Remembering a legend: How Tillman Tunnel inspires Arizona State on and off the field
Warm-ups are done. Players are dressed. Pregame speeches are finished. The Arizona State football locker room is ready to rock.
AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" blares over the loudspeakers as a Godzilla-sized Sparky marches from Phoenix to Tempe on the big screens in Sun Devil Stadium, destroying everything in his path, hellbent on stomping the opponent's bus. Students throw up pitchforks to the beat of the music. BOOM! Bus destroyed.
The student section, dubbed the Inferno, goes wild directly above. But nobody below notices. The players and coaches begin their march north, toward the Tillman Tunnel—about a dozen paces from the Sun Devil locker room. "Give 'Em Hell!" is underlined with the words "Character, Smart, Discipline, Tough, Passionate"—embodiments of Todd Graham's philosophies and everything Pat Tillman is remembered for.
Tillman played four seasons at ASU, where he earned two All-Pac-10 honors and led the Sun Devils to the Rose Bowl in 1997, before getting drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. He turned down a $3.6 million contract extension to enlist in the U.S. Army after the September 11 attacks before he was gunned down by friendly fire in 2004.
"Pat's a guy we aspire to get somewhere in the ballpark of who he was," Graham says. "When you look at the type of team player he was. He wasn't a guy that wanted all the attention. He was all about team and family, and obviously got it done in every area."
When Graham took over in 2012, he brought with him significant culture change from the Dennis Erickson era. Graham sought to eschew the frequent penalties, the bad behavior and the rowdy reputation in favor of Tillman's character during his time in Tempe.
Thus, the idea was born: Let's renovate the tunnel—not only to make it shimmer with fresh construction but to honor the player, arguably alumnus, the university is most proud of. When it opened before the 2013 season, ASU received national praise. It had constructed a bastion of maroon and gold, in its fallen hero's likeness.
At the end of the tunnel comes its crown jewel. As the team approaches, one might be fooled thinking the doors have already swung open and a bust of Tillman is right there, leading his Sun Devils onto the field one more time, like he did from 1994-97.
Before the team charges through the tunnel onto the Sun Devil Stadium grass, though, they're met by former players, who essentially have an open invitation into the tunnel.
"There's been some games where there's 20 or 30 guys standing there. Former players are lined up, yelling at them, telling them to get their butts going," says Bob Breunig, who started at ASU from 1972-74 and is a part of the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2015. "It's a great privilege for us older guys just to get a taste of that."
Breunig is among the most present alumni who appears in the tunnel. Joining him are the likes of Ron Pritchard, J.D. Hill and Andrew Walter.
Quarterback Mike Bercovici refutes Breunig's claim that it matters more to the alumni than current players.
"One of the coolest things is they put the alumni down there before the game to get us fired up," the fifth-year senior says. "It's pretty poppin'."
As the players and coaches exchange pleasantries with the alumni, they turn their eyes toward the 100-plus inch flat screen above them. Highlights of Tillman flash across the screen ("Might be a few targeting penalties on there," Graham adds), indicating there are mere moments before the fireworks are lit, the crowd roars and the team enters.
Above the tunnel, on the concourse, a crowd gathers at the newly added viewing area. It's five rows deep with close to two dozen fans trying to sneak a peek. The lucky ones can see the team. Some stuck in the back are left reminiscing, only able to see smoke and the Tillman highlights.
Finally, the doors part, and everyone can see the green grass, the maroon and gold of the south end zone and the rabid students in the north Inferno section, "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here," painted in bold, black letters above them.
It's a bull rush to the field. "It's the fastest I have to run every week," Graham said, laughing, though with a hint of seriousness on his face.
The next thing you know, AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" rings down again. This time indicating kickoff. The students whip out their keys, clank them around and settle in for another game in the Interno.
Evan Webeck is SI's campus correspondent at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter.