The Arizona State University Sun Devil football team, itching to turn a stay at Camp Tontozona into a to a bowl game invitation, will receive a big-time high-country welcome when it passes through Payson on its way to the scenic mountain retreat.
Scheduled to motor into town about 3 p.m. Aug. 14, the players and coaches will be greeted by 40 banners on Beeline light posts from the south edge of town to the intersection of SR 260.
Also, Chamber of Commerce manager John Stanton has issued an invitation for residents to gather at the Chamber Visitor Center (NW corner of Beeline and Main) and about that same time to cheer the entourage as it travels through town.
Stanton said those who wish to make their own banners, placards and posters are welcome to do so.
Fans are encouraged to wear ASU colors of maroon and gold.
Early this week, ASU released the team’s practice schedule for its stay at Camp Tontozona, located about 17 miles east of Payson near Kohl’s Ranch.
On Wednesday, Aug. 15, the team will practice 9 to 11 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.
On Thursday and Friday, practices are 9 to 11 a.m.
The traditional fans’ scrimmage is scheduled for 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturday.
Immediately after, the Devils will return to Tempe where practices will resume in the Dickey Dome and Kajikawa Practice Field.
During the team’s stay at Tontozona, the Payson Chamber of Commerce will set up a tent where they will be doling out “Chamber Hospitality Bags” to fans.
In them will be discount coupons to local businesses. Anyone who would like to participate in the program should call Stanton at (928) 474-4515.
Fans are welcome at all the practices and there is no admission charge.
For Saturday’s scrimmage, Stanton is expecting as many of 1,000 cars, which will make parking extremely difficult.
While ASU has not been to Tontozona since 2008, fans have traditionally parked along SR 260 because the lot at the camp is small and spots are often unavailable.
Those who park on SR 260 must hike into the camp, so the best advice is to wear comfortable shoes and bring along drinking water.
Campaign reaches goal
The Sun Devils return to Tontozona for the first time in four years thanks in part to the success of the campaign — “Return To Camp T.”
It was launched on April 19 and called for Sun Devil fans, friends, alumni and former players to come together to raise $150,000 for the Sun Devil Club before June 1.
That figure was met and the ASU Sun Devils, under first-year coach Todd Graham, are set to return.
“I love the tradition of college football,” Graham has told media. “That is one of the reasons I coach at the collegiate level. Camp Tontozona is one of the famous icons in the history of college football. I wanted to take my first team there because the tradition begins at Tontozona, just like it did in 1960.
“Every player, every coach and many fans begin each season in the tall pines northeast of Payson. (Former ASU) Coach Frank Kush had a vision. It worked well then and it will again.”
The money raised is being used to install a video editing network for coaches, food service, renovations and field maintenance.
ASU hasn’t trained at Tontozona since former coach Dennis Erickson pulled the plug on the university’s scenic mountain retreat in 2008, preferring to train the football team in the $8.4 million Dickey Dome on the Tempe campus.
The 2008 visit was simply Erickson throwing complaining fans and alumni a bone — the team was there for just for a one-day fan scrimmage.
The last time ASU had a full camp stay was 2007, Erickson’s first year at the school.
Abandoning the camp raised the ire of alumni, former players and fans who believed Tontozona was the university’s richest tradition.
Some clamored for Erickson’s dismissal claiming ASU lost a piece of its soul when the camp was abandoned.
Former Arizona Board of Regents member and Sun Angel Foundation Board of Director member Rudy Campbell, once said, “Not coming (to Tontozona) to practice ... is like going in the Army and not going through boot camp.”
ASU’s upcoming visit will be a first-time experience for most all the Sun Devil players.
At the ASU “Return to Camp T” press conference on the school’s campus, Graham was asked how many of the current players had ever visited Tontozona.
After a short pause, he replied, “Maybe three or four.”
If rain should render the Tontozona practice field unplayable during ASU’s stay, which often occurs, practices will be moved to the Rumsey Park multipurpose fields.
In 2003, the Devils — then coached by Dirk Koetter — were forced to train at Rumsey several times due to the downpours that drenched the mountain camp’s practice field.
Tontozona one of a kind
Camp Tontozona, which is nestled in the ponderosa pines, has been touted by sports officials as one of the most unique university football training camps in the country.
The camp — complete with a lush, 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 a minutes walk away.
Former Arizona Republic sports writer Bob Eger, whose beat once included ASU and in 2001 authored “Maroon and Gold, a History of Sun Devil Athletics,” once said the camp was one of his five favorite places in the world.
The name, Camp Tontozona — combining nearby Tonto Creek and Arizona — was chosen in 1958 just before Kush began using the camp for preseason training.
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 at Tempe, now ASU.
Kush spearheaded the move to turn the retreat into a football camp where his team could prepare for the rigors of the coming season.
Kush says he got the idea for the camp from his high school days in Pennsylvania. His prep team often retreated from the friendly confines of his hometown to train at a remote campsite.
The former Sun Devil coach often said that Tontozona was an ideal training ground because it provided a site where players could focus on football, far away from the distractions of the Tempe campus.
Longtime visitors to the camp remember a nearby mountain once dubbed Mt. Kush by ASU football players.
Players who erred during practice sessions were forced to undertake the grueling climb from the camp to the top of Mt. Kush.
Graham has said he looks forward to ascending Mt. Kush, not necessarily for punishment, but rather for tradition.
The rigors of the camp were often too much to endure for some players.
Under Kush, athletes who threw in the towel had to ring a bell in mid-camp to get a ride back to Tempe.
That was too humiliating for some, so they hitchhiked to Payson and south on the Beeline back to the ASU campus.
Former Payson High School football coach Dan Dunn, now head coach at Gilbert High School was one of Kush’s players. If asked, Dunn will spin many fascinating tales about his stays at the camp while playing for Kush in the early 1960s.
Most who trained at Tontozona had a love-hate relationship with the camp including Rob Peterson, a starting linebacker on the unbeaten 1975 Fiesta Bowl team.
“Camp Tontozona truly defines Arizona State football as the first step in bringing young men, coaches and staff together to build a championship season. Camp Tontozona represents a ton of focus, dedication and hard work. Clearly, a lot of people hated Camp T because it was hard, it lacked the comforts of home, and it forced people of different backgrounds to work together.
“What we all came to realize is that this place in the mountains, the hard work, focus, and attention to football brought team building and produced championship seasons.”
Danny White (Dallas Cowboys), Shante Carver (Dallas Cowboys), Randall McDaniel (Minnesota Vikings), Mark Malone (Pittsburgh Steelers), John Jefferson (San Diego Chargers), Jake Plummer (Arizona Cardinals), Derrick Rodgers (Miami Dolphins), Adam Archuleta (St. Louis Rams) and the late Pat Tillman (Arizona Cardinals) are a few of the professional players who trained at Camp Tontozona.