The 1973 Dakota State University Trojans football team will be inducted to the DSU Athletic Hall of Fame Saturday on the school’s Madison, S.D. campus. The ‘73 Trojans went 6-3 overall and boasted a perfect 5-0 conference record that earned them the South Dakota Intercollegiate Conference title, the first in the program’s history.
Slater still has the blue letterman’s jacket that sports a football-shaped patch commemorating his team’s triumph.
“There was a lot of pride to have that on your letter jacket,” Slater said, pointing to the patch that read SDIC Champions.
Slater, 60, said that while he still thinks about his days as a college athlete from time to time, he never expected them to remain so relevant some 40 years later.
“I was really shocked and very honored to be recognized after this many years,” Slater said.
Jeff Dittman, Dakota State’s athletic director, said the ‘73 squad marked the beginning of a seven-year run that yielded five conference championships. The Trojans won four-straight SDIC titles from 1975-1978.
“We had a very good time period there and we have inducted some members of that group ... but we wanted to induct the entire team,” Dittman said.
Joel Swisher, who was a first-year head coach for the Trojans, will be inducted posthumously into the hall along with the first Trojans team he ever led. Swisher coached the Trojans from 1973-76, amassing an impressive overall record of 24-12-1 including 16-4 in the SDIC.
Though just 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, Slater, who played defensive back at Adel High School in his hometown of Adel, Iowa, played wide receiver his first two years at DSU. It wasn’t until Swisher was brought in at the beginning of the ‘73 season that Slater returned to the defensive side of the ball.
Swisher conducted a series of drills to evaluate the athleticism of his newly inherited Trojans. Of the more than 60 players on the roster, Slater ranked 10th following the physical tests.
Swisher must have known where to play his athletes, because Slater went on to haul in a team-high five interceptions in ‘73.
“We had some tremendous defensive teams at that time,” Dittman said.
The 1973 Trojans had one of the stingiest defenses in the SDIC, finishing second in total defense by allowing only 224.6 yards per game, and first in total rushing defense, allowing just 86.2 yards on the ground per game.
Slater doesn’t remember a lot of the details from the season that started it all, but a 28-27 loss to the rival Northern State Wolves of Aberdeen, S.D., still sticks out in his mind. Up 27-0 in the third quarter, the Trojans’ defense gave up 28 unanswered points to Wolves.
“It was heartbreaking. They were our nemesis,” Slater, always a proud defender, said.
Slater proved to be a valuable offensive piece as well, finishing fourth in scoring as the team’s placekicker during their championship run. Self-taught, Slater began as a traditional toes-forward kicker, before a knee injury forced him to change to the now ubiquitous soccer-style.
Slater kicked one field goal and 19 extra points during the 1973 season. He had 39 extra points for his career.
Slater said he was able to make 50-yard field goals with fresh legs but the grind of playing defensive back gradually sapped the power from his legs — not that he wanted to rest them.
“My passion was playing defense. I don’t think you could have made me just a kicker, I wouldn’t have stood for it,” he said. “I loved hittin’ and I loved being in the secondary and I certainly loved picking off passes.”
Slater joined the Trojans football team as a freshman in 1971 but broke his hand in the preseason and didn’t play a regular season snap that year.
During Slater’s lost freshman season the Trojans made and won the second annual Boot Hill Bowl in Dodge City, Kan., where they became the first team from South Dakota to ever win a postseason game. The Trojans made Dakota State history by beating the Northwestern Oklahoma Raiders 23-20 on Dec. 4, 1971.
Not only did Slater not play in the game; but he wasn’t even in attendance due to his obligations with the DSU wrestling team, with which he spent three years. Slater said he still regrets not being with his squad during the bowl victory.
Following his senior season, in which the Trojans went 3-2 in conference and 6-4 overall, Slater spent two years as an assistant coach for Tri-Center High School (also the Trojans) in Neola, Iowa. Slater could have had a longer coaching career, but after giving 12 years (which at that time was half of his life) to football, Slater decided to walk away.
Though his days on the gridiron are long behind him, the competitive spirit followed Slater out of college and is still alive and well in him today.
“I still compete to this day and I will as long as I can,” Slater said.
For the past 11 years Slater has entered fishing contests, primarily through Walleyes Unlimited of Montana, Montana’s largest fishing circuit. In fact, Slater will miss this weekend’s hall of fame ceremony because of a fishing tournament. Slater said he and his fishing partner have their eyes on claiming team of the year honors and can’t miss out on a weekend on the lakes.
“Some of (my) earliest memories as a kid, (I was) 5 years old walking down to the farm pond in central Iowa, fishing for bluegills and getting a hook in my finger,” Slater said. “I still get hooks where they aren’t supposed to be.”
Though Slater has always loved fishing, he didn’t always have time to indulge in it while the pigskin had him hook, line and sinker.
“Football was your life back then, you trained all summer long,” Slater said. “Usually after a game on Saturday, on Sunday all you wanted to do was rest.”
But now, 40 years later, Slater said he has no regrets when it comes to the time he dedicated to football.
“I wouldn’t trade it,” he said. “I loved the game.”