Hard work on and off the field pays off for the Sun Devils - Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
Players from Arizona State and the Naval Academy share about their experiences as student-athletes and the hard work and dedication it takes to play the game they love.
It's 6:30 a.m. and the members of the Arizona State football team are on their way to the practice facility. While the majority of students in Tempe are still fast asleep, the Sun Devils have to make their 7:00 a.m. meetings on time or risk extra conditioning.
Meanwhile, the students back at Annapolis are familiar with a 6:30 a.m. wake up call. Football player or not, every Midshipman must report for formation at 7:00 a.m. and failing to arrive for the beginning of the day has a few more consequences than extra conditioning.
While Taylor Kelly and his teammates sport their team issued sweat suits during those early morning film sessions, the students at the academy align in formation in their sharp service dress uniforms.
Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo thinks the dress uniforms set his players apart, "Your ribbon has to be the right way, your hair has to be cut, it's all those things a normal college student doesn't have to think about when they wake up that forces you to be disciplined."
As the Sun Devils step onto the practice field around 8:00 a.m., the Midshipmen have not yet begun to think about football. Chances are, the football players at the academy are five minutes into first period, as their rigorous bell schedule begins at 7:55.
Coach Todd Graham runs a tight ship himself, and the Arizona State players practice every morning. Football consumes the lives of the Sun Devils for the first four to five hours of the day, but after that, the Division 1 athletes take up work in the classroom.
"We finish up probably around 11:30 or 11:45, take a shower, and then we head off to class. After class, you do your homework, sleep, and start the day over again," Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly said.
While the Arizona State players spend their mornings on the football field, the Midshipmen reverse that schedule and attend classes for the first few segments of their day.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo's boys have four morning classes, and then the students attend lunch. But instead of eating with the rest of the Midshipmen, the football players use their lunch to watch film. The schedule is not unlike that of a high school athlete, who must devote precious time to film or chalk talk.
Despite already attending four classes, the students at the Naval Academy hit the books yet again in the afternoon. After two more classes, the Midshipmen take to the football field at 3:45 and practice until around 6:00 or 6:30. Twice a week, the football players head over to the weight room after practice to keep their strength up.
"After dinner, you sit down and do your homework, and do it all over again the next day. I try to get seven hours of sleep, but I probably average around six," Navy linebacker Keegan Wetzel said.
Though most Midshipmen have an undoubtedly more demanding schedule of classes than the athletes they compete against, the players seem to enjoy the structure. While the players at the Naval Academy return to their dorms around the same time each night, the schedule varies for a lot of Sun Devils.
Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly said, "I've got a night class on Monday nights and I'm in class from 4:30 to 7:00. A lot of guys do take online classes and some guys don't have to go to campus on some days."
The level of academic commitments may vary, but neither the Midshipmen nor the Sun Devils like the feeling of getting back from their daily grind and realizing that they have hours of homework left to do.
"Coming from practice, you're dog tired. Then you realize, your day is not over and here's the fun part. When you've got calculus, chemistry, and physics, it's tough," Navy linebacker Brye French said.
"Football then school (laughs). I mean, there's not much time for anything else," Sun Devil running back Cameron Marshall joked.
Examining the daily schedule of a Midshipmen football player can be an exhausting measure in itself, but the athletes at Arizona State have much to be proud of as well.
This year, the athletic department at Arizona State announced that the graduation rate of Sun Devil athletes has topped 80% and the football program is a big reason why. Coach Todd Graham has brought a renewed emphasis on education and community involvement to Tempe, and that has inspired his players to keep pace on and off the field.
When the Sun Devils learned they would take on the Midshipmen in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Graham saw the matchup as a way to come full circle on the season. "We talk about character, honor, discipline, hard work and it's fitting for us to be playing in a bowl against the Naval Academy, which epitomizes all of that."
When all is said and done on Saturday, the Midshipmen and the Sun Devils will return to their respective universities with pride for achieving great heights this season. Even if the final results are sometimes disappointing, each of the players has undertaken a grueling schedule that demands them to give the most each and every day of the season.
While the underclassmen in Annapolis and Tempe will be preparing for spring ball, each team will say goodbye to a remarkable group of seniors.
Coach Todd Graham credits the resurgence at Arizona State to the leaders who helped build this program and will soon be moving on to pursue new avenues. "The 17 seniors deserve all the attention and recognition. I'm proud of them, I'm proud of what they stand for, and I'm proud to lead them."
For Coach Ken Niumatalolo, watching his seniors mature and graduate brings about a different sense of emotions. "I have a sense of pride in being an American because it's great to know that there are still young men who volunteer to serve. I'm grateful for these seniors and I'm in awe of these young men who sacrifice."
Ultimately, both the Naval Academy and Arizona State can use the bowl game as an opportunity to highlight the extraordinary student-athletes that represent their respective universities. Few college students can devote time and energy to playing Division 1 athletics, and few teams have the discipline and character that both Navy and Arizona State exemplify.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo put the achievements of the players at both universities in perspective. "Wherever you go to school, if you're getting a higher education, you're a wonderful young person. These are special kids."