccer-like ball in the 1860s, the game of football is far different than the fast-paced, hard-hitting game that transfixes the American public today.
Half the players played without helmets (didn't become mandatory until the 1930s) and those that wore the protection had nothing more than a helmet harness. The uniforms didn't have numbers and the padding was ragged at best. It was a rough, rugged and often dangerous sport.
When football began in South Dakota in the late 1890s, touchdowns and field goals counted five points each with the current system of six points for a TD and three for a FG being adopted in 1912, or 100 years ago this fall.
While football continued, controversy brewed because South Dakota high school teams did not play for a championship. Except for a period from 1922-26, state champions were determined by newspaper reporters. These so-called "Mythical titles" were created in 1905 by reporter Jim Ashley of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
Year after year, Ashley and the Argus Leader determined the best team in South Dakota, except for 1922-26 when the SD Athletic Association handled that responsibility. After 1926, The Sioux Falls Argus Leader again took on the responsibility of selecting state champions and would do so for the next three decades before they invited other newspapers representatives to help out. The sportswriters group named the state champion until the beginning of the 1981 season.
The first "mythical" champion was Spearfish in 1899 with Brookings crowned a year later. Sioux Falls Washington earned its first of 35 "mythical titles" in 1905. From 1899 to 1980, 49 different schools were crowned mythical titlists.
More than 100 schools in South Dakota were playing 11-man football by 1934. Other schools explored options in 6-man, 7-man and 8-man football. It is believed that the first six-man contest involved Strasburg in 1934.
The Claremont High Honkers, coached by Bill Welsh, began playing 6-man football in 1947 and won 61-straight games (national record) through the 1953 season. After a 26-0 loss to Hecla in 1953, Claremont was undefeated in 1954. However, 6-man football lasted only until the 1962 season.
In the 1950s, six-man schools were asked by the SDHSAA to convert to eight-man football. By 1955, 84 schools in South Dakota were playing eleven-man football and 126 schools were sponsoring six-man or eight-man football teams.
Smaller schools began playing 8-man football after the 1963 season. Among the outstanding teams was Rosholt, who had a 47-game winning streak from 1964-70. The 1967 Jefferson team was an eight-man unit that averaged 75.11 points per game. There was a divide between smaller schools playing 8-man and 9-man football. In fact, scheduling for some schools included schools playing both 8-man and 9-man. A movement toward 9-man football took hold in the late 1960s. By 1973. most eight-man teams had transitioned to 9-man.
The introduction of football playoffs was always met with objection and took legal action to make them reality in South Dakota.
According to the book "100 hundred years of South Dakota Associations and Athletics (Mariah Press)", the first proposal for a playoff system was submitted to vote in 1973. While schools voted 116-88 in favor of the playoffs, the move failed due to a 2/3 requirement to amend the SDHSAA constitution.
In February, 1981 a group of parents, coaches and administrators initiated legal action, a move that forever changed high school football in South Dakota. When Judge Robert C. Heege ruled for the plaintiffs, his decision required the South Dakota Activities Association to begin the playoffs. By May of 1981, the Association of South Dakota School Boards and Activities Board of Control approved the plans for football playoffs.
Initially the playoffs were set up with five classes, which included three 11-man classes (AAA, AA, and A) with nine-man football divided into two classes (A and B). The first playoff champions included Bridgewater in 9B and Freeman in 9A. In 11-man, the 11A champion was DeSmet while Winner won the 11AA title and Sioux Falls O'Gorman captured the 11AAA title. Beginning in 1984, the 11-man schools were classified by 11AA, 11A and 11B. In 1999, the 9AA class was added, creating the current six-class playoff system.
Sioux Falls Washington team has won 37 championships, including 35 "mythical titles." Since 1981, 11A West Central (Hartford, S.D.) has won the most 11-man playoff titles with 11 titles in 13 appearances. Sioux Falls O'Gorman has the most title appearances with 14 (eight 11AA titles). In 9-man circles, Tripp-Delmont-Armour has seven titles (combination of affiliations), while Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan and Freeman have six and five respectively. In the playoff era 89 high schools (52 in 9-man, 37 in 11-man) have won South Dakota football titles.
In South Dakota's long history, Sioux Falls Washington has the most undefeated 11-man seasons with 15 while Milbank and Canton both have had 10 unblemished years. In 9-man football, Avon has the most unbeaten seasons at four.