On August 8, 1994, I piled into a white University of Arizona van with five football players, and we headed west to parts not completely known.
Brandon Sanders, fresh off a night in Las Vegas, had flown back to Tucson that morning and crashed in the back.
The occasion was a photo shoot with Sports Illustrated, who, at that point, had not yet finalized its cover for its college football preview edition. But, word was, the magazine was going to pick Arizona as the preseason No. 1 team in the nation and put the Wildcats on the cover, which in 1994, still meant everything.
It wasn't one of multiple regional covers. It was the cover. Everybody paid attention. Everybody cared. Didn't everybody in Tucson eventually own a copy? Isn't it still hanging on the walls at various restaurants around town?
There were five Arizona football players on the cover: ROCK SOLID.
"You'd see it on the newsstand everywhere you went," said Sanders, now the head coach at Pueblo High School. "It was an amazing experience. It is still very humbling.
"I get so many people who still talk about it. People introduce me as, 'He's the Pueblo coach and he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.'"
Not only that, but Sanders ended up front and center in the photo by veteran shooter Peter Read Miller, who shot more than 100 SI covers. Tedy Bruschi stands over his right shoulder, clenching his fist menacingly. Sean Harris stands tall in the ball, next to Jim Hoffman. Tony Bouie flexes on the right side of the formation.
The hub of the 1994 Desert Swarm, captured forever on a hot, sunny day in the Tucson desert. Miller exhorted the players to keep spraying water bottles to get their skin to glisten.
"He (Miller) was getting mad. 'More water. More water,'" Hoffman once told me. "Sorry man, it's not the swimsuit issue."
Dick Tomey's team was coming off a shutout of the Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, having finished 10-2 and ranked No. 10 in the country. The Swarm was so dominant in 1993 that it didn't even have to measure rushing defense in yards allowed. Arizona gave up 32.4 inches per rush.
Making Arizona as No. 1 was the kind of pick Sports Illustrated liked to make -- within the realm of possibility but not one of the consensus choices. The Wildcats reached as high as No. 6 in the AP poll but a home loss to Colorado State after a 4-0 start derailed No. 1 dreams, and a 10-9 loss at Oregon was the decider in the Pac-12 race as Arizona finished a game behind the Ducks.
What if the officials hadn't called interference on Arizona's Mike Scurlock on fourth-and-5 from the UA 27 in the fourth quarter? The Ducks went on to score the game's only touchdown with 12:17 left.
Arizona finished the season at 8-4.
I bring all this up because Arizona is honoring Tomey's Desert Swarm era teams at Homecoming this weekend and has recreated the SI cover as the cover of the game program. Sanders saw an early mock-up of the new cover photo -- 25 years later -- with the players photoshopped together in proper formation.
"It's funny because you see how old we are," Sanders said. "It's bananas."
I was standing behind Miller that day as he shot the cover, moving the players around in different combinations and poses. I wrote a story about it for the next day's edition of the Arizona Daily Star.
Here is that story, with a headline written by a clever editor:
HEADLINE: Swarm seeks cover in the desert
SOMEWHERE IN THE SAGUARO NATIONAL MONUMENT WEST -- It is hot, but this is no mirage.
Sean Harris grabs a squirt bottle and generously sprays water over his face and arms.
Next to him, Tony Bouie folds his arms across his chest, flexing his biceps. Tedy Bruschi is adjusting rocks. Jim Hoffman rubs dirt on his new white uniform pants. Brandon Sanders, usually smiling on the field, gives his best tough-guy look.
A saguaro looms behind this group of five -- this heart of Arizona's Desert Swarm -- stretching its arms toward the clouded desert sky.
A generator engulfs the sounds of nature as the Wildcats pose in front of photographer's lights, the lights that are likely to help illuminate them on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"Get tough, guys," prompts the photographer, Peter Read Miller. "Pump those muscles."
The UA defenders were taken deep into the desert yesterday afternoon on unpaved roads and into a wash -- "chillin' with the rattlesnakes," one said -- to pose for an hour through more than 200 pictures.
"I didn't think it would be this much work," Bruschi said.
It should be worth it.
Although nobody is saying it's a done deal, the magazine appears ready to select Arizona as the No. 1 team in the nation, splashing it across the cover of its college football preview issue, arriving August 24.
"All this film goes to New York, and it will be processed there," Miller said. "Our editors will look at it on Thursday. At that point they will probably do a couple of different layouts. But there is still a week to go before this issue is published. So anything can happen."
If a photo is not picked for the cover, the pictures will still be part of a "major story," Miller said.
He should know. He's been tracking the Cats off and on for a month, traveling to Alaska with coach Dick Tomey, visiting at the coaches' retreat last weekend on Mount Lemmon and doing individual shoots with each player. He will spend a day at Camp Cochise, adventuring by helicopter.
Yesterday, the players arrived wearing their home jerseys -- blue tops with white pants. Miller and his assistants had carefully selected the site over a week ago, settling on one that had a rock formation on which he could stagger the players.
"We spent a couple of hours driving around the whole area. We shot a number of test shots at a number of spots, and then sent that film to New York," said Miller, whose recent work includes the August 1 cover of Barry Switzer, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith.
"We wanted the desert. I think in New York their idea of the desert was more like Death Valley and dust. But they were happy when they saw these pictures, and saw the cactus and rocks.
"The guys were great. They looked good and tough and mean, and that's what we wanted."
At one point, one of the assistants threw dirt into the air, letting the wind take the dust in front of the players, adding an air of ruggedness to the pictures. One thing for sure: the UA's equipment managers won't appreciate the soiled uniforms.
Some of the players enjoyed the shoot more than others -- "It'll be cool, but it's not me," Hoffman said casually -- but if they make the cover, it should be something the Arizona program can appreciate for years to come.
"If we get this cover, it'll be great. It's going to be something I put in a frame and show my kids," Bruschi said.
"But, see, we haven't played the season yet, and we have to keep things in perspective. It's still preseason and it doesn't matter what you're ranked. Who remembers anything of the preseason last year? I don't."