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THE MAGIC NUMBER IS SIXKILLER

Oct. 04, 1971
Oct. 04, 1971

Table of Contents
Oct. 4, 1971

And Who?
  • By Peter Carry

    The NBA still has size and style, including big No. 33 with a new name (below), but one week of interleague action showed the ABA is playing its way to parity—fast

  • Jim Dooley, the Chicago Bears' coach, had this plan. He would concede the Minnesota Vikings 17 points but, by getting field position and having room to throw, the Bears would get more. They did

That Guy
Sixkiller
Tuna
People
College Football
Harness Racing
My Drive
Baseball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE MAGIC NUMBER IS SIXKILLER

Washington Quarterback Sonny Sixkiller is a Cherokee, but his passing arm, not his heritage, has made him a hero

By Roy Blount Jr.

Mark it down thatAlex L. Sixkiller, the junior quarterback sensation at the University ofWashington, has not filled TCU, Purdue and UC Santa Barbara full of arrows thisyear. He has helped his team defeat those colleges with his passing. It may bedisappointing to think of a full-blooded Cherokee and the hero of a hot-sellingrecord entitled Ballad of Sonny Sixkiller as just another Husky, but considerthe implications.

This is an article from the Oct. 4, 1971 issue Original Layout

Drawing parallelsbetween different ethnic groups is tricky, but say your name is Rosenbloom andyour great-grandfather was a rabbi. You grew up, however, as a thoroughlyassimilated third-generation Baptist in a small, predominantly Wasp mill townin Oregon. You went off to Seattle on a football scholarship, became anovernight star, and all of a sudden fans were yelling "Oyoyoyoy" at youjocularly and the newspapers were saying: "The Bruins thought they had afinal solution to the Rosenbloom problem yesterday afternoon, but it was provenonce again that a smart Jewish quarterback can get you out of anything."The headlines were inspired, "There's a Rose in Bloom at Washington,"and subheads just as blithe, "Rosenbloom Crucifies Oregon."

You presumablywould react the way Sonny Sixkiller (see cover) reacted last year when, as asophomore, he led the nation in passing and kept reading about how he wasmaking heap good medicine and scalping and massacring people all up and downthe Pacific Coast.

"I wasdumfounded," says Sixkiller, shaking his head. "One guy asked if peoplegave me any trouble over my name—like I'm supposed to get mad and stab 'em inthe back or set a trap for 'em. Jeez."

American Indianhistory, when you think about it, is not a great mine of surefire yoks andsprightly references, especially from the point of view of the Indians. SoSixkiller felt that his being described in print as "the most celebratedredskin since Crazy Horse" was tasteless and demonstrably reactionary.Once, questioned was there much folklore practiced at his house, he replied,"Well, we didn't sit around weaving baskets.

"If I'd been ablack quarterback people wouldn't have been writing that kind of stuff," hesays. "The blacks wouldn't have let them get away with it. Or even if I'dbeen a Chinese quarterback." But Sixkiller's bemusement over his image washeightened by the fact that he had never seriously thought of himself as anIndian, even a modern one.

Sixkillercertainly looks Indian. He is as bronze, raven-haired and strong-featured asyou would expect the great-grandson of a Cherokee chieftain to look. He soundslike you would expect any with-it middle-class West Coast collegian to sound.His grandfather was a Baptist minister and his parents never lived on areservation. They did once see a reservation. When Sonny was one the familymoved from Tahlequah, Okla. to Ashland, Ore., and Stella Sixkiller, Sonny'smother, suggested that they stop by a reservation on the way, because she wascurious to see what one looked like. She was disappointed by the absence ofwigwams.

Ashland is a townof 12,280, where Sonny's father Alex is a millhand and Mrs. Sixkiller is a maidin a college dormitory. Sonny grew up as a popular all-round athlete who dancedto rock combos, drank Cokes and occasional surreptitious beers, and scarcelysaw any Indians outside his family. When he was a little kid playing cowboysand Indians, he says, "It was really strange. I mean, I was a cowboysometimes. You got to switch off. That's how far away I was from the realthing—I didn't think I was an Indian then. I just thought I was a...littleperson."

