They began their college football careers sleeping on rickety beds in the infamous former freshman trailers at Camp Tontozona — alongside sweat-soaked, smelly pads conveniently “stored” there by upperclassmen.
For the 17 scholarship players and handful of walk-ons in Dirk Koetter’s first class as coach at Arizona State, those August nights in the pungent air were an appropriate initiation to a Sun Devils team that has had its share of triumph, tribulation and tragedy since then.
“I learned very quickly that it’s tough going through five years with the commitment to school and football,” H-back Lee Burghgraef said. “It shows that not everyone can handle it, and I’m proud that I stuck with it.”
Nineteen seniors will play their final regular season game for ASU against Arizona on Friday. Seven of them are fifth-year players from Koetter’s first group of freshmen in Tempe.
As fellow members of the 2001 class left the program for various reasons, Burghgraef, receivers Stephen Bisnett, Matt Miller and Moey Mutz, running back Cornell Canidate, quarterback Chad Christensen and center Grayling Love endured.
They are the seven survivors.
“Those guys have been through a lot in their career,” Koetter said. “We’ve had a lot of changes in our program, and a lot of it hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to in the win-loss column.
“But when you recruit players, that’s the promise — if they play football, you will give them the tools they need to get their degree, and I think with these guys, both parties have fulfilled their end of the deal.”
Of the seven, five were scholarship players, most of whom were recruited by former coach Bruce Snyder. Bisnett and Mutz walked on.
They were part of one of the last classes to bunk in the Camp Tontozona trailers and the first group to be subjected to sports performance director Joe Kenn’s “Freshman Fridays” of conditioning drills until they dropped.
The players have been part of 31 victories and two bowl games. Five have already graduated, and two (Bisnett and Miller) are on track to do so.
“I’ve been around these guys a long time,” Mutz said. “We had a bigger class going in originally, but now it’s down to a few guys. But these are the guys that followed the rules, day in and day out.
“That’s a testament to taking care of business on and off the field, that it pays off. Some guys drop out, but these guys have stuck around. It’s been quite an experience to learn from them.”
After being named ASU’s coach on Dec. 2, 2000, Koetter had just 27 days of recruiting to assemble the first class of signees. Oral commitments made under Snyder were honored, but Burghgraef evaluated his options after the coaching change.
“I went up to Oregon State and Washington on a couple trips,” Burghgraef said. “But when I came here, I liked Coach Koetter, his staff and his offense. That was pretty much it, because I wanted to be as close to home (Corona, Calif.) as I could get so my parents could come to my games.”
Now, Burghgraef is one of two starters among the group. Love is the other, but he will miss Friday’s game after undergoing foot surgery.
Canidate led ASU in rushing in 2002, but injuries slowed his career. Miller and Mutz are backups who play a lot, and Bisnett is a valuable part of the special teams. Christensen’s journey from starting quarterback to versatile runner and receiver to backup QB has been well-documented.
“It does go to show you all of the things that can go on in a player’s career, on and off the field,” Christensen said. “We started with 17, and now five (signees) are left. It is proof that it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to stay through all the events that go on.”
Among those who arrived in 2001 but are no longer at ASU:
- Wide receiver Daryl Lightfoot (Northern Arizona), quarterback Lance Rhodes (Alabama-Birmingham) and cornerback Courtney Sterling (Houston) transferred.
- Jason Shivers, a tackling monster at safety and on special teams, declared for the NFL draft after the ’03 season.
- Some were dismissed due to disciplinary issues — linebacker Barton Hammit, defensive lineman Josh Kirkwood and (most notably) running back Hakim Hill.
Defections from the Sun Devils program have decreased, however. The ASU football retention rate — the percentage of scholarship athletes who remain in school from year to year — is 72 percent, second in the Pac-10.
Koetter said he believes the ASU seniors have set a tone of dedication and commitment.
“It’s a diverse group of kids that have done what they needed to get done to help build this program,” Koetter said.
As the seven near the end of their ASU careers, that foul freshman trailer odor
has been replaced by the scent of satisfaction. Miller said the rewards of their hard work as Sun Devils will be reaped for years to come.
“There have been a lot of lessons learned,” Miller said. “We are all close. You have to stick with those guys that you came into it with. I know that all of us will be successful after college because of what we learned here.”