Super Bowl column flashback: on NAU’s strong ties to the NFL coaching fraternity

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Feb. 6, 2005

NAU has strong ties to today’s Super Bowl

By Ed Odeven

Our fine city, a picturesque college town with two interstate freeways passing through it and dozens of tourist destinations in close proximity, is a place with a young, shifting population. You know your neighbors today, but tomorrow they might load up the U-Haul and say adios.

But you might be surprised to learn Flagstaff has another distinct characteristic: It’s a steppingstone for NFL-bound coaches.

Five ex-Lumberjack assistants will be working today at Super Bowl XXXIX: Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid, Eagle assistants Brad Childress (offensive coordinator), Tom Melvin (tight ends) and Marty Mornhinweg (senior assistant) and Dante Scarnecchia, the assistant head/offensive line coach of New England Patriots.

“(NAU) is just a place where a lot of good, young coaches go through,” Scarnecchia told a Daily Sun correspondent earlier this week in Jacksonville, Fla. “There are a number of places like that. Some might refer to them as steppingstones. As a result, a lot of names go through places like that.”

This was especially evident during the heyday of “Cheers” and “The Cosby Show.” As the NAU head coach from 1985-89, Larry Kentera proved to be an astute judge of coaching talent.

He hired Reid in 1986 (he moved on to Texas-El Paso the next year), Brad Childress the same year (he took a job at Utah in 1990), Melvin the same year (he went to California-Santa Barbara in 1988) and Mornhinweg in 1988 (he went to Southwest Missouri State in 1989, but after three seasons there and three more at Missouri he returned in 1994 for another one-year stint and then joined the Green Bay Packers in ’95).

Another ex-Kentera assistant, Bill Callahan, who was a Lumberjack in 1987-88, was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders when they went to Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003 against Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (And don’t forget about ex-Jacks assistant Mike Shanahan, who was here in 1977, who led the Denver Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs in 1997 and ’98 as John Elway capped off a great career.)

“Coach Kentera hired great coaches,” Childress said. “He was able to assemble (a staff of) guys who were motivated. Maybe it was the altitude.”

The Lumberjacks went 26-29 during Kentera’s five years at the helm, but wins and losses aren’t what Kentera’s ex-assistants now talk about when the topic is discussed.

“It’s a great school and it was a privilege to work with Larry Kentera,” said Reid, who still keeps in touch with his ex-boss. “There were a number of great coaches there.”

Even in those days, Reid, a former offensive lineman at BYU who played in three Holiday Bowls, was recognized as a bright mentor.

“Andy was a very good offensive line coach,” Childress said. “He was able to teach pass protection. We (played) in the Big Sky and we needed offense in that league. It was important to protect the quarterback, and he did a great job motivating the offensive line. The offensive line was not very good the year before Andy got here, and it congealed when he got here.

“You could tell he was committed to the coaching profession.”

No one should argue with that statement, especially in Philadelphia, where Eagles fans are rejoicing that their team made the Super Bowl – the team’s first since a 27-10 loss to the Raiders in the 1981 game — after three straight losses in the NFC Championship Game.

On the other sideline, Scarnecchia will be returning today to place that’s become quite familiar: the Super Bowl.

In fact, Scarnecchia is the answer to a super-tough trivia question: Who is the only coach to be with the Patriots for all five of their Super Bowl appearances?

After leaving Flagstaff following a one-year stint as an assistant, he returned to Southern Methodist University, where he worked in the mid-1970s, in ’80 for two years. And then he joined the Patriots’ coaching staff in 1982. Except for a two-year stint with the Indianapolis Colts (1989-90), Scarnecchia has been with the Patriots ever since.

And he’s had a remarkable career, reaching The Big Game while working for Raymond Berry (Super Bowl XX in 1986), Bill Parcells (Super Bowl XXXI in 1997) and Bill Belichick (Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, XXXVIII in ’04 and XXXIX today).

So what does this year’s Super Bowl mean for Scarnecchia?

“Just to get here ain’t enough,” said Scarnecchia, who enjoyed swimming at Oak Creek Canyon when he lived amongst the cool pines. “When they shoot off confetti at the end of the game, if it’s not red, white and blue, it doesn’t count. Winning this game is all that matters, all that counts.”

But in a profession where it’s common to move every few years, a profession where stability is often not attained, Scarnecchia, 56, is a fortunate fellow.

“We’re very lucky, very blessed to be here this long,” said Scarnecchia, referring to his family, his wife Susan and their two children, Steve and Lisa. “It’s something you never think will happen, and it has happened. It’s home. Hopefully we will retire here.

“So many great coaches have never been to a Super Bowl, and to be a small part of New England’s Super Bowl, it’s very special.”


Jack Mitchell: Oklahoma’s All-American QB in 1948

This article on former quarterback and football coach Jack Mitchell appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 13, 2002.
(Reporter’s note: Mitchell died in 2009 at age 85 in Sun City, Arizona.)

Memories of football glory

By Ed Odeven

Old guys love to tell tales of their younger days. Jack Mitchell, a former All-American quarterback for Oklahoma, is no exception.

In a recent interview at his Munds Park home, Mitchell, 79, reminisced about his career — a career that brought him in close contact with exceptional athletes like Gale Sayers and Wilt Chamberlain.


Mitchell grew up in Arkansas City, Kan. and was an all-state basketball and football player and a state tennis champion.

“I played athletics all through school, from first grade and up,” he said. “The Lord was just good to me in that direction.”

Mitchell went to the University of Texas to play for coach D.X. Bible in 1943 after graduating from Arkansas City High School. He spent one semester at the university before he was called to serve in World War II. He was a platoon leader, an Army lieutenant in an infantry division, serving in Germany, France and England.

After the war, Mitchell resumed his football career. It was a time of fierce competition.

“We were all back from the Army,” Mitchell said. “In other words, when we came back in ’46, there were three classes all together in one. The competition coming back was all mature. We were all in the same boat. … The competition was much more severe in ’46, ’47, and ’48.”

Mitchell went to Oklahoma in 1946, and the Sooners won the Big Six Championship, when the conference consisted of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa and Iowa State. Mitchell earned all-conference accolades at QB in 1946 and 1947.

In 1948, he was named an All-American quarterback, leading Oklahoma to a 14-6 Sugar Bowl victory over North Carolina on New Year’s Day.

Mitchell was named the Outstanding Player Award for the 1949 Sugar Bowl.

“I didn’t play my best game,” he said, “but I’ll tell you why I got the trophy, mainly. It was a defensive game all the way.”

Perhaps his best work, however, was done in the film room during pre-bowl preparations.

After an Oklahoma defender returned an interception back deep into Carolina territory in the first quarter, Mitchell’s smarts were on display as he called running play after running play, plays that kept gaining positive yardage.

“On the film I had noticed that [North Carolina] went into its eight-man front, its goal-line stand, at the 12- or 13-yard line,” Mitchell explained.

“As long as they were going to line up that way, you were going to make two or three yards.”

Mitchell kept running QB sneaks and finally picked up a 2-yard touchdown run, the game’s first score.

“I was basically not a good passer,” he said. “I did; I had to throw some.”

Mitchell also excelled on special teams. He holds the NCAA career record for punt-return average (23.8 yards per return). The record for most punts for touchdowns is shared by three: Mitchell, Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers and Kansas State’s David Allen.

Looking back, he’s proud of those accomplishments.

“In those three years I can’t remember if I ever made a fair catch,” he recalled. “Today, 90 percent are fair catches, and when you do catch it they are all right on top of you, because they are all rested. They are specialty teams. They are covering like hell. They are all picked for speed. So that’s why it’ll never be broken. … I don’t think the career average will be broken”

Another highlight of Mitchell’s playing day was appearing in the 1949 Chicago College All-Star Game at Soldier Field. That game pitted the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles against college’s best gridiron stars.

