Sixkiller, the great-grandson of a Cherokee Indian chief, was blessed with a fabulous arm, and coach Jim Owens decided to use it, turning the Huskies from a running team to a passing team. Sixkiller threw for a school record 2,303 yards as a sophomore, ninth best in the country.
We could argue for hours over who is the greatest Husky football player.
But the most popular?
It’s hard to argue against quarterback Sonny Sixkiller, who captivated the city from 1970-72.
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The Seattle Pilots had just left town, and it would be years before the Mariners and Seahawks arrived. The Sonics were just a few years old, and still struggling. The University of Washington football team was moribund, coming off a season in which it was 1-9 and averaged 11.6 points a game, 110th of 122 teams in the country.
Then came Sixkiller. He not only elevated UW, but the region. Soon, it seemed, everyone had a No. 6 UW jersey.
Sixkiller, the great-grandson of a Cherokee Indian chief, was blessed with a gifted arm, and coach Jim Owens decided to use it, turning the Huskies from a running team to a passing team. Sixkiller threw for a school record 2,303 yards as a sophomore, ninth best in the country, helping Washington to a 6-4 record.
Suddenly, UW football was fun again as the Huskies averaged 33.4 points per game. Ready or not, Sixkiller was a big star — at 19.
“Growing up in a small town like Ashland, Ore., you have some celebrity because you are a high school player, but nothing came close to what it was like after my sophomore year (in 1970),” he said. “As that year unfolded, it really became tough to handle because there was so much going on, but at the same time you had to concentrate on football and go to school. I think the strength of my teammates and coaches and a few athletic administrators helped guide me through the moments.”
Sixkiller, now 67, had no idea what was coming after graduating from Ashland High School in 1969. At 5 feet 10½ and 155 pounds, he was lightly recruited. Oregon State wasn’t interested because he was too small. Southern Oregon in Ashland wanted him badly, but when the Huskies offered a scholarship, he decided to come north.
“Some guys are so confident that they know they are going to make an impact, but I was just going up there to play some football and see what would happen. I was very fortunate. I was kind of the last man in, because of injuries and guys electing to do other things. I got a break in spring ball my freshman year to show what I could do, and that proved pivotal going into fall camp.”
The starting quarterback, Gene Willis, injured his knee, moving Sixkiller to No. 2 on the depth chart. When the new starter, Greg Collins, broke his collarbone early in the spring game against the alumni, “I was the only one left,” Sixkiller said.
He came in and started throwing. And throwing.
He threw 50 times, completing 24 for 387 yards and a touchdown, leading a 43-7 win over the alumni.
A star was born.
Sixkiller quickly proved that the spring game was no fluke, leading UW to a 42-16 season-opening win over favored Michigan State at Husky Stadium, throwing for 276 yards while the offense had 598, its most in more than two decades.
“There was nothing like that first game against Michigan State,” he said. “Hearing that crowd and throwing that first touchdown pass on our first drive, I thought the place was going to be torn down. It’s hard to describe how crazy it was.”
He ended the season throwing for 256 yards in a 43-25 win over WSU in the Apple Cup, one of two times he led the Huskies to a win over their rival, giving UW its first winning record since finishing 6-4 in 1966.
Jim Krieg, a JC transfer, caught a team record 54 passes that season. But leading the way was the new quarterback, who to this day likes to spread the credit around.
“I always had confidence in being able to throw the football and was kind of elusive at the same time. I wouldn’t call myself a scrambler – but I called myself an avoider,” Sixkiller said. “We had some good JC receivers that also came in that spring, and I got a chance to work with those guys from Day 1. We seemed to click, and being blessed with a pretty much senior offensive line proved to be priceless.”
Sixkiller’s star power grew. He led UW to an 8-3 record as a junior in 1971, throwing for 2,068 yards and earning a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“I didn’t want to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated,” he said. “But when you look back at it, it was a very fortuitous time. I was very lucky to be on the same cover that other great people have been on.”
He was not only representing the state, he was perhaps the most recognized Native American athlete since Jim Thorpe.
Sixkiller said that fact “didn’t really hit me until I got to the U and started playing.’ ”
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“You grow up since you were 1 year old in a small town like Ashland – and all your friends are non-native and most of your teachers are non-native, I mean everybody. I never lost the fact that I was Cherokee, but then again, I was like everybody else in school. I was a normal kid, like my buddy down the street,” Sixkiller said. “But because of my status at the UW, I did take pride that the Northwest tribes took ahold of me and I tried to give as much love back as I could. And it was just a great experience for that to be a part of my college life.”
Sixkiller missed three games with a pair of injuries as a senior, but still led the Huskies to an 8-3 record and threw for 1,125 yards. He left with nearly every UW passing record and still ranks No. 8 in career passing yards (5,818 yards). His 16.4 yards per completion in 1971 is still a school record.
Sixkiller was not selected in the 1973 NFL draft, his lack of size scaring off teams, but he played two seasons in the World Football League before it folded. In 1974, he played the character Tannen in the classic, “The Longest Yard,” starring Burt Reynolds.
“I loved that,” Sixkiller said of his movie role. “Burt was a great guy, and I was sorry to see him pass (this year). He took us as one of his own and was just a fun guy to be around. He didn’t put himself above anybody who was on the set. It was a great experience. Being in a movie – are you kidding me? And then to have it still shown on TV, it’s amazing.”
Sixkiller made a smooth transition into the business world, spending much of the past four decades in sales, including selling ads for Husky radio broadcasts. He is currently the associate general manager at Washington IMG Sports, the official network of Husky sports.
He and wife Denise have been married for 44 years and live in Seattle. They have three adult sons and seven grandkids.
It has been nearly 50 years since Sixkiller’s heady days at Washington, a time in his life that that he still treasures.
“It was very rewarding, not only for myself, but for my family back home in Ashland,” he said. “There was a lot of pride in me playing for UW.”