Hemmila's Arizona legacy: A symphony of smiles

Hemmila's Arizona legacy: A symphony of smiles

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Cody Ippolito was an Arizona freshman linebacker in 2012 when he met his college roommate for the first time at Likins Residence Hall.

The first thing he and offensive lineman Zach Hemmila did was argue about how to set up their room.

They reached a compromise.

Then they became best friends.

Going to school. Playing football. Late-night runs for burritos. Killing zombies on Xbox. Going for walks when they couldn't sleep. When they could sleep, deciding to do so in the team locker room so they would be sure to be on time for 6 a.m. weight-lifting sessions.

"Things like that are the things you cherish most," Ippolito said Wednesday morning, just more than 48 hours after the Wildcats learned that Hemmila had passed away in his sleep sometime Sunday night or Monday morning because of unknown causes. "It's going to be different without him."

Coach Rich Rodriguez and three Wildcats met with the media at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, and even as eyes filled with tears amid the grief, the happy memories of Hemmila came shining through. One of the most-used words of the morning was "smile."

"When I'm at practice, I'm very serious and I'm very hard on myself," said right guard Jacob Alsadek, who figured to be starting next to Hemmila, the projected starting center, this season.

"He would always look at me and tell me to smile. That is something I will never forget about him. He was always going to tell me to smile no matter how hard things got, no matter how tired I was.

"That is just something I loved about him. He was just so happy, no matter what was going on."

There is not much of a blueprint for what the Wildcats are going through.

They have met as a team. They have met as position groups. The offensive linemen gathered Monday night and told stories of what the loved most about Hemmila. The Cats have tried to hold practice, although Tuesday morning's workout was washed out by rain and the practice reduced to a later walk-through.

Rain chased the team to Tempe for a Wednesday afternoon practice and two Thursday practices at the facilities of the Arizona Cardinals, who offered their help while the Wildcats deal with the aftermath of all the bad weather.

"I think it's probably best for us to stay busy," Rodriguez said.

When they return to Tucson on Thursday night, they will attend a viewing of Hemmila's body that night (the public is invited to attend from 4-7 p.m. at St. Pius X Catholic Church on 1800 N. Camino Pio Decimo) and attend services for him Friday.

"I told the team, this is not in the coaching manual," Rodriguez said.

"We will figure it out together. We have a tight group. I think the guys are close. We're not shying away from talking about it. We'll get through this as a team. That's what you have to do."

Hemmila's locker remains untouched. The coaches will preserve his seat in the meeting room. If notes or instructions are distributed, Hemmila gets a copy, too, Alsadek said.

"We still feel like he's here," Alsadek said.

"Still can't believe that it happened. I still feel like he's going to walk into this room, smiling at me, or I'm going to walk into the locker room and see him sitting down, smiling."

Rodriguez said the program will find ways to publicly honor and remember Hemmila during the season.

Internally, there is nothing much to do but be there for each other. That's where it starts. Be a even stronger brotherhood of Wildcats. Remember the best of their friend, their teammate, and take that with them wherever they go.

Take the happy nature. You get a smile, and you get a smile ...

"He did that for everyone. He was that person," Ippolito said.

"I could walk past him, maybe not having that good of a day and he'd be like, 'What's wrong?' I'd be like, 'Nothing. I'm good.' He would say, 'Man, put a smile on your face. You're walking around here hating life.' ...

"He was that kind of kid. He was literally that kind of kid. And 24/7, too. I have never seen the kid be mean to anyone. He never insulted anyone. He was always trying to pick people up."

He probably still will.

This team will carry with them #Forever65, and there will come many times when they are tired or angry or depressed or sad or lonely, and perhaps they will think of what Zach Hemmila would say to them right at that moment.

And they'll smile.

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In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that you consider making a donation in Zach's honor to "Kids of Steele" by clicking HERE and selecting "Kids of Steele" in the "Designation" drop-down menu. You can also mail donations to:

Kids of Steele

P.O. Box 245073

Tucson, AZ 85724-5073