Possibly the largest crowd in Camp Tontozona history, about 5,300 fans, turned out Saturday for Arizona State University’s annual preseason football scrimmage.
While official attendance marks are not recorded at the high mountain retreat located east of Payson, several longtime football fans said they hadn’t seen a comparable crowd since at least 1997.
That was the first camp after the Sun Devils turned in an 11-1 record and posted the greatest upset in program history by beating by a score of 19-0 a No. 1 ranked Nebraska team that entered the game on a 26-game winning streak.
“I remember the camp right after that season drew a lot of fans, but maybe not as many as this one,” said Maurice Powers as he watched the Sun Devils scrimmage on Saturday.
The huge crowd that surrounded the pristine field made it almost impossible for some spectators to see the action, which sent them scampering up a nearby hillside where there were better views.
While the scrimmage at first seemed to go off without a hitch, D.J. Foster — one of the team’s most electrifying players — put a scare into the crowd when he couldn’t get up after a tackle off a short run and had to be helped off the field.
Last season, Foster was a freshman All-American and a standout in every one of the Sun Devils’ five practices at Camp Tontozona.
The crowd, knowing Foster’s value to the team, breathed a sigh of relief when word circulated that he had just twisted an ankle and not suffered any serious injury.
“D.J. is a hometown boy (Scottsdale Saguaro high school) so he’s special to us,” said Scottsdale resident Rudy Harris.
The presence of a huge contingent of Sun Devil fans turned Kohl’s Ranch and nearby Christopher Creek into a beehive of activities as Devils disciples filled restaurants and watering holes searching for places to throw down some cool ones and rehash what they had seen during the scrimmage.
Members of the Sun Devil Club turned the event into a week-long celebration playing golf tournaments at The Rim Club and Payson Golf Course all the while hosting dinners.
During the team’s stay at Camp T, Aug. 12 to Aug. 17, senior members began a new tradition as they gathered to drink from the crystal clear spring that bubbles from the ground just northwest of the football field.
Coach Todd Graham didn’t seem to object, which was in sharp contrast to former ASU coach Dennis Erickson’s direction during his one camp at Tontozona.
Seeing a player kneeling on the ground and drinking from the spring, Erickson scolded him, warning him not to drink the water.
“Here, drink this,” he said, handing the athlete a small bottle of processed water he carried in his pocket.
After the 2007 season, Erickson’s first at ASU, he ditched Camp T. Instead, he kept his players on the ASU campus in Tempe where they prepped in the Verde Dickey practice bubble.
Erickson’s decision to abandon perhaps ASU’s greatest tradition infuriated fans and spectators, who never forgave the coach.
After leaving Camp T, ASU’s next four teams compiled a 21-28 record prompting some Sun Devil faithful to blame the losses on Erickson’s decision to abandon Tontozona.
Some fans even talked of the “Curse of Camp Tontozona,” saying the Sun Devils would never have another winning season until they returned preseason practices to the camp.
Just two years ago, when Todd Graham was hired to replace Erickson, he quickly declared he would revive the tradition of training at Camp T.
Since the team’s return last season, Graham has spoken highly of the training ground.
Last week, prior to the team departing Tempe for Tontozona, Graham told Valley media, “To be honest with you, I can’t wait to go.”
Even the players seemed to embrace the stay, “Last year, I loved it. I love the outdoors,” said defensive star Carl Bradford. “I love going outside and practicing in that weather so I am looking forward to it.”