Tontozona Scores A Touchdown

Photo by Max Foster. |

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More than 5,000 Sun Devil fans pulled out their camp chairs and got a front-row seat Saturday for the return of Arizona State University to Camp Tontozona after five long years.

Fans said it felt like no time had passed since players took to the camp’s evergreen field east of town. Former players said things hadn’t changed much either. The bunk beds were entirely too small, phone reception nonexistent and a surprise monsoon drenched fans.

No matter though for those who made the 17-mile drive from town only to have to park a half-mile from camp.

Larry Stephenson, who owns a cabin across the street from Tontozona, said most fans were content to walk any distance.

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The ASU Sun Devils’ preseason scrimmage on Saturday drew some 5,000 fans to Rim Country — which made for a lot of customers for local businesses.

Come rain or shine, they were as committed to returning to the beloved camp set among towering ponderosa pines and meandering streams as players and coaches.

First-year coach Todd Graham led that charge, reinstating the annual scrimmage schedule after former coach Dennis Erickson ended it in 2007.

And fans weren’t the only ones happy to witness the camp’s reinstatement.

Former coach Frank Kush, who first brought teams to the camp in the 1960s, attended Wednesday’s practice.

Getting to shake Kush’s hand was an opportunity afforded only at Camp T, said Stephenson, president of Gila Community College’s board.

Fans donning maroon and gold attire piled on the hillsides around the field for the practices and scrimmages.

“It is a real intimate setting for fans,” he said. “Part of the significance of the camp is tradition. The fact that they can attract 5,000 people on Saturday afternoon, it is just amazing. It really shows the tradition of fanship.”

The Town of Payson got into the celebration. Banners and posters were plastered around town. Every light pole donned a special welcome sign and fans took to the street corners Tuesday to welcome the players riding through town on buses.

The weather mostly cooperated for the week, but drenched fans after Saturday’s scrimmage ended.

Players returned to the Valley Saturday afternoon — their respite from cell phones and 100-degree temperatures over.

Fans only hope they return again next year.

“We were so pleased when the decision was made to return to Camp Tontozona,” he said.

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