With the 2015 off-season winding down, what better time than today to look back and reflect upon a very important piece of Arizona State football history, Camp Tontozona. Frank Kush created the practice facility high in the pines just two years after ASU became an accredited University. Even back in the 1960’s,Camp T’s sole purpose was to get the football team away from the distractions of Tempe and create a brotherhood among young men from several different backgrounds. The 2015 preseason camp marked the 55th anniversary of Camp T and although much has changed in 55 years, the legacy and tradition of Camp T is at an all time high.
For me, this Camp T was going to be a bit more special than my past visits. It was my first Camp T visit since 2008, and my first photo assignment for ASU Devils Den. As a fan, Camp T not only marks the beginning of the season, but it may also represent a generational passage of tradition, a new family ritual, or just a chance to romanticize about its rich history. Several items also contribute to this aura of Camp T. It’s how the city of Payson and its citizens rally around the Arizona State football program as well as their fans. That long windy drive from Payson up the 260, where goose bumps form when that green ‘Camp Tontozona Rd.’ sign becomes visible. There’s the long walk down Camp Tontozona road, where the very thought of a seeing a football field seems comical. At the half way point of that walk, a weathered wooden sign announces your arrival; CAMP TONTOZONA – Sun Devil Country. Before reaching the field you walk among the players’ cabins and the giant green water tank with Sparky on its front. Finally, the view opens up as you reach the end of the trail, and ASU’s very own field of dreams comes into view.
Unfortunately, Camp T was not always held in such a high regard by some in the athletic department of ASU. My visit in 2008 was not only my last visit; it was also the program’s last visit to the historic site. A coach with the initials D.E. deemed the tradition outdated, presenting too many challenges to his players and staff. Turning his back on 48 years of history, the Sun Devils would no longer forge as one in the pines high up on the Mogollon Rim. Instead, a new practice “bubble” was built in Tempe across the street from Sun Devil stadium. The new facility would shield the players from the summer heat and monsoon storms that could interfere with practice. The final Camp T scrimmage was held on August 16th, 2008 in front of a record crowd. Looking back, I think the outcry over the end of Camp T in 2008 fell far short of the uproar over the potential change to Sparky or the new “fork” logo.
Whether one believes in superstitions, curses, or karma; August 28th, 2008 was the night Camp T struck back. The nearly completed practice bubble was deflated in the middle of the night during a hellrific monsoon storm. The bubble would be out of commission until October, and the team would not practice in it until July of 2009. The curse of Camp T didn’t end there. During the remaining four years of Dennis Erickson’s tenure, ASU would only win 21 games (5 in the 2008 season) with just one bowl appearance. That only bowl appearance was in 2011, several weeks after Erickson was fired. It was a blow-out loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas bowl, one that was witnessed by Todd Graham, the future head coach of the Sun Devils.
Graham understood tradition, and understood what Frank Kush and Camp T meant to Sun Devil football. After a campaign to raise funds for improvements, the program returned to Camp T in 2012, Graham’s first season as head coach. Since returning to Camp T, the Sun Devils have won 28 games including the first back to back 10 win seasons since 1973. The Sun Devils have won a Pac-12 South title, Graham was Coach of the Year, and numerous players have been recognized nationally for their level of play. Saturday, Frank Kush was hoisted on the shoulders of the team and carried off the field in a sign of ultimate respect to the tradition he established 55 years ago. ASU is a young university without a lot of tradition behind the football program. Returning to Camp T and fully embracing Kush’s purpose in the Camp speaks volumes of Graham and the principals he has instilled into the program.
That weathered wooden ‘CAMP TONTOZONA – Sun Devil Country’ sign was missing on my walk down Camp Tontozona road on Saturday. It must have been removed after the temporary halt in 2008 and not put back up. The historic sign once hung high over the walkway welcoming everyone to Camp Tontozona. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the missing sign put a slight damper on my day. So much history and tradition at Camp T, that sign was a big part of it for me and most likely many others. Let’s get the sign back up for Camp T in 2016, even if it is only for that week. Who knows, perhaps that old wooden sign is the difference between 10 wins and 12 wins. #bringbackthesign