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Top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history: No. 2 Chuck Cecil

Photo illustration by azcentral sports.

Photo illustration by azcentral sports.

Position, years at UA: Free safety, 1984-87

Honors, accomplishments at UA: Consensus All-American in 1987. … Second-team All-American in 1986 by the Sporting News. … His 21 career interceptions rank first in school and Pac-12 history. … Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1987. … Two-time first-team all-conference selection and a second-team pick as a sophomore. … Elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

Why he made our list: Chuck Cecil, the author of arguably the greatest play in school history — the 106-yard interception return against Rose Bowl-bound Arizona State in 1986 (see video below) — was one of the most-feared hitters in conference history.

His senior season — 136 tackles, nine interceptions, 12 pass break-ups — hardly could have been better.

His story line was as good as his stats. Belying the violence of his hits, he was a self-described “geeky student” who wanted to go Stanford. But when the Cardinal declined to offer a scholarship late in the recruiting process, Cecil turned to UA, which had run out of full rides. So, Cecil walked on, weighing 148 pounds.

Cecil became a rock star in Tucson, known as the “Heat-Seeking Missile.” He moved into the starting lineup as a redshirt sophomore in 1985, when he had already become “the heart” of the defense, coach Larry Smith said at the time.

Cecil intercepted four passes in a 1987 game against Stanford, and said he could have doubled that total.

“After the game, watching film, I was very disappointed because I really, truly should have had no less than six easily,” he said in 2009. “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.”

His 392 tackles rank seventh in school history, and he was a two-time first-team academic All-American.

Cecil polished his legacy with his performances against Arizona State. He clinched the 1985 win with an interception in the final minute. He forced a fumble at the UA 1-yard line to halt an ASU first-quarter drive and had the epic interception return in the 1986 victory. He intercepted a pass late in the first half that led to a field goal and recovered a muffed punt snap with 13 seconds left to set up the tying field goal in 1987.

“When a lot of people think of Arizona football and they think about excellence, they think of Chuck Cecil,” said Dick Tomey, who coached Cecil during his senior season.

Duane Akina, UA’s secondary coach in 1987, has coached three Jim Thorpe Award winners and 28 defensive backs who played in the NFL. He said this about Cecil in 2009:

“I would say Chuck had the most dynamic personality of anybody I’ve coached. 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.”

Life after college: Cecil was selected in the fourth round, No. 89 overall, in the 1988 draft by Green Bay, spending five seasons with the Packers and earning All-Pro honors in 1992. He signed with the Cardinals in 1993 and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated that fall after being fined $30,000 for violent hits. The magazine headline: “Is Chuck Cecil Too Vicious for the NFL?”

He was cut in August 1994, then signed with Cleveland in 1995, only to be released in camp. He played with Houston that season to wrap up his career, in which he played 95 games and intercepted 16 passes.

Cecil started his NFL coaching career with Tennessee in 2001, and spending 10 seasons with the franchise, including two as defensive coordinator, he was reunited with former Titans coach Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, where he is entering his second season as secondary coach.

In partnership with the Arizona Republic, we are counting down the top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. Leave your top five at AG’s Wildcat Report on Facebook, and check out azcentral.com for the countdown of ASU’s Top 50 football players.

Arizona’s top 50

No. 50 — LaMonte Hunley

No. 49 — Hubie Oliver

No. 48 — Rob Gronkowski

No. 47 — Jim Donarski

No. 46 — Ontiwaun Carter

No. 45 — Steve McLaughlin

No. 44 — John Fina

No. 43 — Glenn Parker

No. 42 — Bobby Lee Thompson

No. 41 — Marcus Bell

No. 40 — Fred W. Enke

No. 39 — Ka’Deem Carey

No. 38 — Juron Criner

No. 37 — Dana Wells

No. 36 — Tom Tunnicliffe

No. 35 — Bruce Hill

No. 34 — Chuck Osborne

No. 33 — Brandon Sanders

No. 32 — Sean Harris

No. 31 — Mike Thomas

No. 30 — Bobby Wade

No. 29 — T Bell

No. 28 — Joe Salave’a

No. 27 — Eddie Wilson

No. 26 — Chuck Levy

No. 25 — Allan Durden

No. 24 — Nick Foles

No. 23 — Tony Bouie

No. 22 — ‘King Kong’ Nolan

No. 21 — Bill Lueck

No. 20 — Walter “Hoss” Nielsen

No. 19 — Trung Canidate

No. 18 — Mark Arneson

No. 17 — Chris Singleton

No. 16 — Mike Dawson

No. 15 — Max Zendejas

No. 14 — Dennis Northcutt

No. 13 — Jackie Wallace

No. 12 — Antoine Cason

No. 11 — Vance Johnson

No. 10 — Lance Briggs

No. 9 — Byron Evans

No. 8 — Darryll Lewis

No. 7 — Joe Tofflemire

No. 6 — Chris McAlister

No. 5 — Art Luppino

No. 4 — Tedy Bruschi

No. 3 — Rob Waldrop

* * *

This video starts with Chuck Cecil’s interception vs. ASU in 1986 …

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