More than a half-century ago, Frank Kush laid claim to a picturesque, pine-covered site near Payson and set about developing the idyllic setting into a place where his Arizona State football teams could escape the summer heat of the Valley below and focus entirely on the challenges of the season ahead.
The 36-acre site that the former legendary ASU football coach began developing into a football camp in 1960 needed a name. Since it bordered the Tonto National Forest, he combined that with part of the state’s name and came up with Camp Tontozona.
Camp T, its most often-used nickname, is surrounded by picturesque mountains, bubbling springs, and tall pine trees. Three waterfalls and clear-bottom swimming holes provide refreshing relief for the players after practices.
Today, the retreat, just 90 minutes from the Tempe campus, is recognized as one of the best in all of college football, a football field carved out of a scenic basin and surrounded by lush foliage.
However, as ideal as it was, there has always been a downside to the site that has too often made it difficult to stay focused on the mission at hand. Because of the unpredictable nature of the weather in the White Mountains during the summer, there was always the threat of heavy rain storms. When those rains did roll in, it meant packing up the teams and busing them into town to find a usable field, most often at Ramsey Park where there was an artificial surface.
It wasn’t until nearly six decades had passed that the school decided it was time to do something about the problem. There wasn’t much they could do about the weather, but an artificial playing surface would enable the team to deal with the elements and stay in camp.
Last year, the annual trek to Camp T had to be cancelled because the area had been getting too much rain to complete work on that artificial surface that was being installed. But this year, the new AstroTurf field has been installed and the team is traveling today and will be settled in and ready for practice tomorrow.
The funding of more than a million dollars for the field and some adjacent fencing was provided by Art Pearce and other members of the Sol Devil Organization, one of the school’s largest athletic booster groups.
Camp T practices will be held once a day through the week, culminating with the traditional final practice on Saturday, Aug. 10, giving local residents a good opportunity to get their first look at the 2019 edition of Sun Devil football. The team returns to Tempe after the close of Saturday’s practice.
Last year, head coach Herm Edwards, who was hired following the 2017 season, missed out on making his first trip to Tontozona, which Coach Kush used to help elevate the ASU program into a national contender. But Edwards says he’s eager to make up for lost time.
“One of the many reasons I returned to college football (after a career playing and coaching in the NFL) is because of great traditions like Camp Tontozona,” he explained as he prepared his team for this trip. “I’m anxious to take our Sun Devil team to the legendary place where it all began with Coach Frank Kush’s vision and hard work.” Kush, who directed the ASU program for 22 years, died in June of 2017.
“It’s the perfect setting for our coaches, players, and staff to bond and get quality work accomplished,” Edwards added. “The newly-completed turf field will ensure that we accomplish quality work on a daily basis.”
Thunderstorms are scheduled for today in the Payson area. But, hey, let it rain. ASU football is prepared.