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With heavy hearts, Arizona teammates, coaches remember Zach Hemmila

"I want to tell them they had a great kid. They raised a really, really good child," teammate and friend Cody Ippolito said of Zach Hemmila's parents. AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona center Zach Hemmila's teammates didn't have foreboding thoughts when he didn't show up on time for practice Monday or when he didn't answer his cell phone. It was the first morning practice of fall camp. He probably overslept. Maybe his car broke down.

They didn't see offensive line coach Jim Michalczik working the phone. They didn't notice coach Rich Rodriguez's mood change from frustrated to concerned to grim.

Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne was headed to an 8 a.m. appointment when he took a call from Wildcats head trainer Randy Cohen. The news couldn't have been worse.

Hemmila was dead at 22. He apparently passed away in his sleep, though it will be at least a month before a cause of death is known.

Byrne and Rodriguez, who fought back tears as they recalled that horrible Monday two days later, were forced into crisis mode. Their priority was making sure Hemmila's parents were alerted before news broke on social media. That meant finishing practice before telling the players. A member of Arizona's staff said he knew something terrible was going on because even before Byrne showed up, Rodriguez was in a daze, a word that has never been used to describe Rodriguez's coaching style.

"He was very broken up," Byrne said. "It was a very short conversation."

When Byrne walked onto the field at the end of practice, linebacker Cody Ippolito, who called Hemmila his "best friend," thought only, "What did we do now?"

Then Rodriguez broke the news. A young man known for his friendliness and good nature, a player on the cusp of breaking through as the starting center, one of just four fifth-year seniors on the team was gone.

"He said it, and I had to walk away," Ippolito said. "I broke down, honestly. I didn't want to hear it anymore. I walked away and cried and cried. I can't think about it without holding back tears. It was crazy."

Said offensive lineman Jacob Alsadek, "It was shocking. It took me a couple of minutes to understand. You hear people are dead ... you don't think of things being forever. You don't grasp that he won't be here forever."

The Wildcats headed north to Tempe to practice at the Arizona Cardinals' facility Wednesday and Thursday, mostly because their practice fields were flooded by torrential rain storms Tuesday. But they also need to get away and come together. They need to keep busy.

The battle to compartmentalize, to negotiate between mourning and moving on has already taken hold. Alsadek admitted that he was not at his best during a workout Tuesday.

"Even at practice, you have a little time to think, you think, 'What if Zach was here? What would he be doing?'" he said. "So it's hard. We've just got to push through it and remember all the things we loved about him."

The Wildcats will return to Tucson on Thursday afternoon in advance of a public viewing. Hemmila's funeral will be held Friday at St. Pius X Catholic Church. After that, the team will head to Fort Huachuca on an annual preseason camp trip.

"The hardest part is going to be going to the viewing and the services on Friday," Rodriguez said. "We'll get through it as a team."

What compounds Rodriguez's and his players' pain -- while offering some consolation -- is that not only was Hemmila playing his best football after an up-and-down career, but also that his newfound maturity and commitment had evoked something else: happiness.

Rodriguez said he had a 45-minute conversation with Hemmila on Saturday, and it was "about everything but football."

"It was the happiest I'd seen him in five years," Rodriguez said.

That was not the case early in Hemmila's career.

"He was close to getting kicked out of the program a couple of times. I questioned his commitment, challenged him. I wasn't sure he loved football," Rodriguez said of a tough-love conversation in his office. "He teared up and said, 'No, coach, I really do love football.' And he showed it. I wanted to see that response. And he turned a corner. That is why I was so proud of him over the last couple of years. Three days ago, he sat down beside me and just talked. Normally, it's like going to the principal's office."

Arizona officials said they have been "in constant contact," with Hemmila's parents, Joel and Linda of Chandler, Arizona, who have requested privacy. Ippolito said his parents are close with the Hemmilas, and he knows what he wants to tell them at the viewing.

"I want to tell them they had a great kid. They raised a really, really good child," he said.

Ippolito, his coaches and his teammates are trying to push through the pain. The Wildcats open their season against BYU on Sept. 3, and they need to prepare. But Hemmila's locker won't be cleaned out. It will become a memorial and reminder.

"The nights are hard. You think about him at night," Ippolito said. "I don't care what happens. I'm going to call my parents every single day and tell them I love them."

He paused, then concluded, "Time will eventually heal it, but I will never forget him."