National college group selects hard-hitting safety
Ricky Hunley has some very fine company. Hunley, the former Arizona All-American linebacker, was, until Thursday morning, the only UA player in the College Football Hall of the Fame.
Then the selection committee called the number of ol’ No. 6, free safety Chuck Cecil, heat-seeking missile, Wildcat legend, honor student and author of the signature play in school history – the 106-yard interception return in an upset of Rose Bowl-bound Arizona State in 1986.
“Oh, man, that feels great,” Hunley said upon learning Thursday afternoon that Cecil is part of an 18-member class to be inducted this year.
“You don’t feel like a lone soldier anymore. When I go to all these events, I see that USC has that many guys, and Ohio State has that many guys . . . but now Arizona is rolling. I’m excited to be in the company of Chuck Cecil.
“And he’s so young . He’ll have a lot of years to enjoy this.”
The rest of us have had more than 20 years to enjoy the memories of Cecil.
From walk-on to college football rock star in Tucson to successful NFL playing career to being the new defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans.
“I would say Chuck had the most dynamic personality of anybody I’ve coached,” said Duane Akina, who coached the secondary during Cecil’s senior season.
“He probably affected his teammates more than any player I’ve had. That is true leadership. I have never coached another like him who could carry the classroom to the field and who was so damn tough.
“I haven’t had anything close, and I have coached some good ones over the past 25 years.”
Cecil, from 1984-87, led by being one of the most feared hitters in the Pac-10 . . . ever. He didn’t stop there. Who can forget the Sports Illustrated cover of Cecil from October 1993, with the headline: “Too Vicious for the NFL?”
Out of San Diego’s Helix High School, he tried to get a football scholarship to Stanford, but the coaches there ultimately thought he was too small. By the time Stanford made its decision, Arizona, which had previously offered a scholarship, had run out of free rides.
“Back in the day, I was more of a geeky student kind of guy, I guess,” said Cecil, 44.
“My whole thing was to get an education and play a little football. No thoughts, dreams, aspirations of playing in the NFL. It never really struck me until my senior year when they talked about other guys.
“I was like, ‘I’m better than he is.’ ”
Especially as a senior in 1987, in Dick Tomey’s first season as coach.
The previous season, Akina was working with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, and he scouted running back David Adams in Arizona’s Aloha Bowl game against North Carolina.
“Chuck had some great hits. I remember sitting in the stands going, ‘God, I wonder who that kid is?’ ” Akina said.
“When I got to Arizona, everyone was talking him up. And then when I saw him, I was like, ‘That’s him? This scrawny 180-pound kid?’ I thought I was going to see Ronnie Lott.”
Akina ended up seeing something he hasn’t seen since. Akina, an assistant coach at Texas, has coached three winners of the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back, but says he’s never seen a senior season as dominating as Cecil’s.
Cecil made 136 tackles, broke up 12 passes and intercepted nine – part of his UA career record of 21.
He picked off four passes against Stanford that season. Tomey told reporters Thursday that Cecil should have had six. Akina said Cecil should have had seven. Arizona assistant coach Jeff Hammerschmidt, who was on two UA teams with Cecil, said he should have had eight.
“After getting four, it’s hard to feel you really missed out,” Cecil said.
“But after the game, watching film, I was very disappointed because I really, truly should have had no less than six easily. Two were blatant drops. I could have had upwards of eight if I had done what I was supposed to do and made a reasonable play.
“And, possibly, if I had done something special, nine.”
Turns out, he’s friends with one of the Stanford quarterbacks that day – Greg Ennis, who threw the final interception. Ennis called Thursday to congratulate Cecil.
Cecil sent back a text: “Couldn’t have done it without your fourth pick.”
The next week, Washington coach Don James was so afraid of what Cecil might do from his center field spot that the Huskies, according to Akina, never once attempted a pass inside the numbers on the field.
Hammerschmidt, also from Helix High, remembers Cecil as a great influence – “like family,” he said.
Hammerschmidt recalls his recruiting visit to Tucson. Cecil met him at the airport with a coach and drove him around town.
“We go through the drive-through at McDonalds and the girl at the window saw Chuck and dropped the bag of food and was all excited,” Hammerschmidt said.
“I thought, ‘This is great. This is a college football town.’ ”
Better yet, it’s a college football town whose player representation in the College Football Hall of Fame just doubled.
“It’s not just a huge day for Chuck,” Hunley said. “It’s a huge day for the university.”
CECIL BY THE NUMBERS
Interceptions at Stanford in1987
Career interceptions, best in UA history
Yards of interception return for a TD against ASU in 1986
Tackles at UA, seventh all-time
2009 HALL OF FAME CLASS
Player, pos., school Years
Pervis Atkins, HB, N.M. St. 1958-60
Tim Brown, WR, Notre Dame 1984-87
Chuck Cecil, DB, Arizona 1984-87
Ed Dyas, FB, Auburn 1958-60
Major Harris, QB, W. Va. 1987-89
Gordon Hudson, TE, BYU 1980-83
William Lewis, C, Harvard 1892-93
Woodrow Lowe, LB, Alabama 1972-75
Ken Margerum, WR, Stanford 1977-80
Steve McMichael, DT, Texas 1976-79
Chris Spielman, LB, Ohio St 1984-87
Larry Station, LB, Iowa 1982-85
Pat Swiling, DE, Ga. Tech 1982-85
Gino Torretta, QB, Miami 1989-92
Curt Warner, RB, Penn St. 1979-82
Grant Wistrom, DE, Nebraska 1994-97
> Coaches: Dick MacPherson, Syracuse (1981-90); John Robinson, USC (1976-82, 1993-97), UNLV (1999-2004)