BY David Eskenazi 03:11PM 10/11/2011

Wayback Machine: Sixkiller becomes an icon

Sonny Sixkiller played only 28 football games for the University of Washington, but they were enough to stamp him as the most iconic figure in the 121-year history of the program.

Head coach Jim Owens and Sonny Sixkiller in the locker room following Washington’s 28-20 Apple Cup victory over Washington State on Nov. 20, 1971. Sixkiller scored Washington’s first touchdown on a 32-yard run. “That was my longest run ever, in any kind of game,” Sixkiller told reporters. / David Eskenazi Collection

By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman

Given that entire niche web sites clamor to publish every iota of info about college recruiting (especially football), and especially given that colleges and universities treat recruits in the manner of visiting royalty, there is not a chance today at any big-time school that an athlete could slip in quietly — especially one as intriguingly named as Alex “Sonny” Sixkiller.

But slightly more than 40 years ago, when Sixkiller arrived at the University of Washington, he did so without a whit of hype. In fact, it took more than a year before a local newspaper saw fit to bang together consecutive sentences about his prospects as a major college quarterback.

Sixkiller played at the University of Washington from 1970-72, establishing passing records that stood for nearly 30 years. / David Eskenazi Collection

Sixkiller did not enter the best of local athletic environments. During his first year in town, the UW football program endured two race-based revolts and went 1-9, outscored 304-116. The still-new Sonics, coached by Al Bianchi, limped in 30-52, while the Seattle Pilots, in their only year of local existence, finished 64-98 and began bankruptcy proceedings that greased their skids to Milwaukee.

Toss in the civic economic burp we now refer to as the Boeing Bust and Seattle did not have much to recommend it in those days. But in the fall of 1970, part of the pall began to lift when the aforementioned 19-year-old Sixkiller, a year removed from Ashland, OR., not only introduced himself, but practically took over the town in the most delightful way.

Had UW head coach Jim Owens had his druthers, Sixkiller would not have had a shot to start at quarterback nearly as soon as he did. For one thing, Owens had a starter, Gene Willis, about to enter his senior season. Owens also had Greg Collins, a sophomore fromTorrance, CA., who early on looked more promising than Sixkiller, having not done much to separate himself from the competition on the 1969 UW freshman team.

Entering spring drills in 1970, Sixkiller seemed destined to spend the coming season watching the incumbent Willis, a fellow Ashland native, steer the Huskies, with Collins serving as the primary backup. That’s the way the local sports scribes sized it up.

That picture began to change in the Huskies’ first spring scrimmage when Willis suffered a torn knee ligament that required surgery. Owens held out hope that Willis would mend in time to play in the fall, and announced that, in his absence, Collins would take over as the team’s starter. Owens named Sixkiller as his backup.

Collins started when Washington concluded its spring practices with the annual Varsity-Alumni game (most notable alum in the game: Ben Davidson of the Oakland Raiders), but early in the scrum suffered a broken clavicle, providing Sixkiller a chance to show his stuff.

Sixkiller threw for a then-school record 5,496 yards and 35 touchdowns in his three varsity seasons. He entered the Husky Hall of Fame in 1985. / David Eskenazi Collection

When Sixkiller entered, he did so in the following context: Owens’ offense featured a wishbone attack for a number of years that placed virtually no premium on passing. The Huskies had not averaged more than 100 passing yards per game in a season since 1965, one of just two years in the Owens era (which began in 1957) when the Huskies recorded such a statistic.

The previous year (1969), Washington had averaged just 16.2 passes, 5.8 completions and 86.6 passing yards per game. Willis accounted for most of the numbers: 99 passes, only 33 completions, just six touchdown passes and 13 interceptions.

But with Sixkiller at the controls, the Huskies had a sudden conversion from a hang-on-to-the-ball, run-dominated offense to one in which Sixkiller threw often and long, on any down, to multiple sprinting receivers, and once from his own two-yard line.
In the game, Sixkiller heaved it  50 times, completed 24 (nine fewer than Willis completed during the entire 1969 season) for 387 yards and a touchdown. The Varsity throttled the willing but unable Alumni 43-7.

Aside from the 30 points the Huskies scored in the Apple Cup against a one-win Washington State outfit the previous November, they hadn’t scored more than 14 points in any game in 1969.

“Sixkiller was really outstanding,” Owens told reporters after the contest. “We had planned to split the time between (Greg) Collins and Sixkiller. But they way that Sonny stepped in after Greg got hurt, well, he demonstrated that he can be a first-string quarterback.”