“It was a big thrill when you ran out and they had that full house,” Mitchell said. “And they played the Oklahoma ‘Boomer Sooner’ (song). “[The announcer said], ‘Now, at quarterback will be Jack Mitchell, All-American from Oklahoma.”

Mitchell’s counterpart in the game was Tommy Thompson of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was blind in one eye.

The Eagles won the game, 38-0, and Mitchell separated his right shoulder in the game. Although he was signed by the Green Bay Packers, he never played due to his injury.


In 1949, Mitchell started coaching at Blackwell (Okla.) High School. It was a challenge for which he felt prepared.

“By gosh, with my background, with [OU coach] Bud Wilkinson and through my college career and the little time I had with the pros and the All-Star game and all that, I was so far ahead of the old guys that were coaching high school,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t even funny.”

Mitchell’s college coaching career lasted from 1953 until 1966, with stints at Wichita, now called Wichita State (1953-54), Arkansas (1955-57) and Kansas (1958-66). He was named the Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year in 1954 and the Big Eight coach of the year in ’60.

He coached three times against Alabama’s legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, when Mitchell was at Arkansas and Bryant was with Texas A&M.

Asked what those experiences were like, Mitchell said, “It was just playing against another team. The guy that’s got the best players is going to win. They are all good coaches when you get in college.

“High school is a different story,” he continued. “You can out-coach a lot of them, because, heck, I played defenses that did stunts, and then I had an option play. They didn’t think you could do that in high school. And I put in the option play and taught the quarterback how to do that. Hell, we ran ’em crazy. We went to the state finals and they’d never been to the finals in the history of Blackwell.”

Mitchell guided the 1961 Kansas team to a 35-7 Bluebonnet Bowl victory over Rice.

Once dubbed “a great motivator,” Mitchell now wonders if that’s an appropriate description of his coaching style.

“You never know if it’s because you’ve got great players or if it’s because you are motivating them,” he said. “But I had to get them. We were fortunate in doing good recruiting. We worked awfully hard on recruiting players.”

Mitchell crossed paths with Chamberlain, when “Wilt the Stilt” was an exceptional all-around athlete at KU. Mitchell tried to persuade Chamberlain to join the football team for a specific purpose — short yardage situations.

“I was going to play him at quarterback, but never put him in the game unless we just needed a yard. … “He could step over them.

“In track, he could out-high jump, out-shot put everyone. He was not only 7-foot-2, but he was built like a guy 6 feet with strength and muscle who could run just as fast. He said he wanted to box. He would’ve been a helluva boxer.”

Mitchell mentioned former KU quarterback Johnny Hadl, who earned All-Pro distinction with the San Diego Chargers and Sayers, the ex-Chicago Bears great, as two of the best players he’s ever coached.

“Sayers might’ve been the finest running backs I saw, and one of the great defensive players,” said Mitchell, an avid golfer.

Of all the college football rivalries Mitchell has been associated with, he said the biggest one involves Ole Miss and Arkansas.

“By God, that’s a war,” he said.


Mitchell retired from coaching in 1966 to pursue a full-time career in business. He’s been involved with running a variety of different businesses ever since, including a bank, an insurance company and Mitchell Publications, Inc., which owns several newspapers in Kansas.

Although he’s no longer coaching, Mitchell, who also maintains residencies in Sun City and Kansas, is still passionate about football. That’s especially true during the autumn.

“I love to go the high school games,” he said, revealing he attends several games in the Phoenix area during the fall.

On Saturdays, Mitchell prefers to remain home rather than go screaming and shouting at a college football venue in the Southwest or Midwest.

“I don’t go to college games, because I want to stay home and be able to watch Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. I get to see three or four of the games on Saturday,” he said. “If I go to a game, I don’t see anybody else.

“I’ve got two TVs going and a radio on the side. Most of my buddies do the same thing,” he continued, smiling.

