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Original Issue

The Magic Number Is Sixkiller

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

Mark it down that Alex L. Sixkiller, the junior quarterback sensation at the University of Washington, has not filled TCU, Purdue and UC Santa Barbara full of arrows this year. He has helped his team defeat those colleges with his passing. It may be disappointing to think of a full-blooded Cherokee and the hero of a hot-selling record entitled Ballad of Sonny Sixkiller as just another Husky, but consider the implications.

Drawing parallels between different ethnic groups is tricky, but say your name is Rosenbloom and your great-grandfather was a rabbi. You grew up, however, as a thoroughly assimilated third-generation Baptist in a small, predominantly Wasp mill town in Oregon. You went off to Seattle on a football scholarship, became an overnight star, and all of a sudden fans were yelling "Oyoyoyoy" at you jocularly and the newspapers were saying: "The Bruins thought they had a final solution to the Rosenbloom problem yesterday afternoon, but it was proven once 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 presumably would react the way Sonny Sixkiller reacted last year when, as a sophomore, he led the nation in passing and kept reading about how he was making heap good medicine and scalping and massacring people all up and down the Pacific Coast.

"I was dumfounded," says Sixkiller, shaking his head. "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."

American Indian history, when you think about it, is not a great mine of surefire yoks and sprightly references, especially from the point of view of the Indians. So Sixkiller felt that his being described in print as "the most celebrated redskin 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 a black quarterback people wouldn't have been writing that kind of stuff," he says. "The blacks wouldn't have let them get away with it. Or even if I'd been a Chinese quarterback." But Sixkiller's bemusement over his image was heightened by the fact that he had never seriously thought of himself as an Indian, even a modern one.

Sixkiller certainly looks Indian. He is as bronze, raven-haired and strong-featured as you would expect the great-grandson of a Cherokee chieftain to look. He sounds like 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 a reservation. They did once see a reservation. When Sonny was one the family moved from Tahlequah, Okla. to Ashland, Ore., and Stella Sixkiller, Sonny's mother, suggested that they stop by a reservation on the way, because she was curious to see what one looked like. She was disappointed by the absence of wigwams.

Ashland is a town of 12,280, where Sonny's father Alex is a millhand and Mrs. Sixkiller is a maid in a college dormitory. Sonny grew up as a popular all-round athlete who danced to rock combos, drank Cokes and occasional surreptitious beers, and scarcely saw any Indians outside his family. When he was a little kid playing cowboys and Indians, he says, "It was really strange. I mean, I was a cowboy sometimes. You got to switch off. That's how far away I was from the real thing—I didn't think I was an Indian then. I just thought I was a...little person."

Sixkiller also says that before last year nobody ever made much of his last name. He does not know the derivation of it, and he only knows of his great-grandfather's being a chief because "that's what my mother told me. I don't even ask her about it. I just let her go along." The name is evocative enough to make the most scrupulous sportswriter's mouth water. The Huskies have a hardworking linebacker named Rich Sweatt (pronounced "Sweet," but that could be overlooked), a 5'9¼" defensive back named Steve Wee, a bomb-catching receiver named Jim (Blitz) Krieg and a solid, troublesome defensive end named Kurt Matter. But none of these is a name on the order of Sixkiller. It is easy to fault the writer who declared last year, without the slightest basis in fact, that Sonny's surname was "handed down to him by his father—a father who had accomplished the unusual feat of killing six bison and therefore won the name the family carries." But considering the broad strain of mortal imagery running through standard football rhetoric, it is hard to deny the aptness, or at least the inevitability, of another writer's phrase—that "Sixkiller's arm is as deadly as his name."

Another powerful inducement 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-yard lasers into someone's stomach or lofted 25-yarders that just clear two defenders' hands to hit a receiver in full stride down the sidelines. After he matched, or perhaps outdid, the passing of Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett in Washington's 29-22 loss to Stanford last year, Stanford Coach John 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 they have 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. Oregon State intercepted six of his passes but that didn't discourage him. He just kept on pitching until he beat them." He very nearly beat Stanford as well, throwing for one touchdown at the end of a 77-yard drive and later running nine yards for another and passing for a two-point conversion on two straight busted plays to put Washington temporarily ahead, 22-21. All that on national television and with the flu, which kept him out of the early part of the game.

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

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

In the '70 season opener, Sixkiller introduced himself to the nation as a whole by completing 16 of 35 for 277 yards and three touchdowns as the Huskies upset Michigan State 42-16. It was his first varsity game, and the AP named him national back of the week. He went on to exceed most of Plunkett's sophomore figures and to throw the ball more often than Plunkett did in any season, completing 186 of 362 passes for 15 touchdowns and 2,303 yards. His average of 18.6 completions per game made him the nation's leading passer. Against Oregon State he completed 30 of 50 for 360 yards. Washington won 29-20. Against heavily favored USC he threw 57 times, completed 30 for 341 yards and a touchdown and was moving the Huskies toward 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 UCLA he hit 18 of 35 for 277 yards and three touchdowns before giving way to Collins. The final score of that one was 61-20, Huskies.

And so it was that Washington's record improved from 1-9 and seventh place in the Pacific Eight Conference 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, two separate 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 a hang-on-to-the-football-for-four-good-honest-yards-at-a-clip offense to Sixkiller 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, folksy Oklahoman who traditionally says "Wooooo-wee" after exciting games and incidentally claims some Comanche blood himself and some Cherokee for his wife, Owens played All-America end for Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson and coached for six years under Bear Bryant before coming to Washington in 1957. He became a folk hero in Seattle by leading the Huskies to Rose Bowl victories in 1959 and 1960, but from 1965 to 1969 his teams were 20-28-2 and his offenses were lagging 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 the air more, and Owens says he had resolved to open up his attack when Sixkiller was still a largely unblossomed freshman.

