(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Aside from the fact that its the final home game of the season against a ranked opponent in No. 16 Utah, Thursday’s game at Sun Devil Stadium will carry a far deeper meaning.
It’s going to be a night of reflection for all of the program’s seniors, as well as a night of remembering all of those who have fought to preserve the right to play football in the United States.
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham looked back on Monday at his deeply rooted appreciation for those who have served and admitted that this game means a sizable amount to him.
“This week is an important week to me,” Graham said. “I had people in my family, grandfathers, that served in the armed forces and [Salute to Service night]’s not just something we do, I try to work hard to teach our players and teach my kids just how important that it is to respect the price that’s been paid for us to do this. There’s no other country in the world that you can do what we get to do here.”
The military tradition behind Arizona State football is well-known, given the perpetual presence that is Pat Tillman and how molded he is into everything this program is and has done. In Graham’s tenure, he has had the opportunity to coach two former members of the military – Jake Sheffield back in 2013 and now junior defensive lineman Christian Hill.
He admits that both men had a different dynamic to them than the typical football player.
“What a great example [Sheffield and Hill] have been and a great learning experience it is for our players because it’s not anything they say, you can just tell,” Graham said. “You can tell, you can look them in the eye and see the price that they’ve paid. There’s something about a person that’s served in active duty and have fought and defended their country. There’s a price that’s been paid for that.”
Furthermore, Thursday night will be the final time the 2016 class of seniors will play in a game at Sun Devil Stadium.
While he will go through the process of sending the seniors off, Graham claims the whole process doesn’t even feel real until much later.
“I really try and focus on not being real emotional, because [the game] is so important,” Graham said. “Our guys have done a good job of that, it’s a special day and we do a special deal introducing them and recognizing them, but it more hits me afterwards, it’ll hit me more after we’re done with the season.”
Senior Laiu Moeakiola can remember the first time he ran out of the Tillman Tunnel into Sun Devil Stadium – five years later, he won’t forget the last.
“I do remember my first game there, that’s actually when I got hurt,” Moeakiola joked. “First game, when you go out that tunnel, you can’t explain the feelings that are running through your body. It’s like you see yourself from when you were a kid, walking through that tunnel, it’s like all of the 7-on-7’s that you participated in, the workouts, trying to eat right, it’s all come down to that moment. [the last time] is kind of bittersweet, but I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”
He still isn’t sure whether he will be emotional come Thursday, yet, he seemed to acknowledge that it won’t be easy to stay composed prior to the game.
“It’s hard to tell right now,” Moeakiola said. “I’d like to say I’m not, but I probably am, just hearing the other guys’ names called and when I step into that tunnel, but I’m just trying to remember the task at hand.
“Just trying to win the game.”
- Cam Smith, Salamo Fiso, Stephon McCray, Sam Jones, Christian Sam and Kareem Orr were all on Muscle Beach during individual drills.
- Manny Wilkins was back with the first team, he ran with a receiving core comprised of N’Keal Harry, Frederick Gammage and Jalen Harvey. Demario Richard was in the backfield while Kody Kohl lined up at tight end. Although altered by injury, the first-team offensive line featured Evan Goodman, Steven Miller, Tyler McClure, Quinn Bailey and Zach Robertson.
- Dillon Sterling-Cole led the second team, while Jack Smith ran with the third team.