The game of football transcends the scoreboard.
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has done his best to readjust the culture of the program since he took over in 2012. The team prides itself on its toughness and character off the field as much as its play on the field.
There’s been unprecedented success. Graham will walk out of the tunnel at Sun Devil Stadium with a full batch of his recruits for the last time Thursday night.
Many players have encompassed the cornerstone values of the program since their admission to ASU, but four players in particular touch each of the pillars by which their coach would like his program to run on: Character. Smart. Discipline. Tough.
Carlos Mendoza and Character.
Mendoza, a fifth-year senior, holds a selfless mindset.
“I’m not a perfect person, but I try to be there for my teammates whenever they need me,” he said after an August practice. “Any time of the night, any time of the day.”
It’s congruent with the mentality he possesses ahead of his final game at Sun Devil Stadium now in November. Following Monday’s practice, he reiterated the care he has for his teammates.
“I've told them before if they ever need to call someone or they need someone to talk to or need to be picked up for whatever time in the night for whatever reasons, they can always give me a call,” he said.
Mendoza’s career has seen him primarily serve in a backup role, yet he’s never let it defeat him. Instead, he’s looked to serve in whatever capacity he can to better the team.
This season, injuries called for Mendoza to play a larger role, culminating with his first career start against UTSA during which he logged his first career sack. Through nine games, he’s tallied a career-high 24 total tackles. Coaches have been open to praising him for his valiant effort.
“Guys have stepped up all year long,” said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “I’m very proud of Carlos Mendoza.”
With Senior Night looming, Mendoza said he and his teammates have treated the week like any other, but understand the contest’s significance.
“It's our last home game, and we understand what this game means to a lot of people” he said. “As a team we're just ready to go. I can tell people are motivated and willing and ready to go, because they're playing for the person next to them, not just for them.”
The linebacker’s selfless mentality has allowed him to ensure his legacy is molded in the fashion he wants it to be set in.
“I just wanted to make sure they knew I was a person they could depend on and count on,” Mendoza said. “I hope I've made a message like that to most of my teammates just because I believe that this team thing is bigger than me. That's the impact I've always wanted to make. I could be someone that they could depend on both on and off the field in every aspect of life.”
Laiu Moeakiola and Smarts.
Moeakiola is a student of the game of football and of life.
“Whenever he is done playing football, I will hire him in a heartbeat,” Todd Graham said of the fifth-year defender earlier this week. “He is a defensive Taylor Kelly.”
Moeakiola’s brain has been put to use over the course of his ASU career, being trained as both a linebacker and defensive back. He’s proven successful at each role, and his coaches have said he’s having what could be considered the best season he’s had since arriving in Tempe.
The Euless, Texas native remembers the first time he stepped into Sun Devil Stadium.
“First game, when you go out that tunnel, you can't explain the feelings that are running through your body,” Moeakiola said. “It's like you see yourself from when you're a kid—all the seven-on-sevens that you participated in, the workouts, trying to eat right—it's all come down to that moment. Just for 60 minutes on a football field.”
Moeakiola recorded an interception in his debut, but suffered an injury which would eventually cause him to sit out the year. While he said he questioned himself after the setback, he said he ultimately learned it was just a part of the process.
“I don't dread it at all,” he said of the injury. “I'm thankful. It's taught me a lot. It's taught me how to mature, taught me to be proactive in my approach, and also keep my faith.”
Faith has been a “pivotal” part of Moeakiola’s life, allowing him to maintain balance and perspective. Such a stoic mindset has helped him remain a forward-thinking individual through successful and unsuccessful campaigns.
“You see both sides of the spectrum,” he said of his time at ASU. “It all goes back to ground zero to understanding what we need to do to reach our goals.”
The goal this week? Finish his home career strong.
“It will be an even better memory if we win,” Moeakiola said of Thursday night’s tilt. “We're trying to create that moment.”
Ami Latu and being Disciplined.
For Latu, his time at ASU has been a learning experience.
The 6-foot-2, 296-pound defensive lineman began his career as a linebacker.
“When they moved me to defensive line, that was kind of hard for me as a player, because I wanted to play and then learning a whole other position,” Latu said. “Transitioning was hard for me.”
He said his parents and family encouraged him to be persistent, however, and it has led to him serving as a key cog in one of the Pac-12’s best rushing defenses.
“From there on, it’s been a fun experience,” he said.
Scholastic discipline has been an area Latu said he’s been diligent to maintain, admitting the rigors of trying to balance life, football and school.
“As a football player, it's hard keeping time management with school and football, and that was pretty hard for me in the beginning,” Latu said. “Grades weren't all there, but I had a really hard coach back then with (former defensive line coach Jackie Shipp). He kind of molded me into being an organized person, and working with my time with football, coming in and watching film, practice, lifting weights, and then transitioning that to education right after and academics, and focusing on that.”
Latu said he can take the lessons he’s learned about maintaining discipline and focusing on his goals, and apply them to real life.
“Just the things I've learned here from the coaches, academics, school—I'll always take that in life and onto whatever I do after this,” he said. “I'm gonna take these experiences forever, and all the way through my lifetime.”
Against the Utes on Thursday, the Sun Devils will sport all-black uniforms, just as the team did during Latu’s debut against Wisconsin in 2013.
“Man, just running out, cameras going crazy... Just the feeling of being a Sun Devil and having the support from the fans and stuff is crazy,” Latu said of his first time running through the tunnel.
As for his last time: “Just seeing my family probably at the end of the line when we go through the tunnel, and seeing all the players you grew up with and the players you came in with and the coaches you played for, it's gonna be very emotional.”
Tim White and being Tough
White, a redshirt senior, has arguably the most remarkable story of any player on the team.
“Absolutely courageous,” Graham said of White following ASU’s loss to Washington State. “He is one of the toughest players I’ve ever coached.”
Toughness is a trait that regularly shows up when watching White play. He consistently drags would-be tacklers for four or five yards after contact is made, displaying a never-quit, never-die mentality that’s made him such an admirable player.
“I just know automatically I can't be brought down on first contact,” he said after an October practice. “That's the first thing on my mind, then the next is touchdown. I have to score, have to get the first down, have to do whatever I can to help the team.”
The former transfer has even managed to have an impact despite being limited. Dealing with a leg injury, he’s still found himself returning punts, contributing in whatever fashion he can.
White said his confidence has grown during his time at ASU. After emerging as a playmaker for the Sun Devils last season, he’s carried himself as a leader from the spring to now. Ahead of the season in August, he said his drive to be great was inspired by his parents and his teammates.
“Everyday, they're pushing me to go harder,” White said during the team’s media day session. “Just being in a leadership role, you don't have time to really slack off and kind of let everything go. You have to continuously work hard and know that all eyes are watching you. You have to be a mentor to younger players coming in and you have to set an example.”
Tim White is tough, and there’s no doubt about it.