Cam Denson should have been looking forward to Saturday.
If he hadn’t hurt his foot in spring drills, an injury that prompted him to medically retire from Arizona’s football team, this would have been his Senior Night — the Wildcats’ last home game of the year against Oregon State.
Denson was a star at Salpointe Catholic High School, one of the most accomplished football players to ever come out of Tucson. Despite offers to play all over the country, Denson chose to stay at home and play for the Wildcats, the team he grew up watching.
He’d play his home games at Arizona Stadium, the place where his father, Jerry, worked as an usher in the mid-1990s. The place where Cam Denson won a 2013 state championship with the Lancers.
Things didn’t go according to plan. He left the team on Oct. 4.
“It’s hard for me because he’s so talented,” said Salpointe coach Dennis Bene. “He’s such a competitor and I wish things would have worked out differently for him.”
Denson didn’t respond to Star messages for this story, but his father, high school coach, an Arizona teammate and one Wildcats coach touched on a football career that didn’t go the way anyone expected.
Here’s their perspective.
Salpointe’s best ever?
In 20 years at Salpointe, Bene has coached dozens of Division I football players and some of the best teams in Southern Arizona.
Even by that standard, Denson was special. He played wide receiver, running back, quarterback and cornerback and returned both punts and kicks. Denson led Salpointe to a 14-0 record as a senior, its first-ever state championship.
Denson was at his best on the big stage, amassing 232 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in the Lancers’ championship-game win over Scottsdale Chaparral.
“I’ll be in debt to Cameron for the rest of my life,” Bene said. “I honestly believe that 2013 Salpointe team was the greatest high school football team in Tucson history, and Cameron was the centerpiece of that.”
By the numbers, Salpointe was sensational. That team averaged 49.7 points per game and won its 14 games by an average of 42.5 points. Denson had 1,950 all-purpose yards and scored 32 touchdowns. He finished his high school career with 5,505 all-purpose yards and 79 touchdowns.
Things “just weren’t hard” in high school, Denson said last year. “I could play anywhere (on the field) and be really good.”
Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Washington, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Arizona State and the UA all offered scholarships.
He picked Arizona.
“I just know how dominating he was in high school and I thought for sure he would have a tremendous college career,” Bene said. “Unfortunately it didn’t happen, but such is life. Like I said, it wasn’t in the cards but the legacy he left at Salpointe is obviously undeniable and unparalleled and that’s just a fact.
“Truly, he’s the greatest football player to ever play at Salpointe.”
Bumpy road at Arizona
In Denson’s first-ever game at Salpointe, he caught five passes for 77 yards and a touchdown.
Statistically, the 77 yards matched the best-ever game Denson had in college. He caught four passes for a career-77 yards and a touchdown in last year’s loss at Washington State.
Those close to Denson believe he would’ve made a bigger impact at receiver had he started his college career on offense.
Denson, a four-star recruit and the centerpiece of Arizona’s 2014 class, expected to play receiver for the Wildcats. But when two cornerback recruits flipped to other schools — Jalen Tabor went to Florida and Naijiel Hale to Washington — UA coaches asked Denson to switch positions.
He had been a gifted defensive back at Salpointe, intercepting 15 passes and deflecting 20 balls in four years.
At first, Denson showed signs of promise. He had 21 tackles and intercepted two passes as a true freshman. As a sophomore, he upped it to 39 tackles and three interceptions, one that he returned for a touchdown.
After Arizona won the 2015 New Mexico Bowl, Denson asked his coaches if he could move back to receiver. They said yes.
Denson’s junior season was a mixed bag. He had a team-best 202 receiving yards over a five-game stretch, but Denson battled inconsistency, poor quarterback play and injuries. He played in all 12 games last season, starting three of them, but finished with just 15 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns.
Theron Aych, hired in the spring as UA’s receivers coach, never had the chance to coach Denson while he was healthy. Denson suffered a stress fracture in his foot and missed most of spring drills and fall camp.
“It’s strange for me because when I watch him in some of last year’s games, I’m going, ‘Who is that?’ And I realize it’s Cam,” Aych said. “It’s kind of funny: I catch myself and go, ‘Man, I wish we had that guy healthy because I would’ve loved to have seen what he can do.’”
Denson pushed himself to play this fall, and saw the field in a Week 2 loss to Houston. He caught one pass for five yards, and was done.
His foot never healed.
“He was very frustrated, I could just tell,” said UA senior receiver Tyrell Johsnon, one of Denson’s best friends on the team. “It was one thing after another. He’d come back and get healthy and then, boom, he’s hurt again. He was definitely frustrated. We talk about it all the time.”
Denson approached Aych and UA coach Rich Rodriguez and told them he’d be leaving the team. He’s still attending classes at the UA.
“It was tough. It had been on his mind for a couple weeks and he had really tried to push himself through it,” Aych said. “With guys like him who are athletes, when you feel like you aren’t full speed and you know you’re not going to be able to help us … I mean, it’s hard for those guys to realize that and go, ‘You know what, I better not do this because I’m going to be a detriment.’ So I told him I appreciated him being honest because he didn’t want to hurt the team. We appreciated that. And we miss him. Wish it would’ve worked out for him.”
and the future
The last four years have been hard on Denson — and increasingly frustrating for his father, Jerry.
Jerry Denson would wake Cam up early as a boy and put him through running drills, conditioning drills and stretching. A young Cam would run up hills to build strength.
Jerry Denson saw his son as a future star at wide receiver, and figured Cam’s move to defense would be temporary. But one year turned into two, and by the time Cam Denson switched back to receiver, he was behind the curve.
“He was saying at one time they had made him quit liking football, because he wasn’t happy,” Jerry said.
Denson regained some passion once he moved back to receiver, his father said, but never felt like he received much of an opportunity. Denson finished his junior season fifth on the team in receptions, and most of them came in that five-game stretch.
“When he did go to offense, people would say, ‘Why Cam ain’t playing?’” Jerry said. “He was playing, he just wasn’t getting the ball thrown to him. Every time they threw him the ball, he caught it … People on the street used to say, ‘Why they got the beast all chained up in the cage?’”
Arizona’s coaches asked Denson if he would consider taking a medical redshirt this season, allowing him to play in 2018. Denson said no. He was too frustrated with injuries, telling Johnson that he was unsure if he’d ever heal.
However, Denson may not be through with football. If he can graduate this spring, Denson could transfer immediately to a program of his choosing. He could also train and participate in Arizona’s pro day.
Whatever it is, Denson isn’t saying.
“I think he’s got another plan, but he (hasn’t) even really told me the plan,” Jerry Denson said. “He’s going to play football again, I believe.”