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A band of upstarts

With a war veteran's perspective, San Jose State lets the game be a game

November 11, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — David Sullivan, who plays on special teams for the San Jose State Spartans, remembers how he spent last Christmas Day, as a team leader crouching in an irrigation ditch in Fallujah, Iraq, waiting to see whether insurgents would attempt to plant improvised explosive devices in the dusty street.

Sullivan was a member of someone else's special teams that day -- the Marines' -- as a sniper.

He said he was good at his job.

"We did what they asked us to do," he said. "We carried out our mission."

So today is a huge day, not only for Sullivan, but also for San Jose State, surprisingly relevant in the Western Athletic Conference race at 3-1 and taking on unbeaten and 14th-ranked Boise State (9-0, 5-0) at Spartan Stadium.

For San Jose State, it is a chance to show that its 6-2 turnaround season is no fluke. And for Sullivan, he can observe Veterans Day on the field at the same time.

Coach Dick Tomey, who was brought in to revive a football program that was moribund two years ago under Fitz Hill, knows something about difficult jobs, and he has done his homework on the Broncos of Boise State.

"It's going to take an outstanding performance, and we're just crazy enough to think we can come up with one," he said.

It has been a while for San Jose State, which has had one winning season since 1992. The Spartans were 17-41 the last five years and haven't been to a bowl game since the California Raisin Bowl in 1990, the last time they were conference champions, in the Big West.

A San Jose State program that fielded players such as Steve DeBerg, Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil, Joe Nedney, Carl Ekern, Billy Wilson, Gerald Willhite, Jeff Garcia and Louie Wright was on the skids until Tomey showed up for his third stint as a college coach.

After 10 seasons at Hawaii and 14 more at Arizona, Tomey was an assistant coach in old friend Terry Donahue's regime with the San Francisco 49ers in 2003, then spent a year as assistant head coach at the University of Texas before agreeing to a four-year deal with San Jose State in December 2004.

He has two years remaining on his contract, but Tomey said he expects to begin discussions about redoing his contract in the next few weeks.

"The program was in a sad state," Tomey said. "The players had lost a lot of hope."

Only 11 seniors remain from the group recruited by Hill. Tomey said their acceptance of a new regime and a new outlook is the biggest reason why the Spartans have been successful. San Jose State's only losses were at Washington in the season opener, 35-29, and at Nevada, 23-7.

Quarterback Adam Tafralis doesn't have overpowering statistics, but is ranked just behind Boise State's Jared Zabransky in passing yards per game, and running back Yonus Davis is the second-leading rusher in the conference. But Tomey's mix of players probably isn't something you'd find in any book of recipes.

"Forget the stats," Tomey said. "You check a quarterback's won-loss record. That's how you decide if he's any good."

Cornerback Dwight Lowery leads the nation in interceptions, with eight, although he is trying to get over a groin injury to be ready for Boise State. He leads by example. Sullivan, a 24-year-old walk-on, served two seven-month tours of duty as a sniper in Iraq and leads by a different set of standards.

A roofer's son from Gilroy, Sullivan is the only football player in San Jose State history to be a card-carrying member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but Sullivan's ties between football and military service have been turned into a useful communication tool by Tomey, who urges Sullivan to open up.

"How tough is it to go through something like he did?" Tomey said.

Sullivan was moved to enlist in the Marines after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. He has no problem sharing his perspective with teammates.

"I really hope what people see from me is the more important parts of life," he said. "We're just playing football, it's a game. On the field, it's not life and death, but in Iraq it is."

The Spartans' defense has been bolstered by junior linebacker Demetrius Jones, from Dorsey High, who is second in tackles and leads the team in tackles for losses. In a victory over Stanford, Jones set up the winning touchdown by causing a fumble. He also set up the winning score against Utah State when he recovered a fumbled punt.

If Jones has a reputation for delivering hits, he can also deliver them at a piano. A self-taught pianist, Jones relaxes by playing anywhere he can, in the music rooms on campus or at the team's hotel, where he plays to get ready for the next game.

Jones grew up "in the jungles" of South Los Angeles, he said, without his parents. He never knew his father and his mother was in jail most of his youth after being found guilty of arson. He lived with different relatives or friends, never for more than six months at a time. Some nights, he simply wandered the streets alone.

"You wonder how in the world he could get up in the morning," Tomey said.

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