Lenzie Jackson idolized Jerry Rice

This feature story on former ASU and NFL player Lenzie Jakcson appeared in The Stanford Daily on Oct. 16, 1997

Bay Area native hopes to put on a show
Jackson comes home to lead ASU against No. 25 Cardinal

By Ed Odeven
Special to The Stanford Daily

Superstar Jerry Rice was a hero for thousands of youngsters growing up in the Bay Area. Lenzie Jackson was one of those kids.

But the 6-foot, 186-pound wide receiver did not begin to emulate Rice until many years later. Instead, the native of Milpitas, Calif., idolized another All-Pro who starred at his customary position.

“I really looked up to Jerry Rice,” said the Arizona State junior. “He went through all those games without any injuries and he caught almost anything they threw to him.

“I was a big fan of Eric Dickerson. That was my idol when I was smaller… Walter Payton. Tony Dorsett and guys like that.”

Jackson played tailback until he was a junior at Milpitas High School. Then he became a wide receiver. It was a smooth transition.

“It didn’t take me long to get used to that conversion,” Jackson said.

As a senior he was selected the Most Valuable Receiver in the Santa Clara Valley-DeAnza Super League after catching 29 passes for 484 yards and seven touchdowns.

And it didn’t take long for Jackson to make an impact as a Sun Devil. As a freshman in 1995, he played in 10 games and had six receptions for 37 yards. Last season as a sophomore, he made 36 catches for 505 yards and three touchdowns and shined in Arizona State’s 19-0 upset of then-No. 1 Nebraska (eight catches for 105 yards).

Sun Devils’ offensive coordinator Dan Cozzetto is more than pleased with the production of Jackson, who has become the No. 1 target of redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Kealy.

“He’s been everything we thought he would be when we recruited him,” Cozzetto said. “He’s come along at the pace we thought he would. He performed well as a sophomore and we look for great things out of him as the years come. “I think he’s the best receiver in the Pac-10. We just need to get the ball to him more. He has all the characteristics of a great wide receiver. He does everything. He’s very coachable. He runs great routes, and (has) tremendous speed. We just need to make him our big play guy.”

Cozzetto is not the only one complimenting Jackson.

“We all know that Lenzie’s probably one of the toughest guys on the team,” fellow wideout Ricky Boyer said. “He’ll go across the middle and take a hit to make sure he’ll catch the ball.”

Additionally, in football circles across the country, Jackson has been mentioned as an up-and-coming star Several magazines have listed him as one the top 20 receivers in the country. Lindy’s Pac-10 Football Annual named Jackson the 13th-best receiver in the country.

Said Jackson: “I think I do rank among the best receivers out there. I do believe that.”

However, believing he’s good isn’t what motivates Jackson.

Returning to Pasadena is what inspires the easy-going fellow.

“It’s something that’s in the back of my mind,” he said. “But I really can t dwell on that too long because it’s a whole new season. It’s a good feeling so 1 want to get back there. That kind of pushes me getting the job done.”

Boyer pushes Jackson to play harder, and vice versa. The two receivers met as freshmen and have been good friends ever since.

“When I moved into the dorms, Lenzie was the first person I met,” Boyer said. “Lenzie and I have gotten to know each other real well… We talk a lot about our different routes and our different breaks and everything.

“Every time I go to practice I just like to watch him run his routes If I’d something wrong, I just go to the sideline and ask, ‘What did I do wrong? What can I do to get it better?’ Or he’ll come and ask me, ‘How did that look?’ ”

Despite having what many experts call the best receiving corps in the Pacific-10 Conference, the Sun Devil receivers haven’t had a breakthrough game yet. There’s an explanation for that, according to Jackson.

“I think more than anything penalties have been hurting us, because that hurts the play calling because it limits us to what we can do,” Jackson said.

Jackson admits that he’s anxious to show what he can do against Stanford on Saturday.

“I think the receiver has to have the mentality that ball is mine no matter where it is. I proved that I can go across the middle, that I can take a hit and come down with the ball. It takes a lot of guts to do that, so I’ve taken pride in it.”

