Rather than lift weights and run sprints in the summer of his teenage years, Chuck Cecil worked on the family dairy farm in Jerome, Idaho, a few miles south of Shoshone and a few miles north of Jackpot, Nevada.
Cecil woke up at 4 a.m. to help milk 1,200 Guernsey cows, lay cement, build fences, bale hay and get his hands dirty.
When he was discovered to be a rare gem among 20 walk-ons midway through Arizona’s 1983 football season — when defensive coordinator Moe Ankney referred to him as a "heat-seeking missile" — Cecil gave his first interview.
"There’s no place I’d rather be than on the farm," he told the Star.
The rest was like something out of a movie.
Three years later, Cecil authored the Play of the Century in Arizona football, returning an interception 106 yards to help beat Rose Bowl-bound Arizona State.
No one ever mentions that the celebrated interception might not have been Cecil’s best play in the 1986 Territorial Cup. On ASU’s first series of the game, driving 77 yards to the UA’s 3-yard line, Cecil speared into Sun Devil fullback Channing Williamsand popped the ball loose. Arizona recovered and the momentum changed until the final minute of the first half.
ASU drove to Arizona’s 4 as the clock ticked toward 0:00. On fourth down, trailing 14-7, Sun Devil quarterback Jeff Van Raaphorst retreated to pass. Cecil blitzed from his strong safety position. Just as Van Raaphorst was about to release the ball, Cecil hit him.
The hurried pass fell incomplete.
After Arizona won 34-17, Cecil entertained a semi-circle of reporters under the west grandstands at Arizona Stadium.
"I hate ASU," he said. "I’m never going to lose to them."
A year later in Tempe, Cecil stood at ASU’s 40-yard line with 21 seconds remaining. The Devils led, 24-21, and Cecil was about to lose to the rival for the first time. He had partially blocked a punt by Mike Schuh with 10 minutes remaining, and as the game clock drained away, Cecil had a prodigious 15 tackles.
On the snap of the ball, Cecil got off the line and around an ASU blocker so quickly that he thought he was going to block the punt and win the game.
"And then (Schuh) dropped it," Cecil said.
In a panic, Schuh kicked the ball off the turf. It smacked into the back of a lineman and popped into the air. Guess who caught it? Chuck Cecil.
Given possession at ASU’s 13, Arizona kicked a field goal on the game’s final play and tied ASU 24-24. Cecil never did lose to the Sun Devils.
"I can’t go out and be an average player," he said. "And I’m not, as far as I’m concerned."
Cecil would become the 1987 Pac-10 defensive player of the year, a consensus All-American and, in 2009 was selected to the College Football Hall of Fame. In researching his UA career, game by game, I found a statistic more impressive than his six blocked punts and 20 interceptions.
In his junior season, 1986, official UA statistics credit him with playing 882 downs. Opposing defenses snapped 763 plays that season. It means that Cecil seldom left the field, almost surely playing in coverage and as a blocker on 107 total punts (both teams) and on 12 other special team plays.
Here’s how I rank the Top 10 games of Cecil’s Arizona career: