TEMPE – With their college football playing days coming to an end in Friday’s Sun Bowl, Arizona State seniors were melancholy about an ASU journey that will reach the finish line at the same time Todd Graham’s does.
The coach was fired on Nov. 26 but opted to lead the team though its postseason game in El Paso, Texas.
“It hit me back in the spring,” senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said about his senior season. “It’s just a bittersweet thing.”
Several players reflected on their time in Tempe and the bonds they formed. For many of them, their first connection was with Graham.
“I feel like God put me here under him for a reason,” Smallwood said. “Things were tough, things weren’t always easy, but man, I can tell you, I have grown. I have gotten a lot stronger since being here.
“I listen to him when he talks. He probably doesn’t think I listen to him but I listen to him. He always talks about life beyond football, life beyond this. Things are only going to get harder.”
Near the end of the regular season, Graham spoke highly about his leaders — including Smallwood, senior running Demario Richard and linebacker D.J. Calhoun — praising their work ethic and leadership. He wants them to enjoy their final moments on the field.
“Just maximize every snap,” Graham said. “Even though I’m an old man, I can remember looking at the clock. I turned around and looked at the clock my senior year and (saw) it tick down from 13 seconds all the way down. Until it’s over you don’t realize how precious it is to you. I just tell them to maximize every moment.”
For these players, this final game, against North Carolina State, represents more than just their season but the four years of hard work that they put in for the team. This season was special, Calhoun said.
“I wouldn’t even take this season back …” Calhoun said. “This year just felt like a different vibe. Everybody wanted to be here. Everybody was happy, win or loss. We feel like just one big family.”
With many players spending close to four years with each other, they said they have built a brotherhood they hope will last a lifetime. However, that makes graduating even more difficult.
“You build up a relationship with all these dudes and all of us are going to branch out and do different things,” Smallwood said.
Though the seniors won’t be with each other physically, they’ll still be in each other’s thoughts, they said. Richard believes that a “couple of these guys on my team are probably going to be in my wedding.”
Legacy is a priority. Richard said that he leads by example to help set the standard that he hopes younger players will pass on to the next group. For Smallwood, getting underclassmen to a bowl game was important.
“It’s been a great time here (at) Sun Devil Stadium,” senior defensive back Chad Adams said before ASU’s regular-season finale against Arizona. “Just all the great memories, the ups and the downs, all the great times I had with my teammates (and) not just on the field but also off the field.
“It’s going to be a rush of emotions.”