The Background: There have been plenty of great seasons in Arizona State history, but few if any match the 1986 season in terms of excitement and romanticism. When the Sun Devils joined the Pac-10 in the late 1970s, they would finally have the opportunity to play in the "Grandaddy of Them All."
For Pac-10 teams, the Rose Bowl was the pinnacle. Before the BCS system, playing in the Rose Bowl was the culmination of only the most successful of seasons. In 1986, the Arizona State faithful finally got their chance to watch their beloved Sun Devils partake in the festivities in Pasadena.
Our "Summer of Legends" series has honored so many contributors from the Sun Devils' first Rose Bowl squad, and today, we recall another. Darren Willis was a starting safety, a smart defender, and ultimately, a Rose Bowl champion.
The Player: Darren Willis (1983-1986)
In talking about the greatest teams in Sun Devil history, it's impossible to avoid mentioning the 1986 team. In talking about the greatest players from that team, it's almost equally impossible to avoid mentioning Darren Willis.
Willis is one of nine Sun Devils who received All-American honors during that unforgettable season, and the only member of the Arizona State secondary to do so. Willis was an anchor in the defensive backfield, and his imposing presence kept teams from having success through the air against the Sun Devils.
In 1983, Willis came to Arizona State from Santa Monica High in Southern California, where he won a state championship the previous year. After watching from the sidelines for most of his freshman season, Willis took the field as the starting free safety during the fall of his sophomore year.
That season, Willis led the Sun Devils with three interceptions and earned his reputation as a ball hawk. In 1985, Willis was not listed as a starter, but he used that as motivation heading into his senior season.
When it came time for Willis to begin his swan sang, he took the Pac-10 by storm and became one of the finest safeties in the conference. Willis earned All-Conference honors and even made an appearance on the Honorable Mention All-America list, but neither of those individual accomplishments are what Willis will remember most.
Instead, Willis will recall celebrating on the field after the 1987 Rose Bowl with his fellow Sun Devil teammates after they defeated the University of Michigan by a final score of 22-15. Willis is one of many Sun Devils to come through the program, but he's one of just a handful who can call himself a Rose Bowl Champion.
After Arizona State: Upon graduating, Willis decided to take his game to the next level. However, that next level was the Arena Football League, and not the NFL. Willis played receiver in the AFL and helped guide the Tampa Bay Storm to the 1991 ArenaBowl Championship.