Camp T is 'what being a Sun Devil is all about'Posted: Updated:
When Todd Graham was first introduced as Arizona State’s head coach, it only took him a few minutes to make his desire to bring back many of the program’s traditions that had fallen by the wayside abundantly clear.
Alongside revamping his team into “playing defense like Pat Tillman and Terrell Suggs” and “spinning that ball like Jake Plummer and Danny White”, one of Graham’s primary focuses was to return to Camp Tontozona.
For decades, the small compound nestled between the pine trees near Payson had served as the home for ASU’s fall camp. However, with the construction of the Verde Dickey Dome in Tempe, the Sun Devils opted to stay in the Valley for the duration of fall camp.
That streak just months after Graham's arrival, when ASU’s efforts to finance a Camp T return proved successful. On Tuesday afternoon, Graham’s Sun Devils will head up for the fourth consecutive year.
With one full week of pre-season practices now in the books, this year's trip comes at the right time.
"The thing about the first 15 days of camp is galvanizing your team,” Graham said. “There are things we can do here with that, but Camp T is a great tradition. It's really a better tradition for today's modern world.”
Translation? Goodbye, Siri. ASU is going off the grid.
With it’s remote location and minimal amenities, Camp T isolates the team from the cell phone signals and Internet access that is as much a part of everyday life as water or food.
“There's no TV, no cell phones, no electronics, no iPads, no nothing,” Graham said. “You sit around the campfire and get to know each other at night.”
"Not only is it tradition, but I think it is very important to just get away from your cell phones, technology, and distractions around here before we embark on our season's journey,” said senior wide receiver D.J. Foster.
Putting the focus on personal interaction instead of tweets and Snapchat may seem counterintuitive these days, but it pays off.
“You can eliminate a lot of distractions and just be with your teammates and coaches,” said senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington. “It's a great a great tradition that we have here.”
"No phones, no social media. You're locked in,” said senior linebacker Antonio Longino. “That's what it's about. We get to know each other. We build a better brotherhood.”
Days at Camp T begin with intense morning practices, followed by additional football sessions later in the day. However, while the Xs and Os get worked on, the primary goal is different.
"It is hard and physical in the morning, we have a walkthrough in the afternoon, but it's about bringing our team together and doing that team building,” Graham said. “It's critical.”
“A lot of times when we go up there, we spend a lot of time learning and getting better at football, but we spend time off the field getting to know one another,” said Carrington. “Guys that are on the offense, guys that we are going up against and competing against every day. It's building strong relationships that last beyond the football field."
“Camp T is really what seals the deal for our whole brotherhood mentality,” said sophomore running back Kalen Ballage. “We're out there for four days with barely any cell phone service. It's the little things like that that make people come closer. You fight and you argue, but that's how you realize that someone is your brother. You fight with your brothers and sisters of your real family, and that's how it is here too. You get annoyed, you snap back, but it's good. It makes you want to play harder for your teammates."
Yet not everyone was immediately a fan of the experience.
"I'm not going to lie. Last year, I hated Camp T,” said sophomore running back Demario Richard. “I'm not a forest person, going out in the woods, camping. I didn't like it."
Eventually, even with his aversion to the outdoors, Richard came to see the week’s value.
“But now, it's here to make me a better person and a better football player," he said. "Being around my teammates for three to four days, I will know how this team is after then."
Beyond the bonding, the Camp T experience also brings with it a championship history.
"As Coach Graham said, no one has won (a conference or division title) without going to Camp T,” said senior safety Jordan Simone. “I'm really excited to go to Camp T. It's my last time going. There's no better place to be."
Of course, when you get a large group of young men together in a confined space, there will be some tomfoolery and shenanigans.
"They told me they mess with the freshmen a lot, so I'm going to be hiding,” said true freshman cornerback Kareem Orr.
“Yeah, we beat up the freshman a little bit, play with them,” Longino said with a laugh.
After days of hard practices, bonding, drinking from the nearby creek, and the “rite of passage” of hiking up Mount Kush, the week culminates on Saturday with a team scrimmage that routinely draws plenty of Sun Devil fans. Last year, the day drew over 5,200 people.
“There's nothing like the Saturday scrimmage,” Graham said. “Thousands and thousands of people there. It's absolutely incredible.”
Whether this trip will help to contribute towards an elusive Pac-12 championship remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. This Sun Devil squad will be a much tighter unit on Saturday than it was on Tuesday.
Plus, there’s just something special about playing football between the pines.
“I don't think there is a better tradition that I've ever been associated with,” said Graham. “You come out of there and you know exactly what being a Sun Devil is all about.”
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