OCTOBER 4, 1971
When an indie pop band from Philadelphia dubbed itself Sonny Sixkiller a few years ago, its namesake reacted the way anyone in his situation would. Wow, the former University of Washington quarterback recalls thinking, are they any good? Alas, Sonny Sixkiller the band is defunct. Yet the mere fact that the man's name still resonates three decades after his salad days with the Huskies is confirmation that he touched fans throughout the nation, not just the Cherokee Nation that adored one of its own.
The Sixkiller mystique began in 1970, when he led the country in passing as a sophomore (230.3 yards per game) and was immortalized the following year by a Seattle deejay in Ballad of Sonny Sixkiller. It was a perfect marriage of talent—Sixkiller's 5,496 passing yards rank him fifth in school history—and a sports name for the ages. "It's been 30 years, but a lot of people remember that era," says Sixkiller, 52, a sports marketing executive for Seattle's KIRO radio. "There are a lot of reasons: name, number [he wore 6], Native American. And we worked hard as teammates to resurrect the program."
Sixkiller took over a team that had finished 1-9 in 1969 and guided it to a 22-10 record over the next three seasons. Yet the reception from unenlightened college football fans wasn't always pleasant. "I used to go to schools, and they'd have SCALP SIXKILLER banners on the walls," he says. "Then you had newspapers saying CHEROKEE CHUCKER SLAYS STANFORD. Would that fly today? No. I don't know how it flew then?
Though Sixkiller's ancestors are Cherokee from Oklahoma, Sonny had almost no exposure to Native American culture as a child. "We're from Oklahoma, but I grew up in southern Oregon, so I didn't have a lot of Native friends," he says. "I never realized the impact I would have in the Native American world by playing college football." Now he knows. For the past five years Sonny has helped put on a golf tournament to raise money for the Tulalip Indian Boys & Girls Club in Marysville, Wash., and his oldest son, Casey, recently spent two years working as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for the Cherokee Nation. "Everything comes around, I guess," Sonny says with a laugh.
Sixkiller lives in Seattle with his wife of 29 years, Denise, and they have two other sons, Jesse (a sophomore at Dartmouth) and Tyson (a freshman at Washington). Though Sixkiller's pro career never took off—a free-agent signee with the Los Angeles Rams in 1973, he was cut before the season and then spent two years in the World Football League—he stays close to the game as an analyst on Huskies telecasts. "The fun part [about broadcasting]," he says, "is having that teamwork you used to have when you were playing."