Sixkiller had not been convinced that would ever happen. Born in Tahlequah, OK., the capital of the Cherokee Nation on the western boundary of the Ozark Mountains, Sixkiller moved to Ashland as an infant with his family, which had been forced to relocate due to economic depression. Father Alex Sixkiller, Sr., toiled in a lumber mill.

Sixkiller in action against the University of Michigan at Husky Stadium, one week after Sixkiller’s debut against Michigan State, in a game he threw for 276 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-16 victory. / David Eskenazi Collection

Sixkiller weighed all of 125 pounds as a sophomore quarterback at Ashland High. But he made All-State as a senior as a 6-0 (generously), 155-pounder (he was also an all-conference basketball guard and baseball pitcher). But only a few schools, notably Washington State and Oregon, expressed much interest. The Huskies might not have pursued Sixkiller if Ashland native Willis hadn’t endorsed him.

“Oregon State said I was too small,” Sixkiller said in an interview prior to his sophomore season. “I thought maybe that was right, maybe I was a small-college quarterback.”

By the time the Huskies reported for fall camp, Sixkiller was the quarterback most people talked about because of his dazzling performance in the Varsity-Alumni game, but also because local sports writers found his name and Cherokee heritage irresistible subject material.

“All my life, people have been jumping on that name,” Sixkiller explained in one interview. “I have no idea where it came from. I’ve asked my dad. He doesn’t know. His dad handed it to him.” And then Sixkiller added, “I’m just trying to prove that I’m not somebody they keep on the roster just because of a spectacular name.”

Sixkiller in action against the California Bears. He threw for a career-high 2,303 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore in 1970. / David Eskenazi Collection

Sixkiller won the starting job on merit, not on his name. But the Huskies were not given much chance of having a successful season. Considering that they hadn’t had a winning season in three years and would feature a number of sophomores, Pac-8 sports writers had picked them least likely to succeed in the conference race.

The surprise was not so much that oddsmakers made Washington a three-point underdog in its opener against Michigan State, but that they didn’t dismiss UW by double digits. The media, in fact, even cautioned fans not to expect too much when they arrived at Husky Stadium Sept. 19.

But on Washington’s first play from scrimmage, Sixkiller threw a 12-yard completion to tight end Ace Bulger. No one at the stadium, the Seattle Times pointed out, “could ever remember an Owens team starting a game with a pass.”

Two plays later, Ira Hammon, from the split-end position, routed himself into the clear. Sixkiller’s pass found him at the Michigan State 38-yard line, and Hammon, a co-worker with Sixkiller on the 1969 freshman team, rambled the rest of the way to complete a 59-yard touchdown.

“When I threw that touchdown pass to Ira, the place just exploded,” recalled Sixkiller, who currently works for IMG College, the country’s leading collegiate multimedia, marketing and licensing/brand management company.

Late in the second quarter, Sixkiller orchestrated a 64-yard drive in 10 plays, completing it with a six-yard touchdown to Bo Cornell.  Washington led 14-7 at the half, but Sixkiller just warmed up.

By the time it was over, the Huskies hada 42-16 victory, most points by a Washington team since the 1960 Rose Bowl-bound club dropped 55 onCollege of Pacificin that year’s season opener (a year earlier, the Huskies lost to the Spartans by 16).

“It was a good way to get off on the right foot,” said Sixkiller, who not only got off right, but transformed himself into an instant celebrity.

In the span of just 28 games, Sixkiller became one of the most popular players in UW history. / David Eskenazi Collection

Against the Spartans, the Huskies accumulated 598 yards in total offense (the 1969 team averaged 265.5), the most in any game since the end of World War II. Sixkiller accounted for 276 yards passing (most by a Husky quarterback since Tod Hullin’s 354 against UCLA in 1965), 37 rushing and three touchdown passes.

“I think it surprised people that I actually ran the ball as well,” said Sixkiller. “I remember it being surreal as I’m running down the field with the the crowd going crazy.”

(In the 41 years since Sixkiller’s debut game, only two UW quarterbacks have passed for more yards in their debuts, Taylor Barton at UCLA in 2001 with 316 and Brock Huard in 1996 vs. Arizona with 311.)

Sixkiller’s 313 yards of total offense was second in school history behind Hullin’s 352 (vs. UCLA) in 1965 and considerably ahead of Don Heinrich’s 300 against Kansas State in 1950.

