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Roy Blount Jr.
October 04, 1971
Washington Quarterback Sonny Sixkiller is a Cherokee, but his passing arm, not his heritage, has made him a hero
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October 04, 1971

The Magic Number Is Sixkiller

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

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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 (see cover) 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 5'9�" 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.

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