July 8, 2010

It's funny how a simple change in routine can lead a person down a path they never thought they would encounter.

Last spring, Arizona State quarterback Samson Szakacsy decided to stop and listen to an evangelical preacher on campus, not necessarily because he was interested in the message, but intrigued how the message was being delivered.

"People were turning him away because he was yelling at them," said Szakacsy, a religious studies major. "One of Brother Jed's followers asked if I was a believer. I said I was a believer if you're trying to really teach - Christ was an awesome teacher - you have to phrase your message in a way that people will hear you and not reject you."

Szakacsy ended up in the middle of a philosophical conversation with Brother Jed's followers and some other ASU students, which led to him meeting Robert Howard. Howard, grew up on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation - almost three hours away, and was commuting between ASU and the reservation to get his degree. He is married with children and works part-time for the tribal council with Wendsler Nosie, Chairman of the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.

"Instantly, I respected him for his work ethic," said Szakacsy. "He asked me to come to the reservation (or the 'res') during spring break, and a couple days later I drove there with him."

What Szakacsy encountered on the drive to the reservation impacted him immediately.

"On the way there, I saw for myself there are beautiful mountains, but just past that it was just flat from the copper mines," said Szakacsy. "He (Howard) told me the stories of what was happening (because of the mining), and what Chief (Nosie) was fighting for and it hit me in a place really deep. I was fired up when I got to the reservation and he threw me in the office with Chief and closed the door."

Szakacsy and the Chief talked about the mining, and many other issues affecting the reservation and its' people, such as poverty and diabetes.

"Chief said there are steps you have to take to make a difference," said Szakacsy. "You can't just be shot out of a cannon into the problem. We talked and I felt like we were really on the same page with everything. I feel like he is the big brother I never had even though he's a little bit older. It felt like I was talking to someone who thought the same way."

The conversation eventually boiled down to one topic -- how the Native Americans living on the reservation struggled with identity.

"I kept asking how I could help," said Szakacsy. "We eventually started talking about identity and how so many people supported the mining because it was the only option of employment and way to feed their family, so it was hard not to take those jobs, (despite it depleting their land)."

Szakacsy and the Chief knew that ASU football was something that might have an influence on the children of the reservation, so they decided to organize a youth football clinic this summer, concentrating on the message of identity.

"The problems on the reservation represent problems throughout the whole world - just on a different scale," said Szakacsy. "We basically came to the conclusion that it starts with the kids because they are the stars of the future. They like ASU football, and putting on a football camp was something we could do. The main thing is pushing identity."

Football, as Szakacsy knows firsthand, has many lessons that transfer into everyday life.

"There are a lot of things you can learn about life when you're playing football in terms of leadership and what it takes to get through adversity," said Szakacsy. "For me, football has taught be how to go back to myself." The native of Los Angeles, Calif., cites the example of throwing an interception for a touchdown in his first career start against UCLA last season.

"At halftime, I asked myself, 'What are you going to do? How are you going to respond?'" said Szakacsy. "I think that's another reason the identity issue is huge, because every day in life you have to be able to look in the mirror and see the person you can rely on. Football is a great teacher of 'Who am I?'"

Szakacsy says the football camp will be held in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Club on July 17 at the reservation. Sixty to 100 children are expected to participate in the four-hour clinic that will also feature 13 of Szakacsy's teammates and a speech by Chairman Nosie.

"I made shirts and I put the quote 'Keep the Train Moving' on them," said Szakacsy. "It's a football camp, but it is the first step of many things - in my mind - to get the situation moving in a different direction."

Szakacsy, who also has a passion for music (he is hoping to release his first solo project, Chasing Truth, in January) and has an interest in both acting and fashion, was recently chosen of one of 14 Arizona State students to be named a Tillman Scholar for 2010.

Administered by the Pat Tillman Foundation and the ASU W.P. Carey School of Business, the Tillman Scholars - Leadership Through Action program is a multi-year experience that teaches students how to use effective leadership skills in a dynamic world, address the tough challenges faced by our communities and mobilize resources in order to face these challenges. The program, which has community involvement and action as a main objective, was inspired by the distinguished life and legacy of former ASU football player Pat Tillman - professional athlete, military hero and a man of strong character and kindness.