TEMPE – The first game is a blur, the details from 30 years ago not important. Bruce Snyder was Arizona State’s rookie coach, the conference was called the Pac-10 and the Sun Devils were trudging through a mediocre season.
What matters, what sticks as if it were yesterday, is that a group with a number of American veterans came together and created a tradition that is still going strong three decades later. Two weeks ago, on a warm night in the desert, the group made a cross country trip to Tempe to watch the Sun Devils play Pac-12 rival UCLA on Nov. 5.
The group included Al Fuentes, 71, a New York City Fire Department Captain during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Buried in rubble after the North Tower collapsed, he was rescued by firefighters hours later and survived.
The idea of the group originated with Jimmy Powers. He always wanted to organize a collection of friends to attend a college football game together after having played when they were younger. After much deliberation, the group decided on a trip to Tempe, where they could watch the Sun Devils and experience everything else the Valley had to offer.
“He loves the weather out here and being on campus at that hotel where we could walk around even back in 1992 with plenty of cafes and bars around,” said Jimmy Lavan, ticking off Power’s reasons for choosing Tempe.
The group has grown and evolved over the years to include a number of 9/11 first responders, along with a younger generation joining in on the tradition of traveling to different colleges. What started out with just four people going to the game has expanded to a crew of 45 attending this year’s game.
“These young kids that we consider them babies now all of a sudden are coming and getting involved as well as keeping the memories alive of guys we have lost,” said Fuentes, who got involved with the group several years ago.
They mostly come from the tight knit community of Woodside Queens, New York, where everyone supports each other and remains close even if they move far away. Many of the members have known each other since they were little, having played sports together for years.
“Camaraderie, the fact that we can see each other 60 years later and still feel the same about each other like we did so long ago, and that everybody still remains friends,” said Matthew Costello, a US Navy veteran, describing what makes their yearly journey so special.
The group has really enjoyed being able to go to many different colleges around the country for years and immersing themselves in the college atmosphere. From Florida State to Miami to Alabama to LSU to Notre Dame to Tennessee to Washington to Colorado to ASU to South Carolina to Mississippi State, seeing the joy and enthusiasm at college campuses helps the group feel like they are part of the community.
“These guys have been doing this for 30 years and now we are getting younger guys who will hopefully carry the torch to keep it going,” said Ralph DeMarco, describing how the group has changed over the years.
Besides being the brains behind the early trips, Powers was very generous with helping in any way he could. He would invite anyone who was willing to come to the get-togethers they had over the years and was always friendly to everyone he came in contact with.
“Jimmy was the most generous person you’d ever meet,” said Dennis Feeney, reflecting on how generous Powers was to others. “He would literally invite anyone to the parties he put together.”
Powers died last year of Parkinson’s disease. The other members carry on his legacy of generously helping out their companions and supporting one another throughout their lives.
“He was just as good a person as you could possibly be,” said William Ryan, explaining how Powers impacted his life. “He was a role model to me.”
Although the Bruins, ranked No. 16, beat ASU 50-36 in yet another mediocre season for the Sun Devils, the game’s details didn’t matter. They were there to honor Powers, to share stories about his generosity and reminisce about their own playing days.
Thirty years later, Powers’ legacy is stronger than ever.