Juan Roque (Photo: ASU)
The 1996 Sun Devil squad is rightly remembered as one of the greatest and most beloved teams in program history. A devastating defense battered opponents into submission, while the offensive playmakers like Jake Plummer, Terry Battle and Keith Poole kept the scoreboard operators busy.
But an old football cliche was as true then as it's ever been: it all starts with the offensive line. Without a strong performance from the guys up front, a team's playmakers will be swiftly neutralized. Thankfully for Arizona State, anchoring that 1996 line was a player whose performance that year would ultimately elevate him into the pantheon of all-time Sun Devil greats.
However, the path to maroon-and-gold immortality took some time to develop.
Like many celebrated recruits, Juan Roque heard the glamorous pitches from schools around the nation.
"When I was being recruited, many teams talked about my potential to be an All-American. It was something they focused on aside from the opportunity to play for the Pac-10 championship and a Rose Bowl. However, when I first got to ASU as a D-lineman, I learned quickly that I had a long way to go to play, much less be an All-American."
One wonders how Sun Devil lore would have been altered had that path continued, but a fortuitous position switch and excellent coaching intervened and put Roque on the path to greatness.
"Thankfully I was switched to O-line, and with the help of our strength coach Tim McClelland and Dan Cozzetto, our O-Line coach, I worked hard to develop into a starter in 1994."
That first season as a starter was difficult. The team went 3-8, the worst record the program had posted since 1946. But from those depths, the foundation of the future glory was slowly being built. With Roque continuing to develop up front, Plummer, Poole and others cut their teeth.
Roque's hard work resulted in a big leap in 1995, both for himself and the team. His emerging dominance helped the offense improve by over 50 yards and six points per game from the year before, and he was named a first-team All-Pac-10 performer as ASU doubled their win total to a respectable 6-5.
But Roque was not one to bask in feel content with such an honor. He continued to grind everyday, certain that greater things were coming for him as a senior in 1996.
"I think the lessons learned from the 1995 U of A game where I put all kinds of pressure on myself to dominate Tedy Bruschi took effect in 1996. I approached every game with the same focus and intensity and I didn't get caught up with who I was facing."
Roque and the Sun Devils would quickly face a massive test when No. 1 Nebraska came to town in Week 3. The Blackshirt defense was led by one of the nation's best defensive lineman, who aimed to show the Sun Devils why the Husker were the reigning champions. Roque and his determined, consistent approach had other ideas.
"I went against another All-American in Grant Wistrom and he never sniffed Jake. In the end it comes down to practicing good habits during the week and studying your opponent. Whether the Super Bowl or the Rose Bowl you have to prepare the same."
Even with such an amazing effort to his credit, the relentless Roque still thought he could get better...and improve he did.
"To be honest I don't feel I played to my abilities in the first five games. While I was dominating opposing linemen I wasn't satisfied with my performance on the field. So I really worked hard and focused on my assignments and technique and got better."
However, after ASU took a trip to Palo Alto on October 26th, even the humble Roque couldn't deny the quality of his performance.
"By the time we played Stanford I knew I was having a special season. I dominated Kailee Wong in that game," he remembers fondly.
Of course, as a true Sun Devil, he recalls some big moments against Arizona, or as he likes to call them, "Nogales Tech".
"Arizona was a treat decleating Joe Salave'a and Van Tuinei several times. In the end you never really feel you're doing good until your name is mentioned. You just keep playing."
The Sun Devils did indeed keep playing, and they kept winning all the way to the Rose Bowl. Although the end result was heartbreaking, it did nothing to diminish his accomplishments. Roque was named a first team All-Pac-10 tackle and a consensus All-American, just the 12th Sun Devil at the time to ever receive such a major national honor.
Ever the team player, Roque still cherishes the Pac-10 championship and the memories with his teammates the most, but now 16 years later, he appreciates his place in Sun Devil history.
"The honor itself means a lot because there are only two other consensus All-Americans on the O-line at ASU; Randall McDaniel and Danny Villa. To be in that company is special. Randall is the greatest lineman ever at ASU and the best guard ever in the NFL. Despite Villa's off the field trouble a few years back you can't deny that he was one of the greatest at ASU as well. I smile when I think that a skinny, weak 235-pound Mexican-American defensive tackle from Ontario, California became an All-American and runner up for the Outland and Lombardi awards. It means something to me that I was able to contribute to ASU's history in a positive way. I'm proud of what we accomplished as a team under Coach Snyder."
It's an accomplishment that will certainly stand the test of time.
"Being in the Hall of Fame now, it's even more special because my great grand kids will be able to walk into Carson Center and see my mug there. To me, I achieved Sun Devil immortality. How many people can say that?"
Hear Juan talk about his career and the 1996 in his appearance on the Speak of the Devils show