“What pleased the gallery about Sixkiller,” wrote Georg Myers in the Seattle Times, “was his calm and his courage. Repeatedly he passed on first down. Twice, contrary to all Husky tradition, he brazenly threw from the end zone, or tried to.”

Husky fans had not seen anything remotely resembling Sixkiller’s aerial feats since the days of Heinrich in the early 1950s. When asked if he was surprised by his son’s performance, Alex Sixkiller Sr., said, “Nope. That’s always the way he looks.”

The result didn’t so much surprise as shock everyone else. The newspapers called it “Christmas in September” and “water in the wasteland.” Sixkiller became an instant legend and a media magnet, particularly for those in the press eager to seize on Sixkiller’s name and background, the great grandson of a Cherokee chieftain.

Although mostly a passer who would throw from anywhere, Sixkiller occasionally saw fit to run the ball. / David Eskenazi Collection

One writer (Times) absurdly called Sixkiller a “bronze catapult.” Another speculated without any apparent foundation that the “Sixkiller” name came from the “fact” that Sixkiller’s grandfather had slain six bison. Within just a few games, Sonny had become the “most celebrated redskin sinceCrazy Horse” (Post-Intelligencer).

In interviews, Sixkiller seemed mystified at all the attention given to his heritage – writers overwhelmingly referred to him as Washington’s “Indian” (not Native American) quarterback – mainly because Sixkiller had no history of involvement with Native American culture.

But those were far less politically correct days, and the writers of the time made much of Sixkiller’s background. Following Sixkiller’s dazzling performance against Michigan State, Byron Johnsrud of the Times somehow got away with writing, “Warm were the words of the fans for all the Husky players who helped crack team records all over the place. But most were for Sonny Sixkiller, the Indian sophomore quarterback and now the blood brother of thousands of fans who have beseeched the Great Spirit to send them down a passer with an arm like a hickory bow. “

Sixkiller, with a towel draped over his head, won the 1970 Touchdown Club of Ohio’s Sammy Baugh Award after completing 186 passes and leading the Huskies to a 6-4 record, a vast improvement on UW’s 1-9 mark in 1969. / David Eskenazi Collection

Throughout the season, Sixkiller would read (or he could have read) about how he made “heap good medicine” for the Huskies as he “scalped” and massacred” opponents from one end of the Pacific Coast to the other.

“I was dumbfounded,” Sixkiller told Sports Illustrated. “One guy asked if people gave me any trouble over my name — like I’m supposed to get mad and stab ‘em in the back or set a trap for ‘em. Jeez.”

The Pac-8 Conference named Sixkiller its Back of the Week for his effort against Michigan State. Stanford senior quarterbackJim Plunkett, en route to the Heisman Trophy, finished runner-up. More significantly, The Associated Press named Sixkiller its National Back of the Week.

“I’m really surprised I’m getting all this attention,” Sixkiller said then. “I guess those statistics were worth some notice, but I didn’t think it would mean this much.”

Sixkiller had one of the best passing days of his career on Sept. 18, 1971, when he threw for a career-high 387 yards in a 38-35 win over Purdue in a game with eight lead changes. / David Eskenazi Collection

For Washington, it turned out to mean just about everything. Sixkiller’s 1970 Huskies drew an average of 55,808 fans per home game, most since 1965. In Sixkiller’s junior year (1971), the Huskies averaged 59,531. They wouldn’t top that mark until 1983, the season following a Rose Bowl blanking of Iowa.

Sixkiller finished the 1970 season completing 186 of 362 passes for 15 touchdowns and 2,303 yards. His average of 18.6 completions per game made him (according to the statistical guidelines of the day) the nation’s leading passer.

Sixkiller’s performance against Michigan State represented just one of several notable outings that season. Against heavily favoredUSC, he threw 57 times, completing 30 for 341 yards. A week later, against Oregon State, he completed 30 of 50 for 360 yards. In so doing, Sixkiller became the first UW quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards in back-to-back games. It would not happen again until Marques Tuiasosopo did it in 1999.

Sixkiller’s throws tended to be either 15-yard lasers into a receiver’s stomach or lofted 25-30 yarders that just cleared a defender’s hands to hit a receiver in full stride down the sidelines.

After Sixkiller at least matched, or probably exceeded, the passing of Heisman Trophy candidate Plunkett in Washington’s 29-22 loss to Stanford, Stanford CoachJohn Ralston said, “We’ve faced some fine quarterbacks this season but none of them presented as many defensive problems as Sixkiller. After studying the films of him in action, our coaching staff agreed it had never seen a passer as loose as this kid. He free-lances all over the field and you never know what he’s going to do next. And talk about your gunners, I can’t recall anyone who unloads the ball as fast and as often as Sixkiller.”

