Sixkiller Era Ended With Seahawks Rejection, But It Was Still a Glorious Time

Dan Raley

The Seattle Seahawks were the new NFL franchise in town and a pair of University of Washington football legends wanted to be part of it.

Hugh McElhenny asked to be general manager. Sonny Sixkiller showed a willingness to quarterback the team.

Harshly, it was no to both.

McElhenny, a Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, spearheaded an effort to land the expansion team on behalf of Minnesota businessman Wayne Field, but his group lost out to Herman Sarkowsky and the Nordstrom family. Making his services available to the other side, Hugh never received a call back. 

Sixkiller, fresh off his successful WFL season in Hawaii, had his agent Ed Gottlieb reach out to the Seahawks in December 1975. Calls were exchanged, with a salary figure sent over to assistant GM Mark Duncan, but the outcome was similarly dismissive. The new team later went with a quarterback unknown in Jim Zorn from Cal Poly.

"Sonny was despondent because he wanted to play with Seattle but the Seahawks weren't interested," Gottlieb told reporters.

The Sixkiller camp was informed the primary reason the Seahawks rejected Sonny was his lack of height. It was probably just as well — his throwing shoulder wouldn't have held up anyway.

Sixkiller still had his suitors. On March 3, 1976, he signed a free-agent contract with the San Diego Chargers. Yet it wasn't the happy moment others might have expected from the quarterback. The Seahawks were still on his mind.

"Sonny was very reluctant to sign," Gottlieb said. "It was though we were sentencing him to jail or something."

When it came time to report, Sixkiller sent his regrets to the Chargers, effectively ending his pro football pursuits. Not even the prospect of backing up Dan Fouts, his Oregon rival, could get him to camp.

His shoulder was just 60 percent. Wear and tear on his rotator cuff had robbed him of his velocity. While playing basketball in the Intramural Activities building (IMA) on the UW campus, a guy had ripped his arm back on a rebound, further injuring him. 

On his CFL team, Hawaiians trainer Marv Marinovich — whose son Todd would become a USC quarterback and suffer a humiliating defeat at Husky Stadium — pulled Sixkiller's elbows too far back and there were ramifications from that, too.

He was no longer the rifle-armed Sonny Sixkiller, the guy who broke 15 UW records. The zip was gone.

"I tried and tried and tried, and I had to alter it to three-quarters instead of going over the top," Sixkiller said of his passing motion. "I didn't want to go down to San Diego and embarrass myself and get cut again and be disappointed."

He didn't leave the limelight right away though. In 1976, Sixkiller showed up on screen across America again. This time, the small screen.

While he was in Honolulu playing football, Sonny got talked into appearing on the original Hawaii Five-0 TV series. The show cast him as a boat captain for an episode titled "Anatomy of a Bride."

Sixkiller accompanied fellow Hawaiians quarterback and housemate Rick Cassata for a reading for a guest role on the show. While Sonny sat in a lobby and flipped through a magazine, someone asked him if wanted to read, too. 

He ended up hanging out with Jack Lord, who played "Steve McGarrett" and was the star of the show, and James Gordon McArthur, who was Lord's sidekick "Danno," as in "Book 'em Danno."

"I sat around with Danny in lawn chairs in the back lot," Sonny said. "I found out Jack was an artist and he showed me his works. You can't make this stuff up."

Later that May, Sixkiller made a cameo appearance in the UW's Alumni-Varsity football spring game and threw the first touchdown pass at the newly opened Kingdome. As 20,400 people looked on, he lofted an 18-yarder to Ken Conley in a 10-7 loss to coach Don James' second Husky team. 

He could now claim the first scoring passes thrown at Aloha Stadium and at Seattle's domed stadium.

Sixkiller played a couple of leisurely seasons with the Burien Flyers semipro football team, served as an assistant coach for a Boys Club team for 10- and 11-year-olds and settled into family life.

He became a TV and a radio sports broadcaster, a radio marketing executive, a TV pitchman and worked with different Native American tribes.

He remains visible and beloved across Seattle. Sports Illustrated even came out and did another story on him. He's shown in the photo with UW basketball player RaeQuan Battle, who has Native American ancestry, and former UCLA and NBA basketball legend Bill Walton. 

Sixkiller, with his Native American ancestry, the great name and all that swagger, was the ringleader of the most swashbuckling time for UW football. His teams didn't go to the Rose Bowl and lost a bunch of heart-breaking games. Yet they made things fun and exciting when the city needed it most. 

At the time, Boeing was laying off people in huge numbers. The Vietnam war and the Black Panther movement had ignited campus unrest. At the center of it all, the guy who wore No. 6 and his equally entertaining teammates provided a welcome diversion.

"People were looking for something," Sixkiller said. "There was a lot of negativity around the college scene back then. We made it so you could go out and enjoy Husky football, and have a little success, and I could give them a breather."

Editor's Note: This is the 52nd and final installment of the Sixkiller throwback series. You can access each one by scrolling back through our site at https://www.si.com/college/washington. We might rerun it again if the pandemic persists and keeps Husky football in serious lockdown. 

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Comments (6)
No. 1-5
monkeyarms
monkeyarms

I had also forgotten that Sonny Sixkiller had any interaction with the Seattle Seahawks during the run-up to its inaugural season. One of my older brothers was a teammate of Sonny's (2 years behind) for one season, and he received a mimeographed (remember the purple letters from our school days?) form letter from the Seahawks inviting him to try-out for the team as a free-agent. The team was obviously looking for players for its preseason camp. The letter, which I think he still has in a box somewhere, had a typed-line where the name was hand-written in. lol Classy!! Another great article, Mr. Raley. I had no idea that there were 52 of them, though. I would have guessed around 20.

monkeyarms
monkeyarms

If memory serves (and nowadays, it often does not), the 1976 Spring football game was the last ever between the varsity and the alumni. I think my brother told me that the alumni dudes were always cheap-shoting the UDub players so Coach James shut it down.

Patrick T
Patrick T

Terrific series, always enjoyed watching Sonny & Co. play. In my era, which goes back to 58, I don't think there's ever been one player that's had the immediate impact that Sonny had. He came along at the right time to make that impact, but unfortunately, never got the pro opportunities that he should have gotten. Thanks for the memories, Dan.

COACH HAYES
COACH HAYES

Thank you Dan for the great articles, and the article on Rick Hayes O.T. #68 still in Veterans Memorial Hospital, Kauai, Hi Rm#117-B. Thank you Sonny Sixkiller for your kind words, and mention of me! Thanks, Coach; Patrick O'Hara Hayes #67

Dan Raley
Dan Raley

Editor

Thanks guys. We touched on every game of the Sixkiller era, of which there were 32, with or without him. Then we dealt with everything Sonny did during that time -- his car accident, movie, pro pursuits, injuries, etc. I may rerun everything if the UW season gets pushed way back. And number them this time! Appreciate your interest!


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