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‘It was survival’: Remembering early history of ASU’s Camp Tontozona

Dillon Jackson attempts a field goal during Saturday's scrimmage at Camp Tontozona. (Photo: Vince Marotta/Arizona Sports)

PAYSON, Ariz. — It doesn’t matter that the field won’t be in playing shape. Arizona State will load onto buses and make the hour-and-a-half drive north to Camp Tontozona this week anyway.

Thanks to weather-delayed renovations, no football will be played at the mountainside preseason campsite outside of Payson this year. Even so, new coach Herm Edwards wants his first Sun Devils team to experience one of the program’s oldest traditions.

“We’re going to make sure these young guys understand the history and legacy of going up there. I think that’s important,” Edwards said during Pac-12 Media Day, when he announced that ASU would travel to Camp T (or as Edwards calls it, “Camp Kush”) during Wednesday’s off-day.

“Maybe (we’ll) have a walk-through, a little meeting or something, have them walk the hill, do a little deal,” Edwards said. “I think that’s good. (We) want to keep that alive.”

Camp T’s historical roots trace back almost 60 years to when the late Frank Kush, the longest-tenured and winningest coach in program history, first took his team in 1960. Since then, it’s become the unofficial start of football season, the early August signal that the offseason is over. It holds a special place in program lore.

“A lot of people have moved here from another area so we don’t have some of the long-running tradition that you have in Michigan or Ohio, Indiana, some of those places,” said Dan Kush, Frank’s son who was a kicker at ASU in the ‘70s. “(Camp T) is one of (our) traditions in collegiate sports, or at least football. A lot of people know about going to Tontozona.”

Dan remembers the camp’s earliest days. When he just 6 years old, he tagged along with his dad and the school’s other coaches and their families to put the finishing touches on the first field to be laid among the pines at the site.

“The coaches and some of the other coaches’ kids were putting in the grass on the field or prepping the field. It had already been roughly leveled out but there was still some run-and-drag,” Dan said. “We’d sit on the back of the drag and when they’d run the drag by the creek, they’d stop and it was our job to pull the rocks out of the drag and throw them over into the creek.”

The memories make him laugh.

“They used some child labor,” he chuckled.

Most stories from the early days at Camp T, though, drum up different emotions. For some players, it became the football equivalent of hell. The picturesque forest setting and cool fall temperatures could be misleading.

“It was survival when we’d go up there (as players),” Dan said, recalling his days as a player.

During Kush’s heyday in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, his preseason camp was torturous: Two straight weeks of three-a-day practices on muddy fields with little sleep and, of course, brutal treks up “Mount Kush,” the peak of one of the towering hills that surrounded the campsite.

Former Arizona State linebacker and College Football Hall of Famer Bob Breunig, who went to Camp T three times between 1972-74, likened it to military boot camp.

“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said Breunig, who went on to have a 10-season and Super Bowl-winning career with the Dallas Cowboys after leaving ASU. “I would never compare football to war, but it’s a season in your life where you’re asked to step up and become a man and do things that are beyond what you’ve ever imagined before.”

Breunig got a quick introduction to the camp culture. During his first trip, the then-sophomore tore a muscle in his thigh, an injury as painful as it was frustrating.

“It was such a wimpy injury,” he said.

So, in an effort to let his bum leg heal, Breunig sat out a couple practices. Kush took notice.

“Coach Kush came up to me the day I missed the practice and said, ‘Hey, we don’t sit out practices for muscle pulls around here,’ ” Breunig said.

Kush’s advice: “I recommend you don’t do that.”

Breunig played through the pain, which subsided just in time for the start of what turned out to be his breakthrough season.

“All of that was a process of toughening us up, making us men, maturing, all of that,” Breunig said in reflection. “You don’t understand it when you’re in the middle of it but you look back and you say it was really something.”

But the rustic barracks and antiquated facilities — even for the ‘70s — that the players called home during those years at Camp T helped create a bonding experience that former players promise was genuine. Kush’s toughness cultivated a togetherness among his teams.

“He had a way of uniting his players even if it was against him,” said former ASU quarterback Danny White. “There were drills and things that he would do that made us hate him, but we hated him together.”

Added Breunig: “How we endured it? I don’t know. Some guys did not. There were stories of, literally, some guys sneaking out at night and leaving and hitchhiking home. It was just a really tough time.”

Runaway hitchhikers, it turns out, were common during Kush’s camps — so much so that Bill Kajikawa, who coached ASU’s freshman football team back then, often picked up some of the deserters on the side of the mountain roads that wind back down toward the Valley.

“They were tough camps, so I think (players) would get homesick,” said Christine Wilkinson, Kajikawa’s daughter and a three-time interim ASU athletic director. “They would try to hitchhike back, so they would call Dad because he would still be back in Tempe.

“He would get them and then, I think he was always successful (in) picking them up, have a talk with them and then drive them back (to Camp T).”

But not everyone came back.

White’s first trip to camp was 1971. The previous year, he had played defensive back on the freshman team. After that first season, his focus was split between the gridiron and the baseball team. But the Sun Devils were thin under center and needed a backup to presumptive starter Grady Hurst.

“I was the only guy on the team besides Grady that had played quarterback,” said White, who had played some quarterback during high school. “So one day, coach Kush — and this is typical Frank Kush — tells me to run with the first team offense. It was just to see how Grady would react.”

Grady’s reaction was poor.

“Well, Grady quit,” White said. “He just got upset and walked out of camp and hitchhiked home and nobody saw him again until I separated my shoulder in the third game and they went out and found him and brought him back.”

“All of a sudden, I went from being a defensive back as a freshman and a skinny baseball player to being the starting quarterback on the ASU varsity football team in my sophomore year.”

It was the beginning of a Hall of Fame collegiate career for White. Over the next three seasons, he compiled a 33-4 record as a starter and was drafted by the Cowboys in the third round of the 1974 NFL Draft. In 2000, the Arizona Republic named him the Arizona “Athlete of the Century.”

White returned to Camp T as a consultant to the program last year and was taken aback by how different it has become. NCAA rules have limited the amount of time the team can spend on the field. Forget about three-a-days — now college teams can’t even hold two-a-day practices. Compared to today’s more lax attitude across the sport, Kush’s tactics of decades ago border on taboo.

“They actually have days off (now),” White joked. “I went up there a few years ago and nobody was there and one of the trainers told me they had all gone into Payson to go to a movie.”

“If any of us had asked coach Kush if we could take a day off and go to a movie, we’d still be running,” he added with an honest laugh.

Camp T is about to get a facelift too. A synthetic field and new structure will make it almost unrecognizable to those who lived — err, survived — its early years.

“Camp T is not the same old Camp T,” White said. “It’s a lot more ‘cushy’ with a ‘C’, and it needs to be a lot more ‘Kushy’ with a ‘K.’ ”

But, thanks to Kush’s efforts way back when, the camp remains a special tradition to a program that has grown by leaps and bounds since when White, Breunig and Dan Kush played.

“It’s so unique. I don’t think there are many teams that do anything like that,” White said. “Nowadays, everybody has their practice bubbles and air conditioning. They don’t need it, for one thing, and they don’t go to the expense and the trouble. It’s a lot of work to keep something like that running.

“We’re one of the few teams that does anything like that.”

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