The heat-weary desert dweller wheeled his high-dollar SUV into the Camp Tontozona parking lot, anxious to spend a few precious hours watching his beloved Sun Devil football team prepare for the upcoming season.
Sucking in a deep breath of the cool, clean, high-country air, the driver gazed in awe at the majestic, pine-studded mountainside.
After a few seconds of inhaling the splendor, he turned to his wife and asked, “Tell me again, why is it that we live in the Valley?”
The incident occurred in 2007, the last time the Arizona State University Sun Devil football team trained at the scenic, mountain retreat.
After a four-year hiatus, the Devils return to the school’s mountain camp Aug. 14 to 18 to resume a tradition that began in 1960 and continued unabated until 2007, when then-ASU coach Dennis Erickson decided to pull the plug on the camp in favor of training in the $8.4 million Dickey Dome in Tempe.
With the Devils set to return to the high country and rebuild one of the university’s proudest traditions, it’s a certainty their passionate legion of alumni and fans, the so-called “Devils’ Disciples,” will follow.
After all, Tontozona and the Rim Country represent a cool respite for Valley-area boosters who cherish the opportunity to see the players up close and personal and free of charge.
It’s not only Valley residents, however, who flock to Tontozona.
For evidence, check out the license plates at the camp during any practice session and you’ll see many of them are out-of-state.
Well-heeled, out-of-state alumni, as well as parents and grandparents of players from as far away as Canada, Florida, Texas and Washington, are among those who plan their vacations around camp dates.
“If you want to watch football, Tontozona is the place, no matter how far you have to travel,” said ASU booster and California resident Pug Guilford.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has been at the forefront of the effort to bring ASU football back to Tontozona, partly because he estimates the team and the visitors will inject as much as $250,000 a day into the local economy.
But Evans has other reasons to support ASU’s return as well.
“The exposure for the region is of much greater value than the direct economic benefit,” Evans recently told the town council. “We told them we appreciate and desperately need the money they’ll bring to town, but the long-term impacts lie in all those people it’ll bring up here and all the exposure.”
The mayor is referring in part to the television and radio stations, newspapers and sports magazines that send their reporters and media personnel to the camp to provide coverage around the state and nationwide.
For the upcoming camp, the presence of first-year coach Todd Graham might provide extra incentive for the media to attend.
Since being hired, the new coach has created quite a stir with his old-school, throwback-coaching methods, which he vows will right the ASU ship by changing the losing culture.
He’s generated controversy around the country for the style and his short tenure at University of Pittsburgh and other posts.
For camp dates and practice times at Tontozona, see 1B.