What will make Jackson proud this week is hooking up with Kealy all afternoon in Stanford Stadium. “We need to get it to him on some bigger plays,” Kealy said. “He’s a big-play receiver.”

If things go as planned, Jackson won’t be just idolizing Jerry Rice — he’ll be imitating him in the NFL someday.

Ed Odeven is an assistant sports editor at the ASU State Press.

“Call his yacht phone”

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 18, 2015) — Some phone calls stick with you years later, providing amusement or smiles when you think about them unexpectedly. The same can be said for certain phone messages.

While working as the assistant sports editor for Arizona State’s State Press in the September 1997, I was planning a big feature on former Sun Devils football great Danny White. The university was planning to retire the quarterback’s No. 11 jersey that month during a ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium.

So the plan was to interview several people about White’s college and pro career, including those associated with the Dallas Cowboys, his NFL team, for the article. Former teammates were reached by phone and they dished out interesting insights.

A planned interview with longtime Cowboys president and GM Tex Schramm took some time to set up. But persistence paid off.

One day while I was away from the sports desk for a few hours — at class or lunch, I think — Schramm’s secretary returned one of my phone calls, one of my requests for an interview. The proof was on my desk.

A hand-written note from one of the student media staffer’s relayed the secretary’s message: Schramm is away from his office for a few days, fishing in the Florida Keys. But that’s OK.

“Just go ahead and call his yacht phone,” the note said.

And so I did. And, as the note informed me, Schramm was out at sea and would be available to talk. The fishing would wait…

It was a quality 10- or 15-minute interview that touched upon various aspects of White’s personality as a football player, team leader and other general views Tex had about White’s coaching career in the years that followed.

Family ties: A college football player dedicated his play, life to late mother’s memory

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 5, 2005

In memory of Mom

By Ed Odeven

Receiver Geoff Ducksworth plays every game for his late mother, Andrea

Like other college football players, NAU senior receiver Geoff Ducksworth thinks about the keys to victory before every game. He remembers what his team learned about its next foe from watching film. And he knows what’ll be expected of him in the next four quarters.

Ducksworth’s pregame routine also differs from many players’.

“Before I play a football game, I point to the sky and know she’s watching before I come out the tunnel,” Ducksworth said Wednesday, revealing how he remembers his late mother on game day.

“I’m not trying to celebrate it or (want) people to think it’s a a cocky thing or some kind of showboating. I try to keep myself private in that respect. But I tell it like this: Every day I live is a representation of her and how she raised me.”

Ducksworth was born in New Orleans. His father, James, died when he was 4. His mother, Andrea, a nurse, raised him and his sisters Sara and Yvonne and brother James Jr.

They lived in Ontario, Canada, for a dozen years and later relocated to Germany before settling in the Valley of the Sun. It was there where Ducksworth came into his own as an athlete.

A 2000 graduate of Paradise Valley High School, he rushed for a school-record 1,819 yards and had a pair of 97-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns as a senior.

Fast forward to December 2002. Ducksworth was a standout receiver at Glendale Community College. His team had earned a No. 4 national ranking and went on to play in the Valley of the Sun Bowl.

As his team prepared for the bowl game, Ducksworth’s life changed drastically.

“My mom had been sick,” he recalled. “She’d been battling blood clots and things like that, so she went to the hospital and stayed the night. It was pretty much a regular occurrence for about six months, so I didn’t think too much of it.”

Then he received a shocking phone call.

“The doctor told me she had lung cancer,” he said. “My father passed away from lung cancer when I was 4 and she had quit (smoking) for about 20 years. So it took me by surprise. It just happened so quickly.

“They gave her maybe six months (to live), but they didn’t even want to guarantee that because she could’ve been gone at any time.”


In 2003, Ducksworth planned to transfer to a university, continue his studies and play football. He had received interest from Northern Illinois and Idaho State, Southern Utah and NAU, among other schools. But when it was time to finalize his plans, Ducksworth chose NAU.

