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.
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 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 teams 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.
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 hadnt 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 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 hadnt 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. Ive asked my dad. He doesnt know. His dad handed it to him. And then Sixkiller added, Im just trying to prove that Im not somebody they keep on the roster just because of a spectacular name.
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 hadnt 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 didnt 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 Washingtons 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. Sixkillers 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 years 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.
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 Hullins 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 Sixkillers 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.)
Sixkillers 313 yards of total offense was second in school history behind Hullins 352 (vs. UCLA) in 1965 and considerably ahead of Don Heinrichs 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 Sixkillers aerial feats since the days of Heinrich in the early 1950s. When asked if he was surprised by his sons performance, Alex Sixkiller Sr., said, Nope. Thats always the way he looks.
The result didnt 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 Sixkillers name and background, the great grandson of a Cherokee chieftain.
One writer (Times) absurdly called Sixkiller a bronze catapult. Another speculated without any apparent foundation that the Sixkiller name came from the fact that Sixkillers 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 Washingtons 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 Sixkillers background. Following Sixkillers 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.
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.
Im really surprised Im getting all this attention, Sixkiller said then. I guess those statistics were worth some notice, but I didnt think it would mean this much.
For Washington, it turned out to mean just about everything. Sixkillers 1970 Huskies drew an average of 55,808 fans per home game, most since 1965. In Sixkillers junior year (1971), the Huskies averaged 59,531. They wouldnt 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 nations leading passer.
Sixkillers 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.
Sixkillers throws tended to be either 15-yard lasers into a receivers stomach or lofted 25-30 yarders that just cleared a defenders 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 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 TCUs 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.”
“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.
“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 Davids Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at firstname.lastname@example.org