Started from the bottom now we're here.
It's almost game time.
Kevin Ozier and the rest of the Arizona State wide receivers continue to get loose during their final warm ups before the night's kickoff. The field-level speakers in Sun Devil Stadium are blasting the usual hip hop beats when a popular Drake track comes up on the playlist.
Started from the bottom now we're here. Started from the bottom now my whole team here.
It's a song that Ozier feels best sums up the last five years of his life, a journey that culminates tonight. This evening's game against Stanford will be not only be for the Pac-12 championship, but it also marks Ozier's final home game as a Sun Devil.
It's the biggest game of his life, and win or lose, it will bring a close to the latest chapter of one of ASU's best stories.
* * * * *
Ozier wondered what to do next.
His prep career at Mira Mesa High School in San Diego was at an end after he had quarterbacked his team to a playoff berth. Yet here he was, with nary a scholarship offer to be found.
That didn't mean his playing days were over, however. But where?
Proximity to home was a primary factor, but Ozier still wanted to branch out on his own.
"I wanted to walk on to a school that was close to California but not in California," Ozier said. "I wanted to get away from home just to grow up and get away from my family a little bit [laughs]."
It was then that a former Sun Devil legend helped to make yet another major contribution to the program long after his last touchdown.
"My cousin, J.R. Redmond, brought me out here," Ozier said of ASU. "It was close to home. I liked it."
Ozier soon enrolled and moved to Arizona, armed only with a chance given by then-ASU head coach Dennis Erickson to join the team as a walk on wide receiver.
* * * * *
The life of a college football player is filled with hardships, adversity, and grueling work. As a walk on, the hefty burden of tuition costs are added to the already daunting mix, and most often, there is not the on-field reward of playing time.
Upon his arrival in Tempe, Ozier set his focus upon those last two points.
"You have to have goals, and you have to set them," he said. "My goals were to get on scholarship and to play."
Over his first two years, he toiled away diligently, but reached neither goal.
He redshirted in 2009, and the next year saw action exclusively on the scout team.However, the staff was taking note of his tireless work ethic, and he earned a Hard Hat award for his offseason conditioning work.
Ozier could see the rewards coming.
In 2011, he saw action in every game, and caught the first passes of his career in the season opener against UC Davis. His continued development began to see him leapfrog other players on the depth chart.
"I did get on the field a little bit," Ozier said of 2011. "That accomplished one of my goals to see playing time as a walk on, when some scholarship guys weren’t playing. That was because of my hard work and humbleness."
One goal down, one to go.
* * * * *
Since taking over as head coach following the 2011 season, Todd Graham has done an almost complete overhaul of the program. Being a Sun Devil now meant being accountable, hard-working, and a man of character.
In other words, it meant being a player like Kevin Ozier. That was a fact not lost on the new coaching staff.
Just two months after coming to Tempe, Graham called a meeting with Ozier.
"Coach Graham called me into his office and told me ‘Don’t pay for tuition’," said Ozier. "I was going to be on scholarship. I wanted to jump up and down."
That was just the beginning.
Ozier went on to become a key contributor to the offense that year, playing in all 13 games while starting 10. He caught 21 passes for 324 yards and five touchdowns during the year.
"That was a couple goals accomplished in one," said Ozier.
The 2012 season also held what Ozier still considers his finest moment at ASU.
"Against Cal when I had a touchdown in the first half," Ozier said of the Sun Devils' 27-17 road win. "Then after they scored in the third quarter, I had another touchdown to help the team win."
Beyond the on-field contributions, Ozier also began to emerge as a team leader. While not the most vocal member of the team, Ozier's drive and demeanor soon became the model.
"You always want a guy that can lead by example," said ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander. "We do enough talking as coaches, but sometimes when you have a guy in the room that does things right consistently, gives great effort and attitude, it’s a guy that you can point to and say ‘Hey, here’s your role model. Here’s what we are looking for.’ That’s what’s important and what he has been able to do."
* * * * *
The game, and dream, is over.
There will be no Hollywood ending for Ozier and his fellow Sun Devils. There will be no Rose Bowl this year.
While the disappointment of the Pac-12 championship game hurt badly, it soon found it's way to the same spot as any other difficulty Ozier has faced throughout his career: the rear-view mirror.
"That really hurt. We were in a perfect position to go to the Rose Bowl," Ozier said. "We hosted the Pac-12 championship against Stanford. We would have loved to have that win, but we lost. I can’t dwell on that. The next best bowl for the Pac-12 is the Holiday Bowl, so hopefully we go to San Diego and get it done."
Despite the loss, falling short of the Granddaddy of Them All does not diminish the astounding success Ozier and his teammates have enjoyed in 2013.
Ozier again played in every game—starting six—and made 21 catches for 323 yards and a touchdown. He had the best game of his career in October, when ASU faced a critical showdown against No. 20 Washington. After top receiver Jaelen Strong left with an injury, Ozier responded with a masterful performance, setting career-highs with eight receptions for 88 yards in helping lead the 53-24 victory.
"When you look at what he has done this year, every catch has been important or has been a big play," Alexander said. "Whether it has been on third down, or whether it has been a play where he was open and ran for a lot of yards, he’s made big plays and made big contributions."
Of Ozier's 21 catches this year, 14 have either gone for a touchdown or a first down. Although the numbers were not what he had hoped for, when Ozier made a play, it meant something.
"There were some ups and downs," Ozier said of his senior season. "I would have loved to have played more and get more balls thrown my way, but I feel that I made the best out of every opportunity I was given.
"I look at my senior season as just doing the best that I could."
* * * * *
Now there is just one game left for Ozier. Sixty more minutes of football.
While some may alter their preparation in order to to savor their final collegiate game, Ozier is not one of them. To him, the Holiday Bowl is business as usual.
"I’m approaching this game the same as every other game," he said. "I always approach every game with high intensity, and I want to win every game. I don’t approach any team lightly. I’m approaching Texas Tech like I approached Stanford."
So following his last game on December 30th, what's next for Kevin Ozier?
"I'm continuing to chase my dreams, train, and hopefully get picked up in this NFL Draft. If not…"
Ozier pauses for a moment before continuing.
"That’s my goal. I’m not going to say ‘If not.’"
That approach has worked thus far down the road, and there's no reason to think that will change any time soon.