It now takes four people to do the job Jerry Thompson once did for 6-Man football.
For the past two decades or so, Thompson has helped build the 6-Man master schedule and compile weekly results. Four people — one from each conference — now compile the weekly standings since Thompson retired.
Thompson spent 35 years in education, starting in Winifred and ending in Rapelje with a stop at Hobson between. He was the superintendent at Rapelje the past 21 years.
“After a year or two (at Rapelje), I became in charge of the Southern Division in 6-Man football, and I knew all the guys in the North because I had been up there when I was in Winifred and Hobson, so I just kind of took over the job of doing the schedule and kind of running the meetings,” Thompson said. “At that time, depending on year, we were sitting between probably eight and 15 teams. So the league was pretty small at that time, so I just kind of ran the meetings — kind of by default because no one else wanted to, that’s usually the way it happens. As the league grew, I just kind of kept doing it.”
While 6-Man football started with a handful of teams in north-central Montana in the early 1980s, Thompson has been involved since the early 2000s, seeing teams come and go and co-ops form and dissolve. It wasn’t that long ago that Montana’s 6-Man classification included teams from Idaho and Wyoming.
Now, Montana’s defending state champion plays its home games in North Dakota, as the MonDak co-op of Westby (Montana) and Grenora (North Dakota) has developed into one of the top 6-Man programs in state. With the boom of 6-Man football — the 2018 season was scheduled to start with 38 teams — Thompson has seen the good and the bad that has come with expansion.
“Having more teams meant that travel was less for most schools because there were more schools in your area playing, so you weren’t spread out so much. That part is very good,” Thompson said, noting that Rapelje, which co-opped with Ryegate at the time, once played in the Western Division with teams like Willow Creek, West Yellowstone, Lima and two Idaho schools, Leadore and Dubois. Rapelje-Ryegate didn’t play Broadview-Lavina, which was 25 miles east by gravel road.
“Some of it on the downside is that there were a number of teams that dropped down that were a little larger than some of the teams that were already in 6-Man,” Thompson continued. “There was a feeling amongst some 6-Man schools that the intent of 6-Man was for those schools that had to field teams with freshmen and sophomores and roster numbers of maybe nine or 10 players. Now all of a sudden, you’ve got these bigger schools, some of them who have been dominant in 8-Man football, coming down, and they still have rosters of 15 to 20, and that wasn’t the intent of 6-Man originally. It’s kind of a double-edged sword: You like the fact the competition is closer, you like the fact there’s more competition, but it’s very difficult for some of the smaller programs to still compete when you still have eight to 10 kids on your roster.”
That numbers crunch has been felt across the state as teams like Augusta and Custer-Hysham opted to forfeit their varsity schedules. Augusta canceled its games altogether, ultimately sending its football players to Fairfield in an emergency co-op. Custer-Hysham, meanwhile, is playing a junior varsity schedule.
But, on the whole, 6-Man football is as healthy as it’s ever been in Montana, and that’s something Thompson proudly reminisces about.
“I think we were a tighter group for 6-Man football than what some of the other organizations were, so that part I’m going to miss — the camaraderie with the other administrators and coaches and (athletic directors),” Thompson said.
While Thompson’s name might be somewhat synonymous with 6-Man football, his passion was actually on the hardwood. He spent 22 years coaching boys basketball and four years coaching girls. He guided four boys teams to the Class C state tournament — Hobson in three consecutive years in the 1980s and Reed Point-Rapelje in 2016. Thompson’s Hobson team lost to Absarokee on a last-second shot in the 1986 championship.
His brightest moments, though, didn’t come from those championship contenders. They came watching his son, Lee, win a state title with Roy-Winifred in 2013 and then later coaching with Lee as one of his assistants this past year at RPR.
Mostly, Thompson will remember his players and the friendships created along the away.
“That’s probably what I’m going to miss the most, is that daily interaction with the players and the students in the school. To end your day going to a practice with kids you liked being around and enjoyed being around, that’s what I’m going to miss,” Thompson said. “Championships come and go, but the camaraderie and the friendships you make are for a lifetime.”