Legend of Sixkiller: Sonny and Plunkett Dueled on National TV
Sonny Sixkiller spent two nights in a campus infirmary in Seattle, struggling to overcame a lingering case of the flu. He did whatever he could to get healthy for Saturday's nationally televised football game at Stanford.
The sophomore quarterback sensation boarded the chartered airplane that carried his Washington football team to the Bay Area, but he wasn't in the starting lineup when everyone lined up for the 1 p.m. kickoff.
ABC had to be alarmed by this. The network went to great lengths during the week to turn a regional TV matchup into something much of the country would see. The storyline was too good to minimize the audience. The top broadcast team of Chris Schenkel and former Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson was sent to Palo Alto.
The intrigue was Sixkiller, the nation's leading passer in completions, going up against Jim Plunkett, on the verge of breaking the NCAA passing yardage record.
Plunkett was poised to clinch the first Rose Bowl berth for Stanford in 21 seasons.
Both quarterbacks were of Cherokee descent, though Plunkett identified more as Mexican-American.
For entertainment value, this California college football game had everything.
Except Sixkiller at the outset. He remained on the sideline when the Huskies took the field.
Sophomore Greg Collins, who engineered a thrilling last-second UW victory over Oregon the previous Saturday and was named Pac-8 Player of the Week for his efforts, was the starter, and Sixkiller his backup, for the first time since the Huskies held their spring football game seven months earlier.
Sixkiller didn't take the field until late in the first quarter. The Huskies trailed 21-7, scoring on Jim Krieg's electric 95-yard return on the opening kickoff, but did little else, prompting coach Jim Owens to make a quarterback change.
"I felt a little weak," Sonny said. "I didn't think about it after I got in the game."
Sixkiller quickly went to work, completing his first pass to wide receiver Ralph Bayard. He threw a 20-yarder to tight end John Brady. He lobbed one to Brady for a 1-yard scoring pass on fourth down. He did what was expected of him, which was supplying instant points.
In the third quarter, Sixkiller drove the Huskies down the field again, wildly scrambling and diving into the end zone from nine yards out. Going for two, Sixkiller eluded a heavy pass rush and zipped one to his diving tight end Ace Bulger for a 22-21 lead.
From the press box, the ABC broadcasters were captivated by this swashbuckling kid from Ashland, Oregon, who no longer showed any aftereffects of the flu.
"He's made believers out of us," Schenkel cooed into his microphone. "The cool of Sixkiller in the pocket is unbelievable."
On the other sideline, Stanford coach John Ralston and his staff scrambled to find ways to slow down the dazzling Washington playmaker that they had heard so much about.
"We've faced some fine quarterbacks this season but none of them presented as many defensive problems as Sixkiller," Ralston said later. "After studying films of him in action, our coaching staff agreed they have never seen a passer as loose as this kid. He freelances all over the field and you never know what he's going to do next."
Luckily for the Stanford coach, he had the prolific Plunkett to counter the Sixkiller magic.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the fifth-year quarterback moved Stanford -- which answered to Indians rather than Cardinal back then -- 67 yards in six plays for a game-winning score. He hooked up with Randy Vataha on a 15-yard TD pass, beating hobbled UW cornerback Calvin Jones.
Add in a two-point conversion to maintain a seven-point advantage, and Stanford was back in front 29-22, which held up as the final score.
Still, the Huskies kept the pressure on their hosts to the end. Krieg gathered in the ensuing kickoff and nearly went the distance again, streaking 47 yards before the last man got him. Sixkiller and his team moved to the Stanford 28 before running out of heroics and downs.
With 48 seconds remaining in the game, Stanford students rushed the field and began tearing down the goal posts to celebrate the long overdue Rose Bowl berth, the school's first since 1951.
Plunkett, who received the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season, broke the NCAA record for career passing yards that day with 7,082, six yards more than the previous mark. Against the Huskies, he completed 22 of 36 passing attempts for 268 yards and four touchdowns.
Used as a sub for the first and only time in his UW career, Sixkiller connected on 18 of 41 passes for 158 yards and ran and threw for scores. His team fell to 4-4, but he'd made things mesmerizing once more.
Sixkiller was the last UW player to reach the locker room, delayed by a brand new set of admirers, who pressed him for autographs or simply wanted to engage him as he left the field.
Stanford felt lucky it had survived this bold quarterback and his onslaught of passes.
"Talk about your gunners," Ralston said. "I can't recall anyone who unloads the ball as fast and as often as Sixkiller. Oregon State intercepted six of his passes but that didn't discourage him. He just kept on pitching until he beat them."