Sixkiller alsosays that before last year nobody ever made much of his last name. He does notknow the derivation of it, and he only knows of his great-grandfather's being achief because "that's what my mother told me. I don't even ask her aboutit. I just let her go along." The name is evocative enough to make the mostscrupulous sportswriter's mouth water. The Huskies have a hardworkinglinebacker named Rich Sweatt (pronounced "Sweet," but that could beoverlooked), a 5'9¼" defensive back named Steve Wee, a bomb-catchingreceiver named Jim (Blitz) Krieg and a solid, troublesome defensive end namedKurt Matter. But none of these is a name on the order of Sixkiller. It is easyto fault the writer who declared last year, without the slightest basis infact, that Sonny's surname was "handed down to him by his father—a fatherwho had accomplished the unusual feat of killing six bison and therefore wonthe name the family carries." But considering the broad strain of mortalimagery running through standard football rhetoric, it is hard to deny theaptness, or at least the inevitability, of another writer's phrase—that"Sixkiller's arm is as deadly as his name."

Another powerfulinducement for fans and scribes to go wild over Sixkiller is his style of play.He is a fine-looking natural athlete who whistles the ball and moves fluidly.He is not fast or much of a runner (minus 35 yards on the ground last year),but he scrambles and does wild things. His passes tend to be either 15-yardlasers into someone's stomach or lofted 25-yarders that just clear twodefenders' hands to hit a receiver in full stride down the sidelines. After hematched, or perhaps outdid, the passing of Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkettin Washington's 29-22 loss to Stanford last year, Stanford Coach John Ralstonsaid, "We've faced some fine quarterbacks this season but none of thempresented as many defensive problems as Sixkiller. After studying the films ofhim in action, our coaching staff agreed they have never seen a passer as looseas this kid. He free-lances all over the field and you never know what he'sgoing to do next. And talk about your gunners, I can't recall anyone whounloads the ball as fast and as often as Sixkiller. Oregon State interceptedsix of his passes but that didn't discourage him. He just kept on pitchinguntil he beat them." He very nearly beat Stanford as well, throwing for onetouchdown at the end of a 77-yard drive and later running nine yards foranother and passing for a two-point conversion on two straight busted plays toput Washington temporarily ahead, 22-21. All that on national television andwith the flu, which kept him out of the early part of the game.

Sixkiller has beenknown to complain that people give so much attention to his name and race thatthere is an implication he was handed the job of starting quarterback forpublicity reasons. Any such inference is probably due to oversensitivity onSixkiller's part but, until Washington's spring game his freshman year, suchextraneous considerations did appear to be his greatest claim to fame.

Sixkiller was anall-state quarterback at Ashland (as well as an, all-conference basketballguard and baseball pitcher), but he was also only 5'10" and 155 pounds, andhe was not sought too eagerly by colleges. Nor was he particularly impressiveplaying for the Huskies' freshman team. This was before Washington opened upinto a pro-style offense. "We used the Y formation then," Sixkiller hasobserved, "and it stunk." In spring practice that year he wasconsidered to be running behind three other quarterbacks for the varsity job.Even with one of these playing baseball and another injured, Sixkiller figuredbehind classmate Greg Collins going into the spring game. But Collins broke acollarbone in the first quarter, so Sixkiller gave Seattle fans their firstlook at No. 6. He completed 24 of 50 passes for 389 yards, and Collins is stilltrying to catch up.

In the '70 seasonopener, Sixkiller introduced himself to the nation as a whole by completing 16of 35 for 277 yards and three touchdowns as the Huskies upset Michigan State42-16. It was his first varsity game, and the AP named him national back of theweek. He went on to exceed most of Plunkett's sophomore figures and to throwthe ball more often than Plunkett did in any season, completing 186 of 362passes for 15 touchdowns and 2,303 yards. His average of 18.6 completions pergame made him the nation's leading passer. Against Oregon State he completed 30of 50 for 360 yards. Washington won 29-20. Against heavily favored USC he threw57 times, completed 30 for 341 yards and a touchdown and was moving the Huskiestoward another score when he threw one of his 22 interceptions for the year,thus allowing USC to escape with a 28-25 win. Against moderately favored UCLAhe hit 18 of 35 for 277 yards and three touchdowns before giving way toCollins. The final score of that one was 61-20, Huskies.

And so it was thatWashington's record improved from 1-9 and seventh place in the Pacific EightConference to 6-4 and a tie for second. This pleased Head Coach Jim Owens,whose job was not the most secure in town. He had fought down, barely, twoseparate black-athlete revolts against his authority. He had his detractors,and what his supporters needed in turn was something better than a 1-9 record.What they got was the Huskies' sudden conversion from ahang-on-to-the-football-for-four-good-honest-yards-at-a-clip offense toSixkiller throwing 50 times a game, usually long, on goodness knows what down,from his own two-yard line into crowds of sprinting folks.

