TEMPE, Ariz. — For the second time since coach Todd Graham created the tradition, Arizona State bestowed on one of is players a camouflage No. 42 practice jersey with “Tillman” on the back.
The current designee is All-America defensive tackle Will Sutton.
Graham started the tradition last season to honor the late former Sun Devil linebacker Pat Tillman by rewarding a defensive player for excelling on the field, off the field, in the community and in the classroom. Safety Alden Darby wore the jersey briefly last year.
“I was just doing everything right, coming out working real hard and doing everything off the field also,” said Sutton, who admitted he was surprised by the honor. “I didn’t think they were going to do this again because it had been a little while since Darby had it.”
Added Graham: “You’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to bring it every day, and I’m telling you, he’s been bringing it every day. He’s coaching the other guys, he’s telling guys ‘This is not acceptable.’ He didn’t do that last year. He didn’t do all those things.”
The honor is particularly fitting for Sutton, who was the Pac-12’s Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year last year, a season in which he led the conference in sacks (13) and tackles for loss (23.5). Sutton, who also won the conference’s Morris Trophy for top best defensive lineman as voted on by opposing offensive lineman, announced in early January he would return for his senior season rather than enter the NFL Draft.
After such a season, Sutton knows expectations are higher for him in 2013 and coaches will push him harder.
“They’re demanding a lot more,” Sutton said. “The standard, the bar, is set a lot higher than last year not just for me but for everybody. It just happens that mine has to be set higher than everybody else’s, and I accept the challenge.”
Sutton said he did not know anything about Tillman until he came to ASU.
“It’s an honor because he’s somebody that did a lot to work hard for this university and for our country at the same time,” Sutton said. “So it means a lot.”
Tillman played at ASU from 1994-1997. He was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1997 and went on to play professionally for the Arizona Cardinals. In late May 2002, Tillman enlisted in the U.S. Army, walking away from football because he felt a duty to serve after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He died in 2004 while serving in Afghanistan.
Since his arrival, Graham has made Tillman’s legacy prominent. Images of Tillman were installed on the walls in the hallways of the football offices. Next week, Graham will serve as the official starter of the ninth annual Pat’s Runand run the 4.2 mile race with along with two assistant coaches and two athletics administrators. Sutton is serving as the official starter of the Pat’s Run Kids Run the same day.
Before presenting Sutton with the Tillman practice jersey in a team meeting Thursday morning, Graham spoke to the entire team about Tillman, as he often does.
“I talked about Pat for a while,” Graham said. “We talked about who he is as a person, how hard he worked, his passion. And I said ‘Will’s earned this jersey, but the key to our success is that he keeps it.’ So we challenged him with that.
“I really like that we have that benchmark. I want to make sure they understand what that means, and I think our guys do.”
Per Graham’s conditions of wearing the Tillman jersey, a player must continue to earn the jersey on a practice-to-practice basis. There can only be 11 jerseys issued in one season, though that does not mean 11 will be issued.
“The key for us is (to get) six or seven guys in that every day,” Graham said. “If we can get five or six to practice every day in them, then you’ve got a chance, because that standard is extremely high.”