TEMPE, Ariz. — Devan Spann committed to play football at Arizona State in December 2009 with a grand plan. He wanted to make a career of football, the game he loved and excelled at as a cornerback for Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif.
A series of injuries derailed that plan, and Spann never suited up for the Sun Devils in three seasons. But now, after leaving the football team, Spann has a second chance to compete in maroon and gold for ASU’s track and field team, and his future looks bright.
Spann stopped playing football after his most recent shoulder injury this past fall and shortly after began a new journey on ASU’s track, just down the street from the football practice facilities. With a third-place finish in the 60-meter dash in his debut last Saturday, the new journey is off to a strong start.
CHANGE OF PLANS
Spann came to fall camp in early August with plenty of optimism. He had missed all of the 2011 season after surgery to repair both shoulders and felt ready to compete. He had done well in the team’s summer strength and conditioning program and worked hard to learn new coach Todd Graham’s defense. He also knew he would be needed due to a lack of depth in the secondary.
On the first day of camp, Spann’s world came crashing down.
As Spann tried to make a play on a ball, his right shoulder popped out of place. Spann had already had three shoulder surgeries, which had prevented him form playing at all with the Sun Devils. He met with trainers and a doctor that night and learned his football career was over. Because of limited tissue in his shoulder, another surgery would do him no good.
“It wasn’t going to do anything but get worse,” Spann said. “It was a hard decision, but it was a decision I think was the best for me.”
Spann’s first phone call, an emotional one, after learning his fate was to his mother. He next met up with teammates Keelan Johnson and Deveron Carr, both seniors in the ASU secondary whom Spann says are like older brothers to him. Carr and Johnson offered words of encouragement and also told Spann to call former ASU cornerback Omar Bolden, who was preparing for his first season in the NFL with the Denver Broncos following a senior season at ASU lost to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“He just let me know it’s not the end of the road and there’s always something else I can do,” Spann said.
Even with all the encouragement, Spann took the news hard. He still attended football practices but some days didn’t even want to be there because it hurt to watch and not be able to participate. Coaches asked him for help at times, which made being at practices easier and helped Spann take an unselfish approach to his new reality, but he still struggled with giving up his passion.
“Even now, when the story comes up and I have to tell people about it, I get a little choked up about it,” Spann said. “It was something I did for a lot of my life, and it’s something I’m still dealing with as far as that decision.”
Shortly after the injury, a teammate planted a seed in Spann’s mind. Rashad Ross, a receiver entering his senior season, was also a member of the track and field team and had won a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation 200-meter championship the previous February.
“The last time we were running in workouts, (Spann) was real fast,” Ross recalled. “When we were running, he was right there by me, so I was like, ‘You might as well run track since you can’t play football,’ and he started thinking about it.”
Actualy, Spann had been thinking about it for a few years. He had a reported 4.40-second 40-yard dash time and ran track for three years in high school, helping Serra High win a state championship his senior season while teamed with USC receiver Robert Woods in the 4×400 relay. He had always planned on running track at ASU but wanted to get at least a year of football in first.
With football no longer an option, Spann turned his attention to track.
‘A LONG ROAD’
Ross, who isn’t participating in the indoor season as he trains for ASU football’s pro day, put in a good word for Spann with assistant coach Ronnie Williams, who coaches ASU’s sprinters. So did a few football administrators. Ross then kept after Spann to go see Williams, who already knew a little about Spann.
“I had the opportunity to see him run at the California State Relays his senior year, so I knew he could run,” Williams said. “I knew he was talented, so when they said he wanted to run, I was immediately intrigued.”
Williams and Spann initially had trouble getting together but eventually sat down for a preliminary discussion.
“It seemed like he wanted the opportunity but was kind of unsure of how he would fit in,” Williams said. “I think he was excited at the prospect, and I told him I thought it would be a good deal.”
Spann says the decision to join the team was easy. And that’s where the “easy” ended. While dealing with the emotions of his football career ending, Spann had fallen out of routines. He didn’t work out much, rather just staying inside, keeping to himself and contemplating his future.
So when Spann’s first workout with the track team arrived, it was a bit of a shock to his system.
“The first workout was a struggle,” Spann recalls. “I was so out of shape.”
Williams recalled the same.
“I was actually laughing and was like, ‘You’re so impressively out of shape, it’s humorous,'” Williams said. “So I kind of laughed, but the next day he ran a hill workout and did over half of it. So he went from not being able to get to the workout and then the next day did three-quarters of a hill workout.
“At that point I knew we had something.”
Spann progressed quickly, getting back into shape within a couple weeks. He started to come out of his shell as he got to know teammates and got comfortable with Williams. Thanks to the “grind” mentality acquired from football strength and condition coach Shawn Griswold, Spann said he was able to push through tough workouts he hadn’t done since high school.
Helping Spann along the way was Lawrence Trice Jr., who went to the same high school in California and ran sprints for ASU from 2008-10. He’s now a graduate student who assists Williams coaching sprinters.
Trice said he’s seen nothing but positivity from Spann along with an open mind ready to take advice and improve any way possible.
“He’s just eager to get out there and show everybody what he can do,” Trice said. “That’s the biggest difference between him an everybody else. It’s been a real long road for him, a shaky road.”
TIME TO RUN
Spann made his collegiate track and field debut last Saturday at the Lumberjack Team Challenge, hosted by Northern Arizona University. Spann helped ASU finish second in the 4×400 relay and participated individually in the 60m dash.
As Spann got set for the 60m, Trice could see him shaking on the starting blocks. Spann could feel it, too.
“I was nervous, I know that much,” Spann said. “Once I started going and after the first race, I was pretty confident that I can do well.”
A third-place finish was a nice start, Spann said. He didn’t expect to do so well — he finished just 0.04 seconds behind teammate and standout sprinter Ryan Milus, who took first place with a 6.71 — after so much time away from competition.
But Spann wants to do much better, and coaches believe he can. Williams thinks Spann will surprise the rest of the Pac-12, having joined the team somewhat under the radar.
“He performed like I thought he would (in Flagstaff), but at the same time, he hadn’t run in a track meet since 2010,” Williams said. “So to start where he is and probably be among the top 40 guys in the country — even with two years of rust on him — is really pretty phenomenal. It gives you a glimpse of maybe what he can be.”
Spann is expected to contribute in the 4×400 indoor relay, 4×400 and 4×100 outdoor relays, 60m and 200m indoor sprints and 100m and 200m outdoor sprints. Ross said that since he can’t defend his 200m MPSF title this indoor season, he wants to see Spann win it. That may not be outside the realm of possibility.
While Spann says he has taken a step back from football since his playing days ended, he admits to still getting an occasional itch to play, as he did when watching ASU in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl last month. Regardless, he has embraced his new path as a runner and isn’t looking back.
“If God has given me these talents, why not use them?” Spann said. “My mom always tells me, ‘You’re no longer Devan Spann the football player, so there’s a reason why you’re no playing football anymore.’ I’m going to use everything I have to make the most of these opportunities.