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Gimino: Reserve fullback a true vet

Walk-on is 26, served in Iraq

Arizona backup fullback Edwin Lopez, 27, is a seven-year veteran of the Air Force who spent 120 days in Iraq.

Arizona backup fullback Edwin Lopez, 27, is a seven-year veteran of the Air Force who spent 120 days in Iraq.

Edwin Lopez is little more than a name, mug shot and hometown in the Arizona football media guide.

If he really was 6 feet 10, as is listed there, that could be a heck of a story.

Alas, he’s only 5-10. More than that, he’s a backup fullback for an offense that is more focused on passing than running.

Not much interesting there.

And yet, Thursday, as Arizona holds its first-ever practice session at Fort Huachuca near Sierra Vista, Lopez is more than just a line of type on the roster.

As coach Mike Stoops brings his team to an Army base to train, sleep in barracks and be inspired by stories of leadership, discipline and sacrifice, Lopez has been there, done that.

He is a 26-year-old Air Force veteran whose seven-year stint took him to five continents. He learned to speak conversational Turkish. He spent 120 days in Iraq.

He is a guy who knows more than any Wildcat about what it means to be a member of a team. He was in a RED HORSE squadron – Rapid Engineers Deployable Heavy Operations Repair Squadron Engineers – that constructs bases from where there was nothing.

“We are the guys who when we land, it’s completely bare,” Lopez said. “And then we build everything.”

He is a guy who never gave up on football.

He is a native of Puerto Rico, but his fourth and final high school stop was in Valdosta, Ga. Lopez said he had some football opportunities at lower-division schools, but all the moving around hurt his visibility.

“My sister is in the Air Force, and she took me under her wing and said, ‘Look, this is what I think is best. You should consider it. See the world. And school is free, 100 percent,’ ” Lopez said.

“I took that. It was a great decision.”

Lopez was able to take college courses while he was enlisted but could never erase the football itch. Eventually, he had to decide whether to re-enlist or finish his college education and pursue football.

He knew he wanted to come to Tucson. He began to follow the UA football team.

“Shoot, I’d been looking to do this for quite a while, at least two years before getting out of the Air Force,” said Lopez, listed at 237 pounds.

“My last year in the military, I was like, ‘I’m going to go for it 100 percent. And that’s it. I went for it 100 percent.

“Football is a passion for me. When you enjoy something, it doesn’t matter the obstacles. You go for what you believe in and what you want. That’s what I did. I trained for it. I prepared myself. And when the chance came, I took it.”

A chance meeting at a Tucson restaurant with a UA football alum helped Lopez get an audience with UA’s coaches, but it would have happened eventually anyway. He had worked too hard to let the moment pass.

“I let the coaches know a little about my background and how I can contribute to the team,” Lopez said. “Point blank, I said, ‘This is why I’m here. What do you think?’ ”

And so the coaches welcomed Lopez as a walk-on linebacker before last season. He did not play.

“He is really progressing as a football player after being away from the game. You can definitely see improvement,” said assistant coach Dana Dimel, who coaches the running backs.

“There is a different football IQ with him. He is still playing some catch-up, but he is getting there. He is an experienced guy in terms of his age, being a lot older than the other guys in our meetings. They might be ahead as far as football goes, but he has them in life experiences.”

Now, Lopez is moving up the fullback depth chart, and history indicates that someone with his background can be a contributor.

Arizona football twice benefited from post-military players in the 1990s.

Cullen Plousha was a Marine who never played football until he enrolled at Orange Coast College in California after his four-year service. He signed with Arizona as a receiver in the 1992 recruiting class.

Plousha had a decorated military career, selected as rifle inspector of the elite U.S. Marine Corp Silent Drill Platoon. Much to his chagrin, he dropped his M1 rifle – twice – during a performance for President George H.W. Bush.

Nonetheless, the president was impressed enough with Plousha’s performance and composure that he extended an hand-written invitation to breakfast at the White House.

After all that, starting a game at No. 1 Miami – as he did when the four-touchdown underdogs Wildcats nearly upset the Hurricanes in 1992, losing 8-7 – wasn’t much to get flustered about. Later that season, Plousha recovered a late-game on-side kick to preserve a 24-17 victory at Cal.

Adrian Koch also was a four-year Marine when he walked-on at Arizona in 1997.

The Desert View High School graduate became a valuable special teams player, earned a scholarship and, despite being undersized, was a starting linebacker as a senior.

Really, you can’t get enough of these kind of high-character guys, willing to work their way up from the football bottom.

While Lopez, a junior, continues that climb, he is undertaking a double major in business management and retail sciences.

If Lopez can impart one thing to his teammates, he said it would be a seize-the-day mentality.

“I’d pretty much tell them to don’t take things for granted,” he said. “Once that day is over, it’s not going to come back.”



Thursday-Saturday: Workouts in Fort Huachuca

Aug. 23: Fan Appreciation Day, scrimmage, 10:30 a.m., Arizona Stadium

Aug. 30: Opener vs. Idaho, 7 p.m., Arizona Stadium

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