They’re thankful every day, they say, for the athletic and academic opportunities their Phoenix-area community colleges presented them.
Now, as University of New Mexico football players, Aaron Blackwell and Evah Tohi want other young student-athletes to have those same opportunities.
Suddenly, that’s a problem. Maricopa County’s four community-college football programs — Mesa, Glendale, Scottsdale and Phoenix — are scheduled to be shut down after the 2018 season.
“It’s awful,” said Blackwell, a junior defensive lineman who came to UNM after a year at Mesa CC. “… There’s so many guys who didn’t have (other) opportunities.
“Guys from broken homes, from the projects who would never have a chance at college are losing it now, and it’s heartbreaking.”
The Maricopa County Community College District made the announcement on Feb. 5, citing financial constraints. Football, it was said, comprises 20 percent of the district’s athletic budget and 50 percent of its insurance costs for athletics. There would be additional costs in facilities upkeep, etc.
Another factor: In 2008, the state of Arizona eliminated funding to the state’s community colleges.
The decision, if not reversed, would leave just three Arizona community colleges — Arizona Western in Yuma, Eastern Arizona in Thatcher, Pima in Tucson — playing football. The Western States Football League, which also includes Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, would be decimated.
A movement is afoot to keep the programs alive with private funding, and multiple petitions are being circulated.
If Tohi can help somehow, he said, he certainly will.
“That juco life impacted my life in many ways,” said Tohi, an senior inside linebacker who came to UNM after two years at Glendale CC. “It was an avenue for me to get where I’m at right now.
“Now that they’re taking it away … they’re taking away opportunities.”
The two Lobos’ stories are different, but both say they wouldn’t be at UNM now if it weren’t for their junior-college experiences.
Tohi weighed just 215 pounds as a senior at North Canyon High School in Phoenix. At Glendale, he excelled on the field and put on 20 pounds of muscle.
“To be honest, I don’t know where I’d be (without Glendale),” he said. “The whole Glendale staff, the whole athletic department, they helped build me up to become the player I am today.”
Blackwell signed with Weber State in Ogden, Utah, after his career at Liberty High School in Peoria, Ariz. But things didn’t work out there, and he played the 2016 season at Mesa CC before coming to UNM.
“Without Mesa, that’s a good question (where he’d be). I couldn’t tell you,” he said.
“My D-line coach at Mesa (Ben McIvor), who reached out to me, who passed away this summer, was a great man, and without him I would not be here.”
Tohi and Blackwell aren’t the only Phoenix-area juco products who have come to UNM. Former Lobos quarterback Austin Apodaca and current wide receiver Aaron Molina played at Mesa.
Molina had signed witb UNM out of Valley High School in 2014 but did not qualify academically. Mesa proved to be the bridge he crossed to get home.
Lobos coach Bob Davie lived in Scottsdale for a decade before coming to UNM in 2012. Like Blackwell and Tohi, he hopes the Maricopa County programs can be saved.
“College programs across the country and how it affects them is not as big an issue, obviously, as how it affects all those kids in Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, Chandler,” he said. “That area has become such a rich football place.
“There’s a lot of opportunities right there for players that will be all of a sudden be off the table.”