Missing... And Remembering Asu Football At Tontozona

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The beauty of the setting at Camp Tontozona probably hardly registered with the Arizona State University football players who made the annual trek to the high country for training for many years, led there by legendary Sun Devils coach Frank Kush. The sound of college football in the Rim Country is just a memory now, but a cherished one by many.

A new football season is nearly upon us. Across the country NFL training camps are underway and players at the collegiate level are preparing for a new season.

Arizona State University has had a heated battle – Brock Osweiler versus Stephen Threet versus Samson Szackasy, all battling to be the starting quarterback for the Sun Devils.

And yet just as has been the case for the past two years, something seems to be missing in Sun Devil land.

Payson, Ariz. does not get referenced in articles; instead a “tent” is where much of this epic battle plays out. This is the story of football at Camp Tontozona.

In 1960 the building of what would later become Highway 260 was underway. ASU had some facilities near Kohl’s Ranch and the late university president, Grady Gammage, had had a place there. Coach Frank Kush came up and looked around and was impressed by how much cooler it was.

Applying the philosophy of “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission” he talked to construction workers about putting a field in. Before Kush knew it, the field was in. Later he was able to get “permission” for the field from the university president as long as the NCAA was okay with it.

And that’s how football at Camp Tontozona began.

Through the years ASU’s football success grew, due in part to the efforts of Coach Frank Kush. Tontozona was gradually improved and ASU’s annual scrimmage at the place became an annual pilgrimage to Rim Country for Phoenix area ASU boosters.

A Dec. 12, 1975 Lincoln Journal article quotes Kush on part of the appeal of the place.

“The camp gets us all away from the distractions of town for the period of our pre-season workouts and gives us the chance to really concentrate on football,” Kush feels.

Naturally, there was more to Tontozona than just football. Namely, the big mountain across Tonto Creek from the camp, which was given the name “Mount Kush.”

“The first thing we do is climb that as a group,” Kush says. “When we get up on top the rookies sing their high school fight songs. I think the whole concept starts us out with a lot of togetherness.”

Mount Kush was also a disciplinary tool. Players who made one mistake too many for Kush’s and his staff’s liking were known to be told to go for a run up it – in full pads in some cases.

ASU football was present at Tontozona for a variety of noteworthy Rim Country events. They were there during the 1970 flood, which killed numerous people up Tonto Creek from the camp and wreaked havoc on the region. During the arguable peak of Kush’s success at ASU in the middle of the 1970s, ASU even held their annual scrimmage in Payson for a couple years.

ASU football became part of the Rim Country scene every August. Coaches could occasionally be found imbibing at night at one of the local watering holes and it wouldn’t be uncommon to be having dinner and see members of the media come in for a bite to eat. The annual Saturday scrimmage filled local eateries and created a unique spirit.

During the peak of the Bruce Snyder years, I remember him and his family having dinner at Creekside after the annual scrimmage. As they left, everyone sang the ASU fight song.

A couple years ago ASU decided to end the tradition. There are a variety of opinions out there on why this occurred, but ASU cited costs and today’s players not wanting to give up their cell phones. A multi-million dollar practice bubble has been constructed in Tempe to provide a climate-controlled facility away from the heat.

Yet Tontozona is not completely forgotten. Every once in a while an ASU football fan mentions Tontozona in a comment section to an article or on a message board. This year is no different. The Cactus Ranch message board has a post with a simple subject line: “9-15 Record Since Leaving Tontozona!”

Will the Devils ever return here for football practice? Perhaps not, but it is still a place that continues to be near and dear to fans.

Author’s note

Looking for Photos — If anyone has old photos, particularly of Camp Tontozona, that they’d be willing to share, please contact me at timothy@zanegrey.net. I’d like to have some photos of Tontozona in my upcoming Images of America book, Rim Country.

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