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FOOTBALL: Meet Bemidji's 1920 team, the first undisputed state champ in Minnesota history

The truth of the matter is that Minnesota football’s state championship dates back more than a century. Albeit unsanctioned, Bemidji High School has its fingerprints all over those early years, and buried beneath the confetti of recognized champs is one titan that defeated every team in its path.

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The Bemidji High School football team won the unofficial state championship in 1920 after creating the format in 1919. Players pictured, from left, are Hovey Lord, Alfred Stevens, Roy Stapleton, Russell Brooks, Charles (Dunk) McDougal, Albert Powell and Max Boyce.
Pioneer archives
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BEMIDJI — Sometimes the official record hides the full story.

For 50 years, Minnesota high school football has enjoyed a proper playoff system. Hundreds of state champions have been crowned in that span -- the details all meticulously preserved -- beginning with the inaugural winners of 1972.

Officially, that is.

The truth of the matter is that Minnesota football’s state championship dates back more than a century. Albeit unsanctioned, Bemidji High School has its fingerprints all over those early years, and buried beneath the confetti of recognized champs is one titan that defeated every team in its path.

This is the tale of the 1920 BHS football team: football’s first unofficial, undefeated, undisputed state champion in Minnesota history.

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The build up

To properly tell the story of the 1920 squad requires traveling back another few years.

In 1916, BHS had its first perfect season by going 6-0 and outscoring opponents 284-7, earning the distinction of “northwestern Minnesota” champions. Two years later, Bemidji went 4-0 and outscored opponents 142-6.

But once the regular season ended, that was it until next fall.

That didn’t sit right with BHS assistant coach J.W. Diedrich. So, in April 1919, he devised a plan to crown an annual state champion by pitting northern Minnesota’s best team against southern Minnesota’s best team. The arrangement was implemented across the state that fall, but the only catch was that the Minnesota State High School League (then named the State High School Athletic Association) didn’t sanction such a contest.

Nevertheless, teams marched on in pursuit of the unofficial throne. By mid-November, Bemidji was one of four teams still in contention for the 1919 title thanks to a 5-1 record. The only loss came against the BHS alumni in Week 1, but that was quickly overshadowed by 116-0 and 119-0 victories in Weeks 4 and 5.

BHS then faced Montevideo in a de facto semifinal game and played to a 0-0 tie, while Worthington and Virginia also played to a 6-6 stalemate in the other semifinal.

All that prevented Bemidji from the title game was an ill-fated coin flip.

“The only thing left to do was to flip the fate-laden coin,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported, “and this was done at a meeting (yesterday) with the result that Virginia and Montevideo are the lucky teams which will tangle for the championship.”

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Virginia beat Montevideo 18-7 to claim the inaugural state championship. But, if you ask the slighted team from up north, a coin flip was no proper way to determine such distinctions.

The perfect season

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In 1920, BHS ran the table with a 6-0 record, conceding zero touchdowns and just three total points all season -- still the program’s best defensive year all-time and a benchmark unlikely to ever be topped.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

The unofficial championship format returned in 1920, and to go there, Bemidji was focused on small details.

“Since the squad began practice, the candidates have been drilled in fundamentals,” the Bemidji Daily Pioneer reported. “They have been shown how imperative it is to follow the ball, to be able to fall on the oval, and they have been taught the various forms of blocking, including the pivot. They have been shown how to carry the ball and the absolute necessity of carrying it in the outside arm when driving off the tackles of running the ends. The stiff-arm and the fade away sidestep also have been drilled into the backs, while the linemen have been impressed with the importance of mixing in every play.

“Details of this nature are not considered by the average football fan. The great majority are eager to see the spectacular, but they do not take into consideration the time and work it takes on the part of the coaches to make spectacular individual feats possible.”

BHS was whipped into respectable shape for the season opener, as the team defeated East Grand Forks 51-0 in the first-ever matchup between the schools in any sport.

Propelled by the ensuing 72-0 and 49-0 victories against Detroit Lakes and Thief River Falls, respectively, Bemidji had another special season brewing.

By Week 4, Bemidji finally got a shot at Virginia, the 1919 champions. And it wasn’t even close.

“It was straight old-fashioned football, line punge and line smash on almost every play,” the Pioneer reported. “The Virginia forwards could not stand the pressure. They crumpled, and Bemidji marched up the field, in steady advances, to a victory.”

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BHS won the game 19-0, although “the figures do not begin to represent the superiority of the Bemidji eleven over their Virginia rivals,” the Pioneer said. BHS nearly outgained Virginia by a 10-1 margin to hand “the wily Viriginians” their first loss in three years.