The decision was a no-brainer.

“I wanted to make sure that I could redshirt because I wanted to be with my mother every weekend as much as I could,” said Ducksworth, who was a walk-on and didn’t play in 2003.

Ducksworth’s mom stayed at a Phoenix-area hospice during her battle with cancer. He managed her account there because his older brother lives in Canada.

Besides juggling his academic workload and the physical demands of being a college football player, Ducksworth struggled with the emotional hardships of seeing his mother in pain.

“But the coaching staff was (very accommodating),” he said, “Anytime I needed, they let me go (visit her).

“My family and I, we’ve gotten a lot closer dealing with this, but it was a very, very stressful time. I had anxiety attacks and things like that.”

Through it all, Andrea Ducksworth tried to remain positive.

“She did tell me she was going to beat it,” her son said.

This outlook, he said, helped her.

“My mom, she had goals, she set goals,” he said. “She wanted to see my sister graduate and that would’ve been about eight months. She had another goal to make sure that we were all OK — that we were all going to do well for ourselves. I think when she finally realized we were all going to do all right, I think that’s when she passed away.”

“I remember she told me she was ready to go.”

She died April 8, 2004.


Andrea Ducksworth’s death gave her younger son a chance to reflect on his upbringing, a chance to apply in his daily life what she had taught him.

“I’m not a quitter and she never raised me to be a quitter,” he said. “I stuck with it.”

For Ducksworth, this meant taking out student loans to help support him and his younger sister, Sara. It meant waking up early to study for classes. It meant working at Fry’s Food & Drug Store on Route 66 after a long day of school and practice — he unloaded the produce trucks between 6 p.m. and midnight.

“Geoff Ducksworth has had a very difficult life in my opinion,” Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said. “Maybe nobody’s life is real easy, but his is a lot tougher than most I’ve seen, yet his attitude is unmoved.”

Last spring, the Lumberjack coaching staff gave Ducksworth a scholarship for his senior season. It’s a reminder of his importance to the team, on and off the field.

“Being independent and self-sufficient is something that he’s learned to do,” Souers said. “He has great balance of learning football’s important, but so is school and so is being a role model. It’s important to him to be a good friend, to be a good teammate. I think you’ll find the closer you look at Geoff Ducksworth you’ll find great qualities that you’d like to see in any young man.”

Gary Guthmiller, NAU’s receivers coach, said Ducksworth has been the consummate teammate and the Jacks’ most well-prepared receiver.

“I can put him anywhere on the field and expect that he knows everything that’s going to go on at every position,” Guthmiller added.

“He’s my rock. He’s the guy I can count on. He’s the guy I can trust.”


In NAU’s 38-24 loss at Sacramento State last Saturday, Ducksworth, who also plays gunner on the punt-return unit, had a season-high three catches for 59 yards. He said it’s tough to find satisfaction from personal accomplishments because the team lost.

That said, he realizes his sticking with football was the right thing to do.

“My mom was proud of me,” he said candidly. “She let me know that for sure.”

Ducksworth’s athleticism comes from his father’s side of the family (several family members played on Southern University teams and one uncle was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals).

His mother’s interests and talents were artistic. She performed in off-Broadway musicals and took an acting class taught by famous instructor Lee Strasberg.

“She was in the same class as Marilyn Monroe,” he said, smiling.

And though she supported her son’s athletic endeavors, she also tried to give him a well-rounded childhood.

“She made sure that for every sports camp I went to I had to take pottery class or an acting class or stuff like that,” Ducksworth said.

But more than anything, Andrea Ducksworth taught her son how to endure tough times.

“I feel like I’m a strong person because of her,” he said.

Ducksworth turns 23 in November. His future is up in the air, he admits. He’s expressed interest in selling homes in the Valley or playing in the Canadian Football League.

Yet through it all, one thing remains certain:

“I’ve dedicated my life to my mom,” he said.

‘We did not have any casualties in our company and completed more than 1 million miles.’

This column on then-Northern Arizona University cheerleader Kristyna Robinson, who served in Iraq, appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Nov. 19, 2004.

From the front lines to the spirit line

By Ed Odeven

Today marks the end of a special time in Kristyna Robinson’s life, the last football game she’ll participate in as a Northern Arizona cheerleader.

If all had gone as originally planned, this day would’ve taken place last fall. But her life took a different path the day she joined the Army National Guard in 2002.

Robinson, a 1999 graduate of Paradise Valley High School, joined the Army as a college underclassman. She had planned to attend officer candidate school upon completion of her psychology degree, become a military intelligence officer and then join the FBI.

But those plans changed when Robinson and four of her NAU cheerleading mates — National Guard members Joe Wren, a Purple Heart recipient; Brett Jacobson; Glenn Whitting; and Matt Mahaffey — got “the call” in January 2003.

It was then, when the team was training for a national competition, that the five cheerleaders were informed they’d be going to Iraq.

“We were actually at cheer practice when we got called,” Robinson says. “Joe got a voice mail on his phone and (it) said we needed to leave.”

As members of the 1404th Transportation Company, based in Bellemont, the five NAU students were sent to Fort Bliss in Texas for three months before they were ordered to go overseas.

The 1404th served in northern Iraq and in Bilad, which is about one hour north of Baghdad, delivering equipment for helicopters and vehicles, food, supplies — whatever was needed.

Robinson, who went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, served as an 88M, a truck driver/heavy motor vehicle transport operator, and also helped out with communications and administrative support.

During a recent interview, she spoke gratefully about how fortunate her unit was.

“We did not have any casualties in our company and completed more than 1 million miles,” Robinson says.

Like in any war, there were, of course, several life-or-death incidents for Robinson and members of the 1404th.

“We had just pulled out of our compound and we were fired at,” she says, recalling one of those incidents.

“It was probably the scariest because we were in a convoy with fuel trucks. They were aiming for the fuel trucks and it went right in between them. We were three trucks behind them. If it had hit the fuel truck, it would’ve been really bad.”

Mahaffey, who worked as a recoveries specialist, has similar memories.

“The scariest moments for me was when I knew either Kristyna or Joe or somebody that I was very close to was on a convoy there and something happened there,” Mahaffey recalls. “And I didn’t have any information except for ‘the convey got hit’ or … ‘something happened’ … ’til I got back and I was able to see that everybody was OK.”

It was during times like these that Robinson and Mahaffey weren’t nearly as chummy as they’d be on the sideline during a football game or as carefree as they might be during a laid-back afternoon practice at the Skydome.

“While we were over there … you do get in a military mindset,” says Mahaffey, a five-year member of the team who’s now an assistant coach.

What was Robinson’s personality like in Iraq? Mahaffey was asked.

“I hesitate to say less personal, but I think we were all focused on what were doing,” he says. “But it certainly was nice to hang out with each other, having somebody (around) that you’ve known for a while.”

It was, however, difficult to stay in tip-top physical shape in the military.

“It was a struggle,” Robinson says, reminding me she worked 16-18 hours a day. “Being in Iraq, we didn’t really have time to exercise too much. Everyone has the misconception that we went over there and ran five miles a day and were in really good shape. I was probably in the worst shape I’ve been in college while I was over there.”

And, to say the least, it was challenging for Robinson to keep up with what was happening at NAU and the world around her while she was stationed in Iraq. (She did manage to find time to practice her cheers and routines “two or three times while we were in Iraq.”)

“We didn’t really get (steady) Internet access until six months in,” she says. “It would be really sporadic and the Internet would be down a lot. Towards the end, they started to have, like, cafes just full of computers.”

The 1404th returned to the U.S. in April, first to Fort Bliss and then to Show Low.

Robinson is a full-time student again and will graduate in May. She then plans to go to graduate school to study forensics psychology, possibly to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

In the meantime, she’s still serving one weekend a month in the National Guard and enjoying her time as a cheerleader, doing the drills with an almost completely new squad than the one she was a part of at NAU two years ago.

