Editor's note: This story appeared as part of the Star's Foster Farms Bowl preview, which ran on Sunday. August camp was over.
The depth chart was out. Finton Connolly did not crack the two-deep.
The Arizona Wildcats defensive tackle, then a redshirt freshman, felt frustrated as he walked off the practice field. Maybe even a little lost.
“I felt like I was improving,” Connolly said. “But there was always something Vince (Amey, the defensive line coach) was needing from me, and I just didn’t know what it was. I was trying to figure that out.”
Connolly got the help he needed from teammate Parker Zellers — with whom Connolly was competing for playing time.
If that seems like an unlikely source of advice and encouragement, it isn’t. What happened between Zellers and Connolly is commonplace in position rooms across college football. A bond is formed there that is stronger than a chiseled lineman.
The bond is so powerful, the feelings so intense, that the thought of it being severed practically makes grown men cry. Anytime he has been reminded lately that the end of his college career is near – Wednesday, to be precise, in the Foster Farms Bowl – fifth-year guard Jacob Alsadek doesn’t want to hear it. He doesn’t want to discuss it. The way he talks about his “brothers” – the go-to term of endearment for college football players – says it all.
“All those guys in that room, I want them to be at my wedding,” Alsadek said. “That’s the way I feel about them. They’re my brothers.
“I want them to know that I would go to war with them. I want to let them know that I would die for them. That’s who they are to me.”
The connection that builds within position rooms in college football is different from anything the players will experience before or after it.
In high school, the hours are shorter. The vast majority of kids have a home to go home to.
In the NFL, the hours are longer, but it’s work. The age range within a position group can span 15 years. Some players are fresh out of school and single; others have wives and kids.
In college, the players sometimes spend all day together. They work side by side. They often live together. At the very least, they hang out together. Most are away from home, sometimes for the first time. All they have is one another.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Connolly describes the relationship he has with his fellow linemen like this: “It’s definitely a brotherhood. I love those guys. I’ll do anything for those guys. Anytime they need me, I’ll be there.”
Zellers was there for Connolly that day. Zellers, now a departing senior, told Connolly to raise his effort level. To “think ball” all the time.
Connolly worked his way into the rotation by the second half of the season. This year he’s been a regular. The advice he received from Zellers didn’t start then, and it hasn’t ended.
“Since my freshman year,” Connolly said, “he’s always kind of guided me. He’s always helped me.”
‘Everybody builds each other up’
Brandon Dawkins would like to clear up a misconception.
Even at quarterback — the one position where only one guy can play at a time — the players support one another. Dawkins and Anu Solomon were buddies. Dawkins and Khalil Tate are friends.
“People always think (we’re) backstabbing each other trying to win the spot,” Dawkins said. “That’s not what it’s like at all. Everybody builds each other up.”
Theron Aych, Arizona’s receivers coach, sometimes feels as if his room is filled with coaches, not wideouts.
“I’m spoiled,” Aych said. “I’ve got like seven of them in my room that are constantly making critiques, making corrections.”
It’s all done in the name of winning. And it extends beyond the meeting rooms and practice fields.
Every UA player participates in the “Big Cat/Little Cat” program. Upperclassman are paired with freshmen, tasked with showing them around and helping them when needed. Dawkins’ “Little Cat” is safety Rhedi Short. Dawkins recently helped Short look for an apartment.
“If we have team events, he needs a ride somewhere, I’ll pick him up and take him,” Dawkins said. “Whatever he needs, I’m always somebody he can call.”
Sometimes the gesture is as simple as giving a teammate a ride. Not all the Cats have cars. They all need groceries or toothpaste from time to time.
“It’s just little stuff,” offensive tackle Layth Friekh said. “But it adds up.”
When he first arrived on campus in the summer, defensive tackle Dereck Boles didn’t have a car. Safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles would take him to Fry’s. Connolly would take him to Walmart.
“Everybody was in on it,” said Boles, a junior college transfer. “It’s just a brotherhood here. You can’t beat that.”
Boles appreciated the way his fellow defensive linemen accepted him, even though he was gunning for their jobs and had a sketchy past. Boles was dismissed from Boise State for getting into a fight with a teammate. Boles bit off part of the player’s ear during the scuffle.
“They welcomed me in with open arms,” Boles said. “They knew my story when I came in. That played a big part in how everybody received me on the team.”
‘Send them out with a win’
Here’s the thing about bowl games: Except for the national semifinals, each represents the last time a team will play together. There’s an emotional undercurrent – for seniors in particular – that runs through each one.
“For those seniors, it hasn’t hit them yet,” Aych said. “The best thing that can help with that is to send them out with a win.”
That was a big deal for the Wildcats last year – to send the seniors out with a victory at the end of an otherwise miserable season. Arizona succeeded, defeating ASU in the 2016 finale. Everyone on the UA side left Arizona Stadium happy that night.
Regardless of the outcome Wednesday, seniors on both teams will depart Levi’s Stadium knowing that the friends they have made will be friends for life. Still, there’s a finality to it – an underlying understanding that they might never recapture the camaraderie they have now.
“I look back, and it’s a bittersweet memory,” senior tackle Gerhard de Beer said of his soon-to-be-ending college career. “Everything about it is great, but I’m sad that it’s over.”
To help himself manage those feelings, de Beer recalls a message delivered by UA president Robert C. Robbins at the team’s season-ending banquet. He repeated a quote often attributed to Dr. Seuss:
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”