Yuma takes pride in its Criminals YUMA - In a politically correct world where Indians, Warriors and Redskins are fast disappearing, the streets seem to be safe for Criminals. "As far as we know, we're the only anybody - high school, university or pro team - with the nickname Criminals," said Jeff Magin, Yuma High School principal.The biggest surprise for me was learning that Jeff Magin is now the principal. He's a pretty good guy overall but a bit of a politician if you ask me. When I was there the principal was more of an old school politician/intellectual, so of course we got along great!
"We have fourth-generation Criminals here." It's also a booming business. The ubiquitous "Crimhead," a distinctive caricature of the mug of a mean-looking, crew cut bad guy, adorns merchandise that can be ordered from a Web site (www.crimwear.com) or bought at a store on campus called the Cell Block.This got started while I was there... They used to sell these really cool coconut hats... They don't have them anymore but how could you go wrong with a set of Criminal Golf Balls?
"I've met people from Canada who all want shirts that say 'Yuma High Criminals,' " said Danny Garcia, 60, a 1964 graduate who works at the school. "When you tell them the story, they're impressed." The Criminals name is a nod to Yuma's abandoned territorial prison. The school actually held classes there from 1910 until 1913. Classes were conducted in the cellblock area and assemblies held in what had been the prison hospital.See there really is history behind this. When I was there I announced football games and at the time the Principal wanted to rebuild the pressbox to look like the lookout-tower from the prison.
Yuma's athletic teams were the Horned Frogs back then. But when the Frogs won a football game against the Phoenix Coyotes in 1913, the angry losers called them criminals. The name stuck, and by 1917, it was officially adopted and became a source of pride.This is my favorite part of the schools history!
The school's wrestling teams wear black-and-white-striped warm-ups that resemble prison garb (and once caused them to be mistaken for escaped convicts at a Gila Bend truck stop). A giant ball-and-chain logo covers the center circle on the floor of the school's 10-year-old gymnasium, known to locals as "The Palace on Prison Hill."Ball-and-Chain is also the name of the school paper.
A fund drive is afoot to raise $60,000 to build a replica of the prison gates at the entrance to the football field. A police squad car, its siren wailing, leads the team onto the field before every home game. "It's our history," said Mike Sharp, 34, a 1988 graduate of the high school who is now its athletic director. "Like agriculture, (the old prison) was a big part of Yuma. We're not glorifying criminals." Sharp said the Yuma Sun newspaper occasionally receives a letter to the editor critical of the nickname. He said it usually comes from a winter visitor or another out-of-stater, never from a Yuma resident. Henry Hernandez, 75, who has lived in Yuma for 30 years and attends many of Yuma High's athletic events, takes along his Criminal seat cushion when he travels. "It's always a conversation piece," he said. "People can't believe it." Yuma, which has a population of about 110,000 and is situated halfway between Phoenix and San Diego, now has three public high schools. With an enrollment of almost 2,700, Yuma High competes as the geographical misfit of a five-school region with four Tempe and Ahwatukee Foothills schools. When it becomes part of an exclusively western Arizona region next school year, it won't have to make the trek to the Valley anymore.Those trips were brutal when I coached there... I can remember getting home after 2am on a Thursday morning (after a Wednesday nite meet) and having to be at school the next morning early to prep before leaving to a weekend tournament on Thursday afternoon.
While other high school sports teams across the country have been pressured to dump politically sensitive names like Redskins or Chiefs, Tom Tyree, the Yuma County superintendent of schools, is committed to doing all he can to preserve the Criminal element in Yuma. "There would be a huge outcry if we tried to change (the nickname)," said Tyree, 56, a 1966 graduate of Yuma High. "There's no way people would be in favor." Besides, Sharp said he doesn't expect any objections from people behind bars. "Wonder if they'd come after us and sue us?" he joked. With plenty of local support, and few detractors, chances are the Criminals are here to stay. "The whole town has Criminal doctors and judges," Magin said. Pointing to a basketball game in progress, he noted that the two referees were former Criminals. "And they're still wearing their stripes," he said.I am so glad this is not a story about trying to change the mascot... and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane!