The playing of Taps, which concludes many funerals conducted with honors, might have been the idyllic background music for the 3,200 fans and 100 Arizona State University football players who filed out of Camp Tontozona on Saturday, Aug. 16.
The emotional bugle call would have signaled the death of the scenic high mountain retreat as a summer training camp for the Sun Devils.
Although ASU has been using the camp for preseason practices since former Frank Kush first took the Devils there in 1960, current coaches and administrators decided months ago that the team was better off training in Tempe inside the school's new $8.4 million air-conditioned indoor practice facility.
Disgruntled alumni and boosters, many of whom consider the camp a sacred place for ASU football, had a bone thrown their way when team officials decided to hold a single fans' scrimmage at Tontozona.
So the team and players traveled to the camp Friday afternoon, dined on filet mignon and lobster and watched a movie. The following day, the lone scrimmage was held. Immediately after, the players and coaches boarded busses for the return trip to Tempe.
The brief stay was a far cry from the rigorous two-week long, two- and three-a-day sessions that Kush used during the 1960s and early 70s to build the foundation of one of the country's finest football programs.
Although the death certificate at Tontozona has not been signed, there were those at Saturday's scrimmage who believe the practice will soon be known as the final one held there. Rumors swirled among fans that ASU was ready to put the camp on the auction block mostly because it is too costly to maintain.
Some well-heeled boosters strolling the sidelines predicted it would be sold to the Arizona Game and Fish Department for $5 million-plus.
ASU acquired the property seven years before Kush began using it as a football training site, when the Arizona Board of Regents deeded it to Arizona State College of Tempe, now ASU.
Over the years, scribes and sports journalists have touted it as one of the most unique college football training sites in the country.
Bob Eger, who in 2001 authored "Maroon and Gold, a History of Sun Devil Athletics," once said the camp, located east of Payson near Kohl's Ranch, was one of his five favorite places in the world
Tontozona -- complete with an expertly groomed football field -- lies in a scenic basin surrounded by towering mountains. On the camp property, a bubbling spring forms a natural whirlpool. Tonto Creek is just a few minutes' walk away. Wildlife abounds, but usually goes into hiding when the camp is overrun by thousands of devils disciples, as it was Saturday.
During the scrimmage, young children frolicked in both the spring and creek as their parents and grandparents enthusiastically cheered the Sun Devils' every play.
At the conclusion of the practice, boosters flocked to nearby waterin' holes -- as they've done for decades -- to hash over what they'd seen, and predict good things to come, especially against those dreaded Arizona Wildcats.
For fans and boosters, Camp Tontozona has also long been a chance to escape the searing desert heat and enjoy football in the cool ponderosa pines. The camp also offered an up-close and personal look at the players that was vastly superior to the vantage point fans have from the often scorching hot seats high atop antiquated Sun Devil Stadium.
At Tontozona, boosters rubbed elbows with some of the finest Sun Devils players including Pat Tillman, Reggie Jackson, Danny White, John Jefferson, Randall McDaniel, Mark Malone and Charley Taylor.
Longtime fan Art Randall, while leaving the camp on Saturday, was among those fussing over the possible loss of Tontozona as a football training site.
"It's a sad day for ASU football," he said. "Tontozona could now be only a memory."
Another agreed saying, "Maybe they ought to paint ponderosas, squirrels, creeks and Mt. Kush (which standsust south of the Tontozona playing field) on the inside of that new bubble (indoor practice facility) in Tempe ... that's about as close as they'll get to ever coming here again."
"O" line struggles, again
The woes the Sun Devil offensive line struggled through last year -- the inability to open holes for running backs or to protect the quarterback -- continue to plague the team.
During the scrimmage, which sometimes featured the first team offense against the first team defense, the "O" line never gained control of the line of scrimmage.
Of the 22 offensive possessions, only two resulted in touchdowns.
Senior tailback Keegan Herring, who is expected to shoulder much of the rushing load this year, finished with minus-five yards in four attempts. He did, however, score on a 4-yard TD run. The other TD came on a 27-yard pass from Jack Elway -- son of former Denver Broncos great John Elway -- to freshman wide out Keelan Johnson.
Following the scrimmage, ASU coach Dennis Erickson expressed his frustrations with the offense. "We're not throwing and catching, though we had some guys out, obviously with injuries.
"So, we've got to continue to improve."
With the offense misfiring much like a poorly tuned four-banger, the defense ranked up six sacks, four false start flags and made numerous stops behind the line of scrimmage.
In addition to Herring being thrown for several losses, Dimiti Nance -- who is battling for the starting tailback slot -- picked up only eight yards on five carries.
"We're where we need to be defensively, although we need to improve," Erickson said.
ASU opens the 2008 season Aug. 30 in Sun Devil Stadium against Northern Arizona University.