In the penultimate game of the regular season, Chisholm became the first team to score on Bemidji all season with a 40-yard drop-kick field goal in the third quarter. But a first-half touchdown run from BHS captain Russell Brooks secured a 6-3 win and landed Bemidji its spot in the state championship game.

The championship

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The Nov. 27, 1920, edition of the Bemidji Daily Pioneer heralded the BHS football team as the champions of an unofficial state title game.
Pioneer archives

BHS was destined to meet Faribault for the 1920 title, but other talented teams attempted to crash the party.

Alexandria, for example, tried to claim itself as the northern representative over Bemidji on the grounds of being another undefeated team. But having tied St. Cloud during the season, a team that later lost another game, Alexandria’s assertion was ignored. Red Wing unsuccessfully lobbied a similar claim for the southern title in a Wild West era of high school football.

Having survived the regular season unscathed, BHS also overcame all outside attempts to deny their championship appearance. And so, on Nov. 26, 1920, a Bemidji-Faribault showdown in sloppy snow, ice and mud went down in history.

“Bemidji high school’s football eleven showed its mettle yesterday in holding the down-staters down and vanquishing them by 20 points to their nothing,” the Pioneer said. “A close score might have been the result of a so-called ‘fluke’ but the result of yesterday’s game shows that the best team won and won by a safe margin.”

Roy Stapleton scored the first touchdown on a 25-yard run in the second quarter. Stechman (first name unavailable) caught a TD pass from Brooks early in the fourth quarter, and Art Olson then added a 15-yard touchdown rush for the cherry on top.

The inaugural 1919 championship needed a 50-50 coin flip to decide a lucky winner, but there was nothing up in the air about this one: Bemidji was the undisputed king of Minnesota.

“Had the field been dry, boys, oh boys! what would the score have been?” the Pioneer read. “Those who saw the Virginia game admit that the range team put up a better article of football than did the Faribault team. It would be quite safe to predict a 40 to 0 score on a good dry field.”

BHS ran the table with a 6-0 record, conceding zero touchdowns and just three total points all season -- still the program’s best defensive year all-time and a benchmark unlikely to ever be topped.

Bemidji’s championship was one well-earned, and it was recognized as such by Minnesota’s press and “best football authorities.” But one tragic line from the Pioneer still muddied the story of their triumphs.

“The local boys have done as they promised Bemidji supporters they would do, and only to find that the game has not been sanctioned by the Minnesota Athletic association.”

The century since

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Bemidji senior Brandon Larson (30) celebrates a first-quarter interception alongside Brady Schmidt (40) in the 2011 Class 4A state championship game against Rocori at the Metrodome.
Monte Draper / Bemidji Pioneer

In 1922, the State High School Athletic Association unanimously voted to ban state championships in football and threatened suspensions for those who participated. Rochester and Duluth Denfeld played anyway, with Rochester winning 14-0. In August 1923, the SHSAA took action again, ruling that “contests to determine state high championships in football, whether official or unofficial, are prohibited by the rules of the Association.”

Therefore, only Virginia (1919), Bemidji (1920), Alexandria (1921) and Rochester (1922) ever wore the crown.

Bemidji’s 1935-36 boys basketball team captured the school’s first official state championship when it defeated Wadena 26-20. The BHS football team was also named the “mythical” state champion in 1952, an annual honor given by the Minneapolis Tribune from 1947-71.

The MSHSL finally adopted an official playoff system for football in 1972. Rothsay, Gaylord, Mountain Iron, Burnsville and Minneapolis Washburn were inaugural state champs in their respective classes.

Since things became official a half-century ago, Bemidji has had eight state appearances. The Lumberjacks reached the state semifinals in 1978, 2012 and 2018, and they nearly captured the 2011 title but fell 17-10 to Rocori in the championship game.

If BHS ever captures that elusive crown, though, it sure won’t be the school’s first.

“By playing the best class of football it is possible for any High school team to play, the Bemidji gridiron warriors whitewashed the heavy eleven from Faribault,” the Pioneer said in 1920. “Bemidji’s record stands out head and shoulders above them all and (its) claim to the state title is absolutely justified.”

Bemidji 20, Faribault 0

BHS 7 0 0 13 -- 20

FAR 0 0 0 0 -- 0

First quarter -- No scoring.

Second quarter -- BHS TD, Stapleton 25-yard rush (Brooks PAT), 7-0 BHS.

Third quarter -- No scoring.

Fourth quarter -- BHS TD, Stechman catch from Brooks (PAT missed), 13-0 BHS; BHS TD, Olson 15-yard rush (Olson PAT), 20-0 BHS.

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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