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‘He already had a purple heart’: Kirtland Central retires jersey to honor alumnus killed in Iraq tour

Surviving family members of late Sgt. Clifton Yazzie react to the unveiling of the jersey that was retired during the halftime of the Kirtland Central and Shiprock boys basketball game on Feb. 8, at Bronco Arena. Clifton Yazzie is a 2001 graduate of Kirtland Central High School and a member of the state championship team the same year. Yazzie was killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom conflict in January 2006. (Curtis Ray Benally/Turkeyboy Photography)
Legacy of dedication left behind with school and teammates

Family, coaches, faculty and basketball fans on Thursday honored a former student-athlete who paid the ultimate price in war, and retired his jersey during halftime at Kirtland Central’s home game against Shiprock High.

On Jan. 20, 2006, Sgt. Clifton Yazzie was one of four soldiers killed when a roadside explosive device detonated during patrol operations in Iraq. Yazzie was on his second tour, Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Military Order of the Purple Heart posthumously awarded a plaque to Yazzie.

During the extended halftime, the Kirtland Central Army JROTC Bronco Battalion presented the colors.

Family of Yazzie stood at half-court, including his daughter, Chynitta, and son, Cayden. Coaches, administrators and members of Four Corners Blue Star Mothers Chapter One stood on the side in support.

The formation was one that is done for a funeral service, said JROTC instructor Pedro Larribas.

“I did it symbolically in the sense of leading his jersey out paying our final respects to him for the ultimate sacrifice but finishing that with congratulations and honoring the parents because they live that every day, missing Sgt. Yazzie,” he said.

The cadets ranged in age from freshmen to seniors, Larribas said, so that they all could experience an aspect of military service.

“Our students may never go on to join the military but they’ll always keep this memory,” he said “When they come into Bronco arena and see that jersey up there, they were a part of something big and memorable.”

Yazzie’s jersey was unveiled after a countdown, then the lights in Bronco arena were dimmed and “Taps” was played.

A portrait painted by student Evan Stephenson was presented and will be displayed outside the arena in the student commons.

Norman C. Begaye (left), Nenahnezad Chapter president, presents an embroidered jacket to C.Y. Yazzie, father of Clifton Yazzie, during the jersey retirement ceremony. (Curtis Ray Benally/Turkeyboy Photography)

Clifford Yazzie, father of Clifton, also was honored that night by the Kirtland Youth Association for his many dedicated years of service in basketball.

Norman C. Begaye, KYA basketball league commissioner, spoke to Yazzie’s father, “Coach CY,” about his involvement with the basketball leagues.

Yazzie was gifted a mug, beanie and a jacket embroidered with “his favorite letters, KC.”

Steve Carlson, Central Consolidated superintendent, and Christina Aspaas, board vice president, also were in attendance.

Carlson, a teacher at the time, was the graduating speaker for Yazzie’s graduating class.

“I do appreciate the school board got involved and have been very supportive,” he said.

A defensive play for the books

For Steve Scott, former Kirtland varsity boys basketball coach, the purple heart plaque brings reverence to Yazzie’s commitment to his alma mater.

Yazzie’s involvement in the Artesia game during the 2001 state tournament remains vivid in Scott’s memory.

“We are caught in a very bizarre strange game, and on paper we should win,” he said. “On game night, we’re losing.”

With four minutes left to go in the game, the team was behind 14 points.

Five Kirtland players, all starters, had fouled out of the game.

Scott said the bench would need to find a way to win the game.

“There’s no margin for error, and you have to play every possession like the last possession on defense and on offense,” he said.

It would be a defensive play that required the players to be in position and “play your rules.”

Yazzie got into defensive position and took a charge from an Artesia player driving to the basket. He was “run over,” and the official called the ball for Kirtland.

“In a game this is so critical because we got no time,” he said. “We got to score when we got the ball and we got to stop them when they got the ball.”

This play ended up turning the whole game around. With 2.8 seconds left to go and behind three points, Pat Crawford made a half-court shot to tie the game and take them into overtime.

The Kirtland team secured the win in overtime, and went on to win the 2001 state title and continue their streak until 2003.

“That one play, in the last four minutes of that ballgame is so ingrained in my mind,” he said. “I can see it like it happened like it was yesterday.”

The play by Yazzie told you what kind of kid he was. He was right where he needed to be at that crucial moment.

Yazzie did not have immense court time as a player, but he worked in practice to make everyone else better and was all about the team, Scott said.

There was no complaint from Yazzie about his play time. He was a cheerleader on the bench, patting his teammates on the back and encouraging them.

