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Badge of honor: Yuma High students past and present proudly assume the title of Criminals
Duane Evans remembers the reaction he and other members of Yuma High's varsity basketball team got when they went on the road and did their pregame warm-ups in athletic wear with horizontal stripes.
“We looked like real criminals on furlough,” he said with a laugh. “We would get some weird looks. We would get stares and we kind of liked that, being unique like we were.”
In a state and nation where Panthers, Warriors, Knights and Bears have been popular mascots for high school teams, Yuma High has been the one school – then and now – to dub its athletes and student body the Criminals.
While in that respect Evans and his teammates found themselves in a league of their own, the novelty of being Criminals with a capital “C” was lost on them. After all, the mascot had predated them by a half-century. Their older siblings, their parents, even their grandparents had been Yuma High Criminals before them.
“It wasn't strange for us, because we had grown up with it,” said Evans, today the coach of the Raiders varsity baseball team for Cibola High. “We really didn't pay much attention to it; we were just proud of who we were.”
Many die-hard Yuma High fans already know the story about how the Criminals became the Criminals: Fans of a host Phoenix high school football team, angry over the beating they were taking at the hands of the underdog Yuma High team a century ago, began chanting “criminals” at the Yumans.
That might have been the strongest language the Phoenicians could muster, short of profanity, but the Yumans came to embrace, then adopt the name “Criminals.”
“It was kind of a badge of honor for the student community and the athletic community,” said Evans, who also played on Yuma High's varsity football and baseball teams in the 1970s.
But that begs a question: Who or what was the Yuma football players' mascot prior to showing up in Phoenix and being called criminals? Did they have one, or were they simply The Team From Yuma?
Lynn LaBrie, a long-time Yuma resident, says she could find no evidence of a prior school nickname in the course of doing 25 years of research for a book she plans to write about Yuma High's first 50 years. That research included reviewing school yearbooks and archived newspaper articles from 1910 through 1914, as well as interviewing alumni from those years.
Tina Clark, the city of Yuma historian, likewise is unaware of any nickname other than the Criminals. She does set the record straight about one misconception, that Yuma High automatically assumed the moniker of “Criminals” as a result of a fire that destroyed the original school building, forcing classes to move to the just-closed Yuma Territorial Prison.
The prison housed classes from 1910 to 1914, a period when total enrollment numbered no more than about 50, says Clark. In one senior class photo taken back then, only five students appear.
It was during those years, the Yuma High football squad made the trip to Phoenix High School for its game against the Coyotes.
“They were playing up in Phoenix against a heavily favored team there,” said Clark. Yuma took the lead, and the Coyote fans, aware the Yumans studied in a former prison, “began taunting the Yuma team, calling them ‘criminals.'
“I was told the announcer said out loud, ‘Look at that criminal run.' And the name stuck. It became a badge of honor.”
Eventually a bond issue financed construction of a new school building for the Yuma students.
Clark played a key role several years ago in the renovation of the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum, which now includes an exhibit devoted to the prison's brief stint as a high school. One of her favorite photos in the display is one from around the 1920s that shows scrimmaging Yuma High football players, all of them wearing jerseys with horizontal stripes.
“They played (their notoriety) to the hilt,” Clark says. And not just the football players in the picture, she added. “We have 103 years worth of Yuma High students who are proud of that heritage.”
The Criminal name became official in 1917 when the school board formally adopted it, and the years that followed saw the school adopt a mascot dressed in a blue and white striped prison fatigues. Succeeding classes of students have donned Crimwear, casual wear bearing the logo of the Criminal mascot.
Rhett Stallworth, who played on Yuma High's varsity football team and was a state runner-up in wrestling for Criminals in the 1990s, remembers he and teammates being hit up by fans of opposing teams to sell them their school T-shirts. “If you had a T-shirt that said ‘Criminals,' they'd say, ‘I'll buy it off you for 40 dollars.'”
Then, when he went away to college, Stallworth would trade Yuma High T-shirts for the shirts of other students' high school alma maters. Sometimes one Criminal shirt was so valuable it could fetch two shirts in return, he said.
Over the years, the Criminal nickname has earned Yuma High national attention. It once brought a “CBS Morning News” crew to the school campus to do a report. And it has been featured by “Ripley's Believe It or Not!” and lampooned on the Cracked.com humor website.
“There was just so much attention drawn to the fact that we were Criminals,” said Stallworth. “It just catches people off-guard. No one can fathom that anyone would call themselves the Criminals. It has a shock and awe effect.”
The nickname had just such an effect on a visitor to the Yuma area in the 1990s who happened to read a profile in The Yuma Daily Sun of Peg Bolt, who worked at Yuma High as a substitute teacher following a career in the U.S. Marine Corps.
The visitor phoned The Sun, demanding to know why the newspaper would label Bolt a “Criminal” in the headline, given her service to her country and to Yuma's youth.
In the context of Yuma High, a Sun editor told the caller a Criminal was both the school mascot and a figurehead in a proud tradition.
And Peg Bolt could wear the label as a badge of honor.