A large, folksyOklahoman who traditionally says "Wooooo-wee" after exciting games andincidentally claims some Comanche blood himself and some Cherokee for his wife,Owens played All-America end for Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson and coached forsix years under Bear Bryant before coming to Washington in 1957. He became afolk hero in Seattle by leading the Huskies to Rose Bowl victories in 1959 and1960, but from 1965 to 1969 his teams were 20-28-2 and his offenses werelagging far behind the times. Krieg, a senior and Sixkiller's leading receiver,says he was recruited on the pledge that Washington would start going to theair more, and Owens says he had resolved to open up his attack when Sixkillerwas still a largely unblossomed freshman.

Owens also saysthat he never thought he would see his own quarterback throwing the ball 57times in a game, but such a phenomenon is a tribute to Owens' new tacticalflexibility as well as to Sixkiller's arm and audacity. For all Sixkiller'sdeserved reputation for improvisation, it remains a fact that Owens callsvirtually every play from the sidelines, although Sixkiller has the option ofchecking off at the line of scrimmage. Owens and his assistants have alsodevised an attack that fits Sixkiller's talents admirably. On any passing playSonny has three or four receivers to choose from, depending on how the defensedevelops. And the corps of receivers Owens has assembled, which includes Kriegand junior-college transfers Tom Scott, Dennis Brimhall and Scott Loomis, is agood one. Furthermore, Sixkiller has enjoyed excellent protection, though itwas better last year perhaps, with an all-senior offensive line, than thisseason.

So it is not allfalse or even true modesty that causes this son of a son of a chief to persistin talking about teamwork, in signing autographs with the preface "GoodLuck from All the Huskies," and in going to some lengths to dodge personalpublicity. The athletic department, no doubt aware that he is a hot enoughproperty without being pushed, tends to underplay Sixkiller, the coachesholding back their superlatives and the publicity department shrugging when hefails to show up for interviews. The assessment of the Washington quarterbacksituation carried in the official Husky football guide says, "SonnySixkiller and Greg Collins, both juniors, are probably the best one-twoquarterbacking combination in college football, in either order."

Sixkiller says,"I get tired of people coming up to me in restaurants and saying 'Aren'tyou...?' Just that, 'Aren't you...?' I feel stupid saying 'Yes, I am.'Sometimes I say 'No.' " But he is. He's the man, the odds-on choice forAll-America quarterback this year, the inspiration of "6-Killer" Tshirts sold in the university bookstore, the recipient of 10 fan letters a day,including regular notes from a girl who says she has 31 pictures of him andsigns herself "Cheryl, your paleface friend." One letter was deliveredto him with nothing on the front but a drawing of the sun and a 6.

"You have tobe flattered by it all," he says, "but the people I know, I want themto consider me—well, me. Not the ballplayer. I don't mind meeting new people.But I like to go to a place where it's private." One such place is thehouse he lives in with two other players a mile off campus, to which allinterviewers have been denied access. Sixkiller belonged to a fraternity, ThetaChi, for a while, "and I liked some of the guys in it," he says."But some of them.... And I didn't like the brotherly bit, or peopletelling me what to do."

This year Owensdeclared that living in the UW shell house, which even the players have come tocall the "ape house," was voluntary. Sixkiller had already made knownhis strong disinclination to live there. He wears his straight black hair long,out the back of his helmet, and he says of the current Huskies, "We're not'mad dogs' like they were six years ago. You know what I mean, crew cuts, blueblazers and all that. I want to do what I want, to live the way Iwant."

Exactly whatSixkiller wants to do off the field is still an open question, but on the fieldhe knows what he is up to. "I always knew I would start, I knew I'd dogood, and I knew we would win," he says, with what appears to be unaffectedconfidence. Now he wants to go to the Rose Bowl. And go again the year after.After that he would like to play pro ball, but there is the question of hissize. Since high school he has grown over 30 pounds and almost two inches, to188 and "around six feet," and he certainly has a pro-caliber arm and agood release. "It's not as quick a release as Namath's," says Owens,"but it's a strong release. His ball doesn't spend much time in theair." Still, very few starting pro quarterbacks are as short as 6'.Sixkiller had a pass tipped by a rushing lineman and intercepted against Purduethis year, and last year he caught one of his own passes after it was hit by arusher.

