Sun Devils rediscover roots ... warts and all

Sun Devils rediscover roots ... warts and all

Published Aug. 16, 2012 7:27 a.m. ET

CAMP TONTOZONA, Ariz. – When former Arizona State running back George Montgomery first arrived at the Sun Devils' storied training camp near Christopher Creek in 1990, he turned to then-assistant Don Bocchi with a complaint.

"Coach!" Bocchi recalled him yelling. "When you recruited me, you made this place sound like Disneyland. This ain't no Disneyland!"

Not even close.

When the 2012 version of the Sun Devils arrived Tuesday night to end a four-year program hiatus from Camp Tontozona, there was little time slotted for amusement. They practiced twice on Wednesday and will endure lengthy practices (is there any other kind in the Todd Graham era?) on Thursday and Friday before a highly anticipated scrimmage wraps up the getting-back-to-our-roots portion of training camp.

"This is heaven up here," said Graham, his voice still hoarse from a persistent ailment. "I'm really honored to be here." 

Honoring the past was a major reason Graham chose to return to Camp T. Following four consecutive non-winning seasons and two successive coaching staffs that failed to connect with the community, Graham recognized the importance of renewing old bonds while forging new ones.

But the stark truth of Tontozona is apparent when you set foot on its hallowed ground. There are portable toilets. There are rustic, aging cabins utterly bereft of amenities. There is no cell phone service or internet service, which is a huge inconvenience no matter what the players and coaches say publicly. And then there are the beds.

"My bed kind of hunches down in the middle and messes with my back," said linebacker Brandon Magee, outlining the curve of a U to illustrate his mattress's shortcomings. "I'm sure they're very old, but it's fun to think who might have slept there before me, so I'm not complaining."

Speaking of history, Magee made it clear that it was the linebackers who first jumped off the famed Pat Tillman rock into the swimming hole where the ASU icon regularly cooled off to the east of the football field.

"Put that in the notes," Magee said. "The linebackers were first."

There is plenty of discussion about Camp Tontozona's tangible value. Can it really alter the course of a season -- and alter lives -- or are those just romantic notions pushed by past players and coaches who have forgotten what it means to live in this space?

Running back Cameron Marshall had a hard time sleeping Tuesday night, and some of the players played dominoes well into the night because, well, there weren't many options. But Magee insists there is value in unplugging from civilization.

"You have to talk to each other because you're with each other all the time, so you build that trust that helps you on the field," said Magee, who is rooming with quarterbacks Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici, lineman Evan Finkenberg and cornerback Deveron Carr. "And when we eat in the cafeteria, we get that top-quality food, too."

Whether you believe Magee or whether he's just making the best of a tough situation, as he seems to do with every challenge thrown his way, there was one person at Camp T on Wednesday whose opinion is set in stone.

"You can accomplish so much more, both mentally and physically, than you can if you're in a normal routine," said former ASU coach Frank Kush, who literally helped build Tontozona with his own hands more than five decades ago. "To me, the legend about this place is the association the players are going to have with each other. That develops the Sun Devil mentality, and that, to me, is significant."

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