Robinson’s story wasn’t common knowledge to many of them.

“Some people didn’t know,” she says, referring to her time in Iraq. “When I would tell them, they would be like, ‘You were really over there?’ They were kind of surprised at first that a cheerleader would go to Iraq.”

Robinson did, serving her country courageously.

Now she’s back. And the former dancer/gymnast/prep track athlete is doing what she loves on Saturdays — for one more week. And she’ll never forget that.

“I appreciate the little stuff a lot more,” she says. “I don’t take as much for granted.”

2004 Fiesta Bowl

This article on the 2004 Fiesta Bowl appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in January 2004.

KSU digs too big a hole to win


TEMPE — Friday’s Fiesta Bowl started out with plenty of Kansas State mistakes. Dropped passes. Bad snaps. Dumb penalties.

But in the second half the Wildcats had turned a potential rout into a competitive contest in their 35-28 defeat to Ohio State at Sun Devil Stadium.

“We were just inconsistent” was what longtime KSU coach Bill Snyder said when it was over.

After senior quarterback Ell Roberson had brought the Wildcats to within a touchdown on a 1-yard plunge with 2:47 to go, KSU tried an onsides kick and recovered the ball.

But there was a flag. KSU was penalized for being offside, and it kicked again. The second onsides kick, though, was recovered by KSU.

In essence, that play summed up the game. In other words, even when the ball bounced Kansas State’s way, it didn’t.

After forcing the Buckeyes (11-2) to punt on the next possession, the Wildcats, who trailed 35-28, had one last shot at the end zone, taking over at their own 10 with 1:12 left. They quickly moved the ball to the Ohio State 7, and had one last shot at the end zone as time expired.

Roberson’s Hail Mary pass was batted down, sending the Wildcats (11-4) to a season-ending defeat in dramatic finish. They entered the game with seven consecutive wins, including a shocking 35-7 triumph over seemingly invincible Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship on Dec. 6.

The Fiesta Bowl was somewhat overshadowed by the news that Roberson was accused of sexual assaulting a woman at a Scottsdale hotel New Year’s Day.

Roberson was unavailable for comment after the game.

Snyder made the decision Friday to start Snyder.

“Well, a great deal of work investigation by our administration gave me information that led me to believe that Ell Roberson was not guilty of what he was charged of,” Snyder said. “He hasn’t been charged what he was seemingly implicated in.”

Of course, one can wonder how much of a distraction the Roberson situation had on the Wildcats.

Senior center Nick Lechey said, “I think we handled it as best as we could.”

“I don’t think it had any effect (on our performance),” added defensive end Thomas Houchin.

The Wildcats’ three premier playmakers on offense — Roberson, tailback Darren Sproles and receiver James Terry — combined for more than 6,000 yards entering the game. The trio was a non-factor in the first half, accumulating just 114 yards of total offense.

To make matters worse, Roberson had a horrendous first half, completing 5 of 15 passes for 60 yards. Many of his passes were off the mark, as was the timing between he and the Wildcat receivers.

“I think his head wasn’t in the game in the first half,” Smith said.

During a halftime radio interview, Snyder said, “He (Roberson) needs to settle down, and some other things need to happen.”

Roberson made things happen in the second half, running the option methodically, firing passes downfield and guiding his team in catch-up mode.

Collectively, the Buckeyes said they were not surprised KSU rallied from deficits of 21-0 and 35-14.

“We knew they were a good team and they were going to come back,” Buckeyes defensive end Will Smith said.

“We knew we were in for a fight for 60 minutes,” OSU defensive tackle Tim Anderson added.

After it was over and the final statistics were tabulated – including KSU’s 4-for-17 effort on third downs and Roberson’s abysmal 20-for-51 effort passing, it didn’t take a whole lot of contemplation to figure out why OSU won the game.

“We just didn’t get it done,” Lechey concluded.

It was that kind of night for the Wildcats. Too little, too late.