Legend of Sixkiller: Real Life Interrupted the Football Fun of the 1970s

Dan Raley

The headline called him a "Cherokee Chucker." It wasn't particularly clever. Husky players, in fact, found it offensive.

This bit of haphazard newspaper prose used to describe quarterback Sonny Sixkiller so agitated the University of Washington football team that seniors Bo Cornell and Bruce Jarvis sat down in the crew house on campus and drafted a letter of protest to the local sportswriters.

Remember, this was the Seventies, a time for Vietnam war pushback, anti-establishment sentiment and fierce student opposition to anything resembling the slightest bit of discrimination. 

To make fun of Sixkiller and his Native American heritage wasn't going to fly with this bunch.

"It just wasn't right," Sonny said of the "Chucker" reference. "That was the good thing about having a close team. Guys were looking out for you."

Still, it didn't stop all writers from going overboard on the Indian angle. One overzealous person reported, without using anything resembling the truth, that the Sixkiller surname was handed down by Sonny's father, who accomplished the unusual feat of "killing six bison" on some wild frontier. 

Sonny's dad, Alex, in fact, had a job as a mill worker in Ashland, Oregon.

The events of the outside world sometimes hit way too close to home for this 1970 Washington football team, which couldn't escape the tragedy that engulfed society back then. 

Kurt Matter, a starting sophomore defensive end, was forced to skip the UW-California game to return to Longview, Washington. Sadly, he attended the funeral for his brother, who was killed fighting in the Vietnam war.

The much-respected Cornell was a team captain who put a sticker on his helmet that showed an American flag and a peace sign symbol, and was criticized for it. At the same time, his controversial move was copied by others in the Seattle-Tacoma area, such as impressionable Fife High School quarterback Randy Grab, whose coach made him peel it off.

In advance of becoming Seattle's favored football son and a revered and sometimes reluctant celebrity, Sixkiller got caught up on the frontlines of the campus protest movement without warning. Right before playing in the 1970 spring game in May, he encountered people who neither knew nor cared that he was Sonny Sixkiller. 

They beat him with a baton.

Sixkiller, senior cornerback Bob Burmeister and others were standing not far from the University Bookstore near 15th Avenue Northeast, innocently watching student protesters offer an anti-war message, when a bus full of riot police pulled up and the occupants spilled out. 

College dissidents earlier had brazenly walked onto Interstate 5 and brought the freeway traffic to a halt. These deputized men were there to make sure nothing like that happened again. They came to break up any gatherings that looked potentially troublesome. They didn't ask questions. They certainly didn't ask for autographs.

These guys rushed at long-haired Sonny Sixkiller and his friends and began swinging their night sticks. The quarterback took a glancing blow to the backside. He took off running for Greek Row.

"It was 'those damn hippies' and it was wild," Sonny said. "There were police in riot uniforms and there were protesters doing their thing."

The Husky football player and the others reached safety without much trouble and stayed out of sight. They knew all along they would get away from these brutal and take-no-prisoners guardians of the city. 

"They couldn't catch us," Sixkiller said. "We were college athletes."

He was an athlete. A fledgling varsity football player. Soon to be bigger than life. And, no, not a Cherokee Chucker.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Does University Avenue NE and 15th Avenue NE intersect? I haven't been to Seattle in decades so I can't picture it. Maybe it's where the two streets merge? Informative article. Thanks.

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