The Pac-8 selected Sixkiller its Back of the Week five times during the 11-week season, during which he set a passel of records, including most passing yards (360) in a game, most yards (2,303) in a season, most completions (30) in a game, most completions (186)  and most TDs (15) in a season, setting the stage for one of the most remarkable careers in Husky history.

In 1974, Sixkiller agreed to appear in the movie “The Longest Yard,” starring Burt Reynolds. / David Eskenazi Collection

In 1971, on Sept. 18, Sixkiller had a memorable matchup against future pro Gary Danielson of Purdue. In a game that featured eight lead changes, Sixkiller completed 24 of 48 passes for 387 yards (career high) and tossed the game-winning touchdown pass of 33 yards to Tom Scott with just two minutes to play.

A week later, on a day when it rained so hard that the team delayed coming out of the tunnel, the Huskies scored a 44-26 win over Texas Christian with Sixkiller hooking up with Jim Krieg for a 56-yard touchdown, with Scott for a 48-yard scoring strike, and then with Scott again on a 51-yard clothesline shot that set up a third touchdown.

Apart from the dreary, wet weather, Sixkiller’s other memory of that day: “The shot of me on the Sports Illustrated cover (Oct. 4, 1971) came from that game.”

(The TCU game also featured an historical sequence: consecutive touchdown jaunts on kickoffs. Krieg returned the second-half kickoff 99 yards and TCU’s Freddie Pouncy scooted 94 on the subsequent kickoff. This is the only instance of back-to-back KOR TDs in Husky history.)

A week after that, at Illinois, with Washington trailing 14-10 at the half, Sixkiller rallied the Huskies to 42 second-half points for a 52-14 victory.

“We just came on in the third quarter and tore them up,” remembered Sixkiller.

In Sixkiller’s senior year, 1972, the Huskies traveled to West Lafayette for a rematch with Purdue. That contest featured one of the more remarkable rallies of the Sixkiller era or, as Dick Rockne of the Seattle Times put it, it was a game that gave sophisticated football fans a “life-long case of goosebumps.”

Membership card for the “6 Killer Klub!” on KJR-AM radio. / David Eskenazi Collection

“We were down 21-zip at halftime and we came back to win 22-21. We got a two-point conversion,” said Sixkiller, who directed touchdown drives of 36 and 52 yards in the second half, then completed three of four passes in the winning drive that culminated in a Steve Wiezbowski field goal.

Once again, Danielson played a prominent, if different, part. In 1971, he had led the nation in passing. But Purdue switched to the wishbone by 1972, and Danielson ran for a staggering 206 yards in the first half.

“And then he didn’t play in the second half because he was all cramped up,” said Sixkiller, who knew how to exploit such a situation.

Of all the games Sixkiller played, none gave him bigger grins than Washington’s 61-20 romp over UCLA on Nov. 14, 1970. A year earlier, Owens had taken a very thin roster (made so by a boycott of eight of UW’s African-American players, including four starters) to Los Angeles to face the Bruins in the Coliseum. Not only did UCLA intercept eight UW passes and recover two fumbles, the Bruins deliberately ran up the score in a 57-14 victory, the second-largest margin of defeat in UW history.

Intent on revenge a year later, the Huskies got it. Against the moderately favored Bruins, Sixkiller hit 18 of 35 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns – 48 yards to Cornell, 28 to Al Maurerand 46 toJim Krieg — before giving way to Collins, who threw three touchdown passes of his own. Sixkiller not only remembers the score, but the game’s biggest moment — for him.

Sixkiller appeared on the Oct. 4, 1971 cover of Sports Illustrated, becoming the second Husky football player (Bob Schloredt, 1960) to be featured on the magazine’s cover. / David Eskenazi Collection

“We did an onside kick when we had a big lead,” he said. “It was great payback. I’ll never forget watching  Tommy Prothro throwing his hat on the field after the onside kick. I was just dying inside. I can still see it.”

Sixkiller became so popular that he inspired a best-selling record (“The Ballad of Sonny Sixkiller”) as well as hot-selling “6-Killer” T-shirts and a “6 Killer (fan) Klub.” He also found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated (Oct. 4, 1971).

“I’ve said this many times,” said Sixkiller. “At the time, I didn’t have any inkling that Sports Illustrated wanted to do it (the story), and when I found out they did, I didn’t have an interest in doing it because I thought it would detract from the team.”

