"I love Aztec history," Juan Roque says, holding a Philly cheese steak sandwich in his huge hands as if it were an ocarina. "It's a real rags-to-riches story. A band of indigenous people in northern Mexico who basically had nothing, who migrated south, got powerful, knocked off all the big tribes and created one of the most beautiful cultures...."
As Roque talks, you get the idea that the Aztecs haven't crashed the conversation by accident. For the "band of people who basically had nothing," you could substitute the Arizona State football team, circa 1994—winners of just three games. For "got powerful, knocked off all the big tribes," you are invited to imagine the same Sun Devils, circa 1996—undefeated, second ranked, conquerors of onetime No. 1 Nebraska and contenders for the national championship. As for "one of the most beautiful cultures," how about the rose-strewn streets of Pasadena on New Year's Day?
Then again, this monologue may not be about football at all. Roque says his ideal is the Aztec warrior, whom he describes as "fearless yet respectful, courageous yet humble. Under that mentality there is no barrier to achievement." As you look more closely at this 22-year-old, so big—6'8", 319 pounds—that he makes the booth he's occupying in the College Street Deli look like a child's swing, you wonder what's bubbling under the baseball cap, blocking schemes or dialectics?
The answer is both. In Roque (rhymes with croquet) the Sun Devils have a finisher, literally and figuratively. This season at left tackle Roque has had 662 "finishes" (football slang for those occasions on which an offensive lineman neutralizes a defender until the whistle is blown) and 70 "double finishes" (blocks that knock a defender on his butt). But Roque is also a finisher in a larger sense. He got his degree in Latin American history in May, and now he's that rare bird, the graduate-student All-America football player. Even his genes proclaim persistence: An aunt lived 105 years, a grandmother 95. "I come from a family that's made of oak," he says with pride. "My mama says, 'We're from good wood.' "
And the Arizona State quarterback's mama says—well, listen for yourself, because she says it all the time. After every Sun Devils game, as the players and their families mill around, Marilyn Plummer spots the Aztec warrior and runs over and gives him a big hug. She says, "Thank you, Juan, for protecting my son."
Did the Aztecs have a word for bodyguard? Did they produce wall carvings showing a little guy running around with a small package while a giant guy flattens pursuers? Roque doesn't know, but he's determined that no modern glyph will show Jake (the Snake) Plummer lying on the ground after a blindside tackle.
"In our offense the quarterback is the most important guy on the field," Roque says. "They get our quarterback, they've got us." And Plummer is not just any quarterback, but a rare combination of skill and spunk—the principal reason the Sun Devils are in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1987. "Without Jake, we're nothing," says Roque. "You just can't help but love the guy."
Or despise him. "Well, yeah," Roque concedes with a bashful smile. "I hated his guts when he first got here in '93. Here comes this skinny, goofy kid from Idaho, too laid-back, always popping off. I grabbed him by the throat one time and said I was going to kill him. And you know what? He just smiled."
Roque's conclusion? "I said, 'This guy's got no break point.' "
The following year, when both Roque and Plummer were starters, friendship replaced antagonism. For one thing, it was hard for Roque to be jealous of a quarterback who took more hits than a pi�ata. "That was the year that some of our guys wouldn't follow the rules, just wanted to do their own thing," Roque recalls. "They'd miss blocks, run the wrong routes, and you'd see Jake get slammed. It made you sick." And it made the Sun Devils a 3-8 team.