When Yazzie found his way to the military, he was so happy and when Scott questioned his choice to take a second tour, Yazzie replied, “That’s what I do.”

“Not everybody can say that,” Scott said.

Yazzie received the Purple Heart medal, but to former coach Scott, he already had one.

Parents C.Y. Yazzie (left) and Jeanette Yazzie (right) of U.S. Army Sgt. Clifton Yazzie are emotional during the playing of “Taps” at the jersey retirement ceremony for their son. Clifton is an alumni of Kirtland Central High School Class of 2001 and a member of the state championship of the same year. (Curtis Ray Benally/Turkeyboy Photography)
‘Like one of my own’

English teacher Lisa Cline described Yazzie as the sweetest person she’s ever met, a tall and long-legged student who one day found himself in her classroom.

Yazzie was not a student of Cline’s, but she asked him when she saw his build, if he ran. After hearing about his involvement with basketball, Cline suggested he run cross-country, since it was the offseason for basketball.

“It’ll help you on the basketball court, and he said ‘OK’,” she said.

A business teacher at the time, Cline was recruited to help with cross-country by her father, who was the coach.

Cline remembers Yazzie’s humor, tricks and personality that made everybody love him.

“Like he was running for mayor, he was talking to everybody,” she said.

English teacher Lisa Cline keeps a photo of Clifton Yazzie by her desk alongside her own photos of her own children. His death was like losing one of her own kids. Alx Lee/Tri-City Record

The news of Yazzie’s death was devastating to Cline when she heard of it at a basketball game.

“It was like losing my own child,” she said.

Donna Woods, former bus driver and concession manager, said she remembers Yazzie as a good kid who always acknowledged her.

After graduating, he would make a point to visit her at the concession stand, bringing her money from where he was stationed, she said.

Woods was involved in cross-country and said the boys team would sing “Oh Donna” to her.

Kirtland Central High School art student Evan Stephenson (right) and art teacher Christopher Schramm present a portrait painting in tribute to Sgt. Clifton Yazzie to the Yazzie family during the jersey retirement ceremony at halftime. (Curtis Ray Benally/Turkeyboy Photography)
Evan Stephenson, a junior at Kirtland Central High School, started the portrait of alumnus Clifton Yazzie in May 2023. (Alx Lee/Tri City)
A portrait of valor

Evan Stephenson, a junior at Kirtland Central, said the portrait would be his first painting. He primarily draws and sketches.

Stephenson started to pursue art at a young age after being inspired by his uncle, who was an artist.

Principal Rebecca Benedict had taken the project to the former art teacher, and Stephenson volunteered to do it.

Starting in May 2023 Stephenson started the portrait by meeting with the family who gave him creative freedom and were thankful to him for taking up the task.

Stephenson said the process of painting the portrait had its moments of struggle. As his first painting, there was some learning that came with mixing and blending the paint.

Another component that had some difficulty was getting Yazzie’s smile right.

“Everybody loved his teeth and everybody knew him for his teeth,” he said.

The current art teacher, Christopher Schramm, has been a big help in getting the portrait done, Stephenson said.

Schramm assisted Stephenson with the American flag and the different colors on the portrait that needed shading and blending.

“I think it’s looking great with how it turns out, and I think the family will really like it,” he said.

Stephenson holds a reference photo of Yazzie used for the portrait. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)
Stephenson paints detail on the Shiprock pinnacle that is featured on the portrait. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)
The epitome of a Kirtland Bronco

Benedict said Yazzie’s mother, Jeanette, had asked about the retirement of his jersey.

According to the New Mexico Athletic Association, the retirement of a jersey would be the school board’s decision.

After establishing criteria including, GPA of the student and good character, the school board approved the retirement.

“It was a no-brainer that they approved it,” she said.

Benedict has been with Kirtland Central High for five years and did not know Yazzie but just in interacting with those who knew him, he represented how Benedict sees Kirtland.

At graduations, speakers will talk of the journey students are going to take when leaving high school and the expectations faculty and teachers have for them. Yazzie was the epitome of that, Benedict said.

“There’s so much good going on, and that’s what I see here,” she said. “It’s a family here, the school is the mainstay of the community, and he was a part of that.”

C.Y. and Jeanette Yazzie, parents of U.S. Army Sgt. Clifton Yazzie, pose for a photo with members of Four Corners Blue Star Mothers Chapter One at the conclusion of the jersey retirement ceremony Feb. 8, at Carlin Gym. (Curtis Ray Benally/Turkeyboy Photography)