Owens also says that he never thought he would see his own quarterback throwing the ball 57 times in a game, but such a phenomenon is a tribute to Owens' new tactical flexibility as well as to Sixkiller's arm and audacity. For all Sixkiller's deserved reputation for improvisation, it remains a fact that Owens calls virtually every play from the sidelines, although Sixkiller has the option of checking off at the line of scrimmage. Owens and his assistants have also devised an attack that fits Sixkiller's talents admirably. On any passing play Sonny has three or four receivers to choose from, depending on how the defense develops. And the corps of receivers Owens has assembled, which includes Kriegand junior-college transfers Tom Scott, Dennis Brimhall and Scott Loomis, is a good one. Furthermore, Sixkiller has enjoyed excellent protection, though it was better last year perhaps, with an all-senior offensive line, than this season.

So it is not all false or even true modesty that causes this son of a son of a chief to persist in talking about teamwork, in signing autographs with the preface "Good Luck from All the Huskies," and in going to some lengths to dodge personal publicity. The athletic department, no doubt aware that he is a hot enough property without being pushed, tends to underplay Sixkiller, the coaches holding back their superlatives and the publicity department shrugging when he fails to show up for interviews. The assessment of the Washington quarterback situation carried in the official Husky football guide says, "Sonny Sixkiller and Greg Collins, both juniors, are probably the best one-two quarterbacking combination in college football, in either order."

Sixkiller says, "I get tired of people coming up to me in restaurants and saying 'Aren't you...?' 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 for All-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 and signs herself "Cheryl, your paleface friend." One letter was delivered to him with nothing on the front but a drawing of the sun and a 6.

"You have to be flattered by it all," he says, "but the people I know, I want them to 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 the house he lives in with two other players a mile off campus, to which all interviewers have been denied access. Sixkiller belonged to a fraternity, Theta Chi, 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 people telling me what to do."

This year Owens declared that living in the UW shell house, which even the players have come to call the "ape house," was voluntary. Sixkiller had already made known his 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, blue blazers and all that. I want to do what I want, to live the way I want."

Exactly what Sixkiller wants to do off the field is still an open question, but on the field he knows what he is up to. "I always knew I would start, I knew I'd do good, and I knew we would win," he says, with what appears to be unaffected confidence. 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 his size. Since high school he has grown over 30 pounds and almost two inches, to 188 and "around six feet," and he certainly has a pro-caliber arm and a good 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 the air." Still, very few starting pro quarterbacks are as short as 6'. Sixkiller had a pass tipped by a rushing lineman and intercepted against Purdue this year, and last year he caught one of his own passes after it was hit by a rusher.

Twenty-five calls a week have been coming in to the UW athletic office, wanting Sixkiller to do everything from endorse Arrow shirts to pose throwing a pass on a bicycle, but only a few pro scouts have asked for tickets to Washington home games so far this 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 will major in business or sociology.

One thing Sixkiller is working on now is finding out more about what it means to be an Indian. 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 UW sports information office what books Sonny had read as a child. Since Sonny couldn't remember, he and the sports information director dreamed up a few titles, which eventually ended up on the library's suggested summer-reading list as volumes recommended by well-known personages.) Out of both a lack of time and a desire not to get political at this point in life, he has turned down all of a flock of invitations to get involved in Indian projects, except that he agreed to serve as honorary chairman of the Save Ernie Crowfeather Drive, a fund-raising campaign to buy a kidney machine for a Seattle Indian.

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

The Washington freshman coach, Marv Weetman, says Sixkiller "gives the outward indication of 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't care 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, Sixkiller rallied himself and the team spectacularly, leading the way to a seesaw 38-35 win with 387 yards in the air and two touchdown passes to Scott, one of these a 33-yard completion for the winning score with just over two minutes to go. And in 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 the rain-soaked Astro Turf, he somehow got enough on the ball to hit Krieg for a 56-yard touchdown. He followed that up with a 48-yard scoring pass to Scott and a 51-yard clothesline to Scott that set up a third touchdown. Not bad for a jangle of nerves.

"I'm a shyperson," says Sixkiller. As a freshman, he says, he found it hard to approach teammates to initiate friendships. But the quarterback he most admires is Namath: "I like his release, and I like the way he takes things—cool." There has never been a famous Indian athlete who strutted his stuff like a Namath, Jack Johnson or Lee Trevino. Jim Thorpe was misused and lived out his days embittered. Louis Sockalexis, whom John McGraw described as the greatest ballplayer ever and who actually inspired the character of Frank Merriwell, became a hopeless drunkard while in the major leagues and lasted for only three years. Chief Bender of the old Philadelphia Athletics was mild-mannered, contenting himself with yelling "foreigners" at the fanswho whooped at him. Indian Jack Jacobs, a fine passing tailback for Oklahoma in the '40s, is not widely remembered. Young Andy Sixkiller (Young is his given first name, but he goes by Andy), Sonny's cousin, attained some celebrity as an honorable mention All-America defensive back at the University of Miami in 1964-65. Lack of size and an ankle injury kept him out of pro ball, and now he is a fireman in Miami.

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

"Sometimes people seem to prejudge me," Sixkiller says. "They think, 'If he's a guy getting all this publicity, he's gotta be cocky.' But I can't see being like that.

"When we go to the Rose Bowl," he says after skipping a beat, "then I'll consider it."