Once off the field, after the final whistle has blown, the mind of a football player turns to many things. The thrill of a victory or the hurt of a loss. The next week's game and what must improve. But for some, the big picture is most visible after each and every game.
ASU senior offensive lineman Mike Marcisz has made a habit of turning each week to sophomore offensive lineman Kody Koebensky, who sits next to him in the locker room, and ticking away one more game of his Sun Devil career.
"I tell him after every game 'Well, there's another one,' " Marcisz said. "That's another one down. It's one less game I'm going to be able to play in my career here."
On Friday, Marcisz will be one of 24 seniors to charge out of Tillman Tunnel one final time, as the Sun Devils play their final home game of 2011 and honor those players making their last appearance at Sun Devil Stadium.
When ASU and Cal square off, there will be plenty on the line for the Sun Devils. A win, combined with a UCLA loss Saturday and a Utah win Friday, would put ASU in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game. It would also better fifth-year coach Dennis Erickson's chances of earning an extension to coach the Sun Devils beyond 2011. Even if they don't reach the conference championship, a win Friday at least gives them some momentum heading into a bowl game.
The stakes are certainly high, but Erickson believes the greatest incentive to win is sending a highly regarded group of seniors out on a high note after plenty of ups and downs over four or five seasons in Tempe.
"They've put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this program, and it's their last time out," Erickson said Monday. "To me that's really the No. 1 thing. They’ve done a lot of things for this program and for this university. I couldn't be prouder of them."
Save a few redshirt seniors and transfers, the class playing its final home game is essentially Erickson's first true recruiting class. Highlighted by the likes of linebacker Shelly Lyons, receiver Gerell Robinson and defensive end Jamaar Jarrett, the unusually large class was ranked No. 17 nationally by Scout.com and was expected to help take the Sun Devils over the top this season.
The results, however, have been far short of expectations after the team's recent collapse, making it particularly important to the senior class that ASU win Friday.
"Nobody wants to go out like that," said receiver Aaron Pflugrad, who transferred in from oregon. "We all want to finish strong. … We have the opportunity to do that on Saturday, and we still have an opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl, which is crazy to even say, but that's still our goal and it's still reachable."
For a few Sun Devil seniors, Pflugrad included, making their final game in Tempe count means just a little bit more. Pflugrad may have spent the first two seasons of his college career at Oregon, but he has a history in maroon and gold.
Pflugrad's father Robin, currently the head coach at Montana, was ASU's wide receiver's coach from 1995 to 2000. Pflugrad basically grew up around Sun Devil football at one of its high points.
"I've been watching games in Sun Devil Stadium since I was seven years old," Pflugrad said. "It's hard to think this is going to be my last time playing, but when I'm done playing football I think I'm going to get into coaching, and hopefully I can call Arizona State my home again some day."
While Pflugrad hopes to follow in his father's footsteps one day, teammate Colin Parker is already doing just that. The linebacker's father, Anthony Parker, played cornerback at ASU from 1984 to 1987 before spending nine seasons in the NFL.
Growing up in the Valley and graduating from Hamilton High School in Chandler, Parker always knew he wanted to be a Sun Devil. He was the first commitment of the 2007 class, choosing ASU over the likes of Florida, Michigan and Michigan State, and sticking with it even after Dirk Koetter was replaced by Erickson following the 2006 season.
"For me it's bittersweet," Parker said. "Senior Day is something that you kind of look forward to and you dread at the same time. It's exciting you get to be out there and there's going to be a lot of energy, but at the same time I'm sad because I know it's going to be my last game at Sun Devil Stadium."
If it's tough for players like Parker to think about playing their final home game, it has to be exponentially harder for cornerback Omar Bolden. His came last season, and he didn't even know it then.
Bolden, an All-Pac-10 selection in 2010 and a lock to be drafted to the NFL, chose to stay at ASU one more year and help chase a conference championship. But an anterior cruciate ligament injury in spring practice cost him the entire season. Bolden's rehab was moving quickly and he has considered a return, but Erickson confirmed Tuesday that Bolden would not play in 2011.
Though their time has yet to come, the underclassmen, too, understand the significance of Friday's game and how much a win would mean.
"Seniors put so much time and effort into a football program that the proper thing to do as an underclassmen is send them out on the right note," junior quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "Those guys are some of my best friends in the world and the things they've done for this football program really are unbelievable whether the wins and losses show it or not."
The Sun Devils still have a bowl game to look forward to, and perhaps the Pac-12 Championship, too -- but after Friday, those seniors will never again play under the lights on Frank Kush Field.
A few seniors will surely move on to the NFL, but for others the end of their football career is fast approaching.
"It really is sad, it's something I'll have to adapt to," Marcisz said. "Football has been my life for nine years. It's going to be a heck of an adjustment.
"I love ASU and this program. I bleed maroon and gold. I really do."