Twenty-five callsa week have been coming in to the UW athletic office, wanting Sixkiller to doeverything from endorse Arrow shirts to pose throwing a pass on a bicycle, butonly a few pro scouts have asked for tickets to Washington home games so farthis year. If he turns out to be another Gary Beban as a pro prospect,Sixkiller would probably turn to business. He has not decided whether he willmajor in business or sociology.

One thingSixkiller is working on now is finding out more about what it means to be anIndian. He has not read much on the subject, but has bought a book entitled"New Indians." (Last year the Seattle Public Library inquired of the UWsports information office what books Sonny had read as a child. Since Sonnycouldn't remember, he and the sports information director dreamed up a fewtitles, which eventually ended up on the library's suggested summer-readinglist as volumes recommended by well-known personages.) Out of both a lack oftime and a desire not to get political at this point in life, he has turneddown all of a flock of invitations to get involved in Indian projects, exceptthat he agreed to serve as honorary chairman of the Save Ernie CrowfeatherDrive, a fund-raising campaign to buy a kidney machine for a SeattleIndian.

Along with therest of the non-black Huskies, Sixkiller expressed disapproval last year whenfive black players quit the team, charging racism. He went along to observe twosprings ago when demonstrations were held on campus following the invasion ofCambodia, and says "the police went wild, beating up girls." On theirway back to their car from the disturbances, he and two friends were attackedby several club-wielding vigilantes, and Sixkiller absorbed a blow to the back,but it did not politicize him.

The Washingtonfreshman coach, Marv Weetman, says Sixkiller "gives the outward indicationof calm, but inside he's a jangle of nerves." He is improving, though."He certainly is more of a leader this year than last," says Owens."Last year, when he stepped into the huddle he had nine seniors. I don'tcare if you are the quarterback, you don't always feel you're the leader."Against Purdue this year, after passing badly in the first half, Sixkillerrallied himself and the team spectacularly, leading the way to a seesaw 38-35win with 387 yards in the air and two touchdown passes to Scott, one of these a33-yard completion for the winning score with just over two minutes to go. Andin Washington's 44-26 win over TCU last week he kept on producing the big play.In the first quarter, throwing off balance with Frogs pouring in over therain-soaked Astro Turf, he somehow got enough on the ball to hit Krieg for a56-yard touchdown. He followed that up with a 48-yard scoring pass to Scott anda 51-yard clothesline to Scott that set up a third touchdown. Not bad for ajangle of nerves.

"I'm a shyperson," says Sixkiller. As a freshman, he says, he found it hard toapproach teammates to initiate friendships. But the quarterback he most admiresis Namath: "I like his release, and I like the way he takesthings—cool." There has never been a famous Indian athlete who strutted hisstuff like a Namath, Jack Johnson or Lee Trevino. Jim Thorpe was misused andlived out his days embittered. Louis Sockalexis, whom John McGraw described asthe greatest ballplayer ever and who actually inspired the character of FrankMerriwell, became a hopeless drunkard while in the major leagues and lasted foronly three years. Chief Bender of the old Philadelphia Athletics wasmild-mannered, contenting himself with yelling "foreigners" at the fanswho whooped at him. Indian Jack Jacobs, a fine passing tailback for Oklahoma inthe '40s, is not widely remembered. Young Andy Sixkiller (Young is his givenfirst name, but he goes by Andy), Sonny's cousin, attained some celebrity as anhonorable mention All-America defensive back at the University of Miami in1964-65. Lack of size and an ankle injury kept him out of pro ball, and now heis a fireman in Miami.

Sonny Sixkillermay not measure up for the pros either, but if his career lasts long enough forhim to get himself together and straighten out the media, he just might startshowing the nation a little something in the way of Cherokee brass.

"Sometimespeople seem to prejudge me," Sixkiller says. "They think, 'If he's aguy getting all this publicity, he's gotta be cocky.' But I can't see beinglike that.

"When we go tothe Rose Bowl," he says after skipping a beat, "then I'll considerit."

PHOTOBOB PETERSON WHEN No.6 has the ball he is sure to deliver it somewhere; probably 40 yardsdownfield.PHOTOBOB PETERSONSONNY GETS CLIPPED, LEGALLY, AND...PHOTOBOB PETERSON...A LONG-HAIRED FAN ROOTS HIM ON