TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s mid-March and Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman Brett Toth sits at a conference table in the middle of a room inside the Social Sciences Building on Arizona State’s campus. He’s holding a red pen in his right hand, grading midterm exams. It’s a couple of days before the start of spring break and about a week before campus closes for the semester because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In front of Toth sits a pile of papers. Toth is stone-faced and quiet, focused on the task at hand. He already has been to the Cardinals’ Tempe headquarters for a weightlifting session, but by midmorning Toth has traded in his Cardinals gear for another kind of uniform: Army fatigues.
Toth, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and as part of the Department of Defense’s decision to allow him to play in the NFL, Toth needs to fulfill his active-duty requirement. For him, that’s an assignment at Arizona State’s Army ROTC.
Five days a week during the offseason — and on Tuesdays, the players’ off day, during the season — Toth reports to his small office at Arizona State for what essentially has become his second job. He comes in even when he’s not required to.
“It just shows that he’s all-in on the Army,” said Lt. Col. James Sink, who runs Arizona State’s Army ROTC. “My biggest concern, not knowing him, was that, ‘Hey, I’m going get this guy and he’s gonna be an NFL football player and it’s gonna be like herding cats to get him to come here and do what we need.’ But the opposite couldn’t be more true.”
Toth’s active-duty requirement was reduced from five years to two years because of a President Donald Trump-directed policy revision for service academy graduates who want to play pro sports. Toth’s two-year commitment was scheduled to expire on May 23, which would have released him into the inactive reserves until his football career ended and he could complete the final three years of his initial requirement. However, he met with the Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy last week in Phoenix and discussed extending his obligation back to the initial requirement of five years, which Toth will fulfill while simultaneously playing football.
So with his 6-foot-6, 291-pound frame fit neatly under a table, Toth gets to work on those exams.
“Thankfully, it’s not more stringent work, and not tougher subjects,” said Toth, who spent most of his rookie season with the Cardinals on the non-football injury list. “It’s stuff I’ve been working on for the past six years, so I’m actually qualified do it. But it’s got to be done. It’s the position that the Army gave me, so just kind of do it.”
Toth’s role at the ROTC extends far beyond paperwork. He is an assistant instructor of military science, working alongside Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Moana, mainly with “Year 2s,” teaching team development and military doctrine — the basics of an officer in the Army.
“Making sure you know what you can, what you can’t do, but also just kind of going into different decision-making processes and just being able to analyze a problem, go through it effectively, find different courses of action, and then execute whatever solution’s necessary,” Toth explained.
Toth is a “really aggressive” teacher, Moana said, but one who relies on his experience to guide his teachings.
“It’s refreshing because not too long ago, I was in their seats,” Toth said. “And now I get to teach a class the way that I wanted it to be taught. So, the main things, teach them what’s important, teach them the stuff, first, they’re going to be graded on because everyone’s just going to stress about that, and, second, the things that they’re actually going to use.”
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Toth joins the cadets for physical training, aka PT, at 5:45 a.m. before his 7:30 a.m. Cardinals lifts. Some days, they’ll go for 2-mile runs; other days, they’ll play games such as Ultimate Frisbee, which Toth watches from the sideline to avoid injuries. But Toth has been sharing his experience in the weight room, explaining power angles and launch points, especially as they relate to the new strength-based Army Combat Fitness Test, which is scheduled to start in October. It’ll replace the old test that featured just situps, pushups and a 2-mile run. Toth also has worked on creating a workout program for cadets who are injured.
Toth takes advantage of his platform as an NFL player to help recruit new cadets. He has met with the Arizona State athletic department a few times to do his part in explaining how the Army can fill a void for athletes after their college careers are over.
But while his commitment to the Army is important and the ROTC enjoys Toth’s platform, football comes first, Sink said. Sink, a longtime Seahawks fan who said he has become a Cardinals fan for all but the two games in which they play each other every season, wants to give Toth as much of an opportunity to compete for a starting job as possible.
“Honestly, I think the football piece is maybe of more value to the Army than what he does here just from a recruiting standpoint,” Sink said. “I’m one of the people that’s always been an advocate for letting them go play because I want them to tell their Army story on a stage that people watch. I can easily not pay attention to an Army commercial that’s on TV in between innings or at halftime or whatever. But when I see a guy on the field and they’re telling his story, to me that has a positive impact on the Army.”
Toth is starting the second year of a three-year contract that will pay him $675,000 this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. As he continues to fight for a spot on the Cardinals’ 53-man roster, Toth understands what’s at stake. He could help ASU’s Army ROTC program with the local exposure. He also could bolster the case for academy graduates to be allowed to pursue professional careers immediately after college.
“In my mind, there’s no other option but to do it,” Toth said. “There’s no other option but to make a name for myself and actually be successful in the NFL. It’s an investment, and it’s one that a lot of people are going to be quick to write off if I don’t make it.”