But Sixkiller today has no regrets that he cooperated with the magazine.

“Now, I’m certainly glad it happened,” said Sixkiller, who followed Bob Schloredt (1960) on the list of Sports Illustrated cover boys from UW. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

Sixkiller confides he may still have a copy of the magazine lying around the house someplace.

During Sixkiller’s time, the UW athletic department received about a dozen fan letters a day addressed to the star quarterback. One arrived with nothing on the front of the envelope except a drawing of the sun and the number “6.”

Sixkiller even had a part (“The Indian”) in the original version of The Longest Yard (1974), starringBurt Reynolds, a part Cherokee whom Sixkiller met on the UW campus in the early 1970s when Reynolds came to Seattle on a publicity junket.

Of more importance, Sixkiller became the most significant Husky to grace Montlake between the 1964 and 1978 Rose Bowl teams. Many of his passing records lasted until the mid-90s, when first Damon and then Brock, the Huard brothers, began to break them.

Had Cody Pickett not thrown the ball 1,429 times in 40 games between 1999-02, compared to Sixkiller’’s 811 times in 28 contests, Sixkiller would still outstrip every Washington passer in average yards per game, 196.3. As it is, only Pickett ranks ahead of him (255.5), and only Jake Locker ever ranked in Sixkiller’s league as a showman.

No one, though, became a more popular figure. Which is to say, no UW player in the program’s 121-year history ever put as many smiles on the faces of Husky fans as Sonny Sixkiller.


Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out David’s “Wayback Machine Archive.” David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at


  • Scorchf22

    Very good article by the way. It’s a keeper.

  • Raindawgs4ever

    Reading comprehension 101:  “Sixkiller in action against the University of Michigan at Husky Stadium, one week after Sixkiller’s debut against Michigan State…”

  • Anonymous

    I remember Sixkiller’s debut in the Varsity-Alumni when I was 10 years old, mostly because the Times had a headline using his name the day after (“Sixkiller Shoots Down Alums” or something like that).  I’ve thought all these years that it was Steve Hanzlik (ex-Sonic Bill Hanzlik’s brother or uncle) who was supposed to be the starter at QB in 1970, so I was surprised to read Steve had quit football to concentrate on baseball.

    I remember the “Ballad of Sonny Sixkiller,” too.  Heard it on radio often back then, although I listened to it on YouTube a few months ago…no WAY would that song have made it on the air today.

    In the end, Sonny Sixkiller probably breathed life into UW football in 1970 in the same fashion that the playoff run in 1995 saved major league baseball in Seattle.  He was that big.  I can’t think of any QB in Seattle, Huskies or Seahawks (not even Jake Locker), who has captivated the general public in the years since than Sixkiller did in 1970.

    Good read.

  • crumudgeon

    When I was a kid, the Huskies were so depressing.  Teams ran over them on offense and defense.  Things were so different back then — Owens was like a God and off limits.  He was a single platoon guy who never seemed to adjust the two platoon game.  He would not have lasted as long as he did, today, but back then his early successes made him untouchable.  Charges of racism ended all that.  He almost lost his Job. 
    Then Sixkiller arrived and Owens got a second chance.  Not only was Husky football respectable again, they had a Native American starting at quarterback, relieving some of the racist poison that Owens had contaminated the program with. The press were suddenly  calling it “the best show in town” — and it was.  I remember going to the TCU game and it was like a rock concert.  Thanks to Sonny Sixkiller, Husky football was back and Jim Owens received a temporary reprieve.  It would take Don James to finally right the ship, but Sonny and his team mates provided a nice stretch of entertaining football that would have to do until the “James Gang” arrived.

  • Louis

    As a 10 year old I knew about Sonny Sixkiller and how popular he was. I too remember the song. But I never knew exactly how good he was until now. Thanks for this.

  • Merk47

    I can’t recall the game but I think it was either a bowl game or agains Purdue but my dad and I watched in amazement as some guy named Sonny Sixkiller threw, and threw and threw.  I’ve never forgotten how much my dad and I enjoyed that game.  I was in college after serving in the Army and any chance I had to get up to Louisville and visit with my folks was always a treat.  I really enjoyed this article and am glad to have a chance to know all about the career of Sonny.  I’ve got family in Seattle and was pulling for UW last night. :-)

  • Tim Heinrich

    They broke the mold with Sonny. I loved watching him when the Huskies were televised here in the Mid West. Great story. What is he doing in 2012? Hope he is well!