Arizona trip cues reflection on college

On Aug. 9, I logged onto Facebook. Not for no reason, though. I was interning in D.C. and checking to see if my flight home that weekend would get me to Los Angeles in time for my roommate Weston’s 21st birthday party. We had his whole semester abroad that past spring to catch up on and an entire year of senior shenanigans to start planning — the Weekender at Stanford was obviously a must, and he had also suggested crashing with his friends at Arizona when the Trojans visited the Wildcats on Oct. 15.

I spent probably the next hour reading about the top headline on my newsfeed that night: An Arizona football player had inexplicably died in his sleep the night before.

His name was Zach Hemmila. A redshirt senior, he was fighting to finally break into a starting spot on the Wildcats’ offensive line. He had appeared in all 13 of Arizona’s games the year before, but less than half of those were starts. He was a favorite to lock down the center spot. But he never got the chance, dying a month before the team’s home opener, at only age 22, going into what should have been his final year in college.

On the football side, it’s left a physical hole in the armor of a Wildcat team that has struggled all year since. Hemmila was one of six returning offensive linemen who had significant playing time the year before for a unit that averaged just over 31 points a game. But the Wildcats have dropped all three of their Pac-12 matchups and are now onto their fourth starting quarterback due to injuries. Arizona has gone from a divisional champion and New Years’ Six-bowl game representative in 2014 to the only winless team in the division two years later, in serious danger of missing a bowl game. 

More importantly, though, the loss of Hemmila leaves a personal void. Hemmila was one of only four fifth-year seniors on the roster. He was really like any other player, by no means a star. But that’s what makes his story important.

Hemmila was almost kicked off the team multiple times. Not for anything bad. Head coach Rich Rodriguez just openly questioned his commitment to the program as an underclassman. He was big, but he wasn’t making the most of his potential. Five of his six starts as a junior were in the first five games of the season, before he was relegated to a backup.

“I challenged him,” Rodriguez told ESPN. “I wasn’t sure he loved football. He teared up, and said, ‘No coach, I really do.’”

This past offseason was when he finally got it going, doubling down on the field and during workouts, and it looked like the results were going to pay off. Rodriguez said they had sat down and spoken for almost an hour just days before he passed about how excited he was about everything going on in his life headed into his final season.

“He showed it,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to see that response. And he turned that corner. It was the happiest I’d seen him in five years.”

And Hemmila’s ascent back into a starting spot probably wasn’t going to result in an NFL contract. He was good, but not that good. There’s still a huge gap between a solid Power Five conference player and a professional. He probably would have been able to keep his scholarship by doing just enough to stay on the practice squad. I can’t think of any real extrinsic motivation behind him finally reaching his full on-field potential.

The only apparent reason is the same one any amateur athlete can relate to. He just wanted to give his all for his teammates. He wanted to play. He bought into this irrational tendency we sports fans have to define our identity by the ability of a group of kids to throw an oblong leather object in pursuit of completely arbitrary objectives. He lived for this the past couple months. We live for this.

For those of us who believe in the omnipotence of the football gods — much like the baseball gods who empowered Dee Gordon to hit his only home run in 315 at bats this season the day after losing his dear friend and teammate Jose Fernandez — Arizona is due for a conference win dedicated to Hemmila. I don’t think it will happen this weekend, which will make it all the more sweet when the Wildcats knock off rivals Arizona State to notch their only division win on what would have been Hemmila’s Senior Day on Nov. 25. 

The tragedy puts all of USC’s recent struggles into perspective. Who ultimately wins and loses these games still doesn’t inherently matter. Sure, tradition is strong and expectations are high here, but worrying about being trapped under a 10-win ceiling for an extended period of time is really something fans should be grateful for. I mean this in no way to dilute the seriousness of the ongoing felony rape charges against former Trojan football player Osa Masina — especially as certain public figures use the excuse of “locker room” culture to justify similarly deplorable degradation of others. That is an aspect of USC athletics that inherently does matter. The number of head coaches we’ve hired in four years really doesn’t.            

Hemmila’s sudden death poses many of life’s great questions of which I’m equally qualified to punt on. It shouldn’t be a call for unabridged “yoloing.” Go to class, study for that midterm, apply for a job. What makes his death so tragic is that it’s so unlikely. But it should be a stark reminder of what really matters, and what we should all be making the most of, especially for us in our last year of college and on the verge of entering the real world. It’s not about capitalizing on our last year to nap, Netflix and defer responsibility during weekdays.

So tomorrow night, Weston and I are driving to Tucson. Or Friday. We haven’t mapped out our exact carpool plan with the rest of our roommates as of press time. But we’re still set to stay with his friends from high school, who all crashed at our place for the U of A game last year. It will probably be the last time we all will see each other together.

On Saturday, with about 50,000 other complete strangers inside Arizona Stadium, we’re going to watch a football game.   

Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesday.