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From walk-on to starter: Diné football player reflects on journey on NMSU team

From walk-on to starter: Diné football player reflects on journey on NMSU team

By Lee Begaye
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK – Two years ago Shiyazh Pete was a walk-on football player at New Mexico State, a freshman who felt somewhat lost and neglected, as many college freshmen do. Shiyazh never played a snap in an actual game – he was limited to the team’s practice squad – and he was not on scholarship, meaning that he had to pay for his education.

Two years later Shiyazh is a tower of strength, a 6’8”, 320-pound junior who started all 15 games at left offensive tackle for the Aggies as they finished 10-5 – the team’s most wins in one season since 1961. Not only that, but Shiyazh is on full scholarship, and he played a vital role in arguably NMSU’s most renowned victory in program history: a 34-10 shellacking of Southeastern Conference (SEC) power Auburn at historic Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 18.

“To play against them was out of this world, an astonishing feat for NMSU, and beating them bad,” recalls the Shiprock High School alum. “I’ll tell you, absolutely phenomenal. The atmosphere, the energy, it was pure pandemonium.”

The transition from reservation life to college is often a formidable challenge. Many Navajo students, Shiyazh included, grapple with the adjustment to the fast-paced and demanding college lifestyle. Reflecting on his freshman year in 2021-2022, Shiyazh acknowledges the difficulty despite his high school success of maintaining a 3.8 GPA.

As a freshman Shiyazh’s focus was on learning the ropes in Las Cruces, both on and off the football field. His playtime was primarily with the practice squad, and he didn’t participate in any games as NMSU was trying to salvage a winning season. The squad had little camaraderie, and victories, few and far between, were prioritized over player development. The Aggies finished the season with a 2-10 record.

Then Jerry Kill was hired as head coach. The second semester brought about significant changes for Shiyazh, as practices transitioned from afternoon to morning. This shift interfered with his major, leading him to change from Computer Science to Communications to better align with his football commitment.

The coaching change proved to be a significant benefit for Shiyazh, however, as he continued to refine his technique and skills throughout his redshirt freshman year, essentially his second year of football, under the guidance of offensive line coach Andrew Mitchell. Coach Mitchell was part of a coaching staff that coach Kill had brought with him from Texas Christian University. A notable change during this period was Shiyazh being granted a full scholarship.

“They [coach Martin] had me as a walk-on, and coach Kill brought his coaching staff, and that’s when they put me on a full scholarship,” said Shiyazh. “It’s great because, you know, I am more proficient in my craft, and the more respect and the better they treat you. It’s a good way to pay for your education and your college.”

Shiyazh found himself earning more playing time, in actual games. He initially was part of the rotation at left tackle, but when the starter sustained an injury, Shiyazh replaced him atop the depth chart for a game at Big Ten power Wisconsin in September of 2022. From that point on, he secured a starting position for the remaining nine games, culminating in a victory at the conclusion of the season in the Quicklane Bowl. NMSU finished the season with a commendable 7-6 record.

It should be noted that most experts consider left tackle, Shiyazh’s position, to be the most important spot on the offensive line. If you’ve seen the film The Blind Side, you know why. This is the same position Michael Oher played in the film, the outside spot on the left side of the O-line where a passing quarterback is most vulnerable. That Shiyazh earned a starting spot as a redshirt freshman at this position is a testament to his development and hard work.

This past season marked a historic achievement for the Aggies as they secured a 10-win season. Shiyazh started all fifteen games at left tackle, entering his third year, or redshirt sophomore, season. Despite playing the entire season with a dislocated thumb and wearing a club-like cast, Shiyazh showcased his resilience on the field.

The highlight of the season was undoubtedly the memorable win over the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. In addition to the victory, NMSU received a significant paycheck of $1,700,000 for playing against Auburn.

Auburn, a powerhouse in the SEC, boasts a rich tradition and history in college football. The SEC is perceived with high regard despite some perceived favoritism, having won 13 of the past 17 national championships, with Auburn claiming the title in 2010. Despite being a 24-point underdog, the Aggies pulled off the most impressive upset of the college football season, not only winning but dominating the Tigers by the same margin they were expected to lose by (24 points).

“Playing Auburn was in the back of my mind at the beginning of the season,” Shiyazh said. “I circled it on my calendar. I was pretty sure there was something I had prepared for the whole season. And to actually be there, just have fun in the stadium, walk among greatness. It was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. And to actually perform and outperform my opponent made it even more spectacular.”

Key moments in this once-in-a-lifetime game for Shiyazh included a double block on a defensive end and a linebacker, contributing to the Aggies scoring a touchdown and going up 17-7 in the 3rd quarter.

It should be noted that only one Saturday after Shiyazh and the Aggies walloped Auburn by 24 points, the Tigers hosted Alabama and would have beaten them were it not for a miraculous 4th-and-31 scoring pass in the final seconds. On Monday, Alabama came up short to No. 1 Michigan in the Rose Bowl 27-20 in overtime.

The Aggies’ season concluded with a challenging game against Fresno State, resulting in a loss. Pete expressed disappointment with his performance in the game, attributing part of the issue to the cast for his injury and his ongoing development of technique. Despite the setback, Shiyazh remains determined to learn and grow for future seasons.

The offseason has commenced for Shiyazh, marked by the recent resignation by coach Kill. A new coaching staff is on its way, as Shiyazh is strategically planning his short-term approach to enhancing his strength during the upcoming winter conditioning. “January is going to be winter conditioning, so the emphasis would be on getting stronger, filling out,” he said. “Mostly just hitting the weights, working on my technique, and just staying active, physical, and flexible, you know, continuing to better my nutrition, taking it day by day.”

Looking towards the long-term goals in the upcoming 2023-2024 season, Shiyazh has circled a crucial date with Texas A&M, another formidable SEC team. However, his primary focus is on achieving an All-American designation. “My plan is strength, filling out, getting stronger,” said Shiyazh, who is already one of the largest players in college football. “I need to continue to develop my technique even further. And when it comes to statistics, you know, I can’t give up any sacks and stuff like that; it cannot be accepted.”

In terms of his education, Shiyazh has outlined plans to graduate in the fall of 2024, which would be his “junior year” in college football or the fourth year at NMSU. Importantly, he will still have one more year of eligibility to play for the Aggies if he decides to continue his collegiate football journey. As Shiyazh navigates the changes in coaching and prepares for the upcoming season, both on and off the field, his commitment to improvement and success remains unwavering.

For Shiyazh, setting and pursuing goals has been a fundamental strategy in achieving success. His approach is deeply rooted in the teachings of his parents and the guidance he has received from his coaches. Reflecting on his journey, Shiyazh shares valuable advice for fellow Navajo students who aspire to follow in his footsteps: “My suggestion to up-and-coming kids is to lift weights, learn as much as you can from your coaches, and utilize the resources around you. Coach (Anthony) Clah, my high school coach, has been a great resource, along with other coaches. Immerse yourself with these people; they deliver good ideas and thoughts. It’s crucial to get a deep understanding, not only in your studies but also in the game. I’ve always strived to acquire new moves, new skills, and new knowledge, being a pioneer in that regard. But remember to have fun. It shouldn’t feel like a job or a chore. If you’re serious about the discipline, a significant part of it should always be enjoyable. Take it day by day, live in the moment.”

Shiyazh’s advice resonates with the essence of dedication, continuous learning, and finding joy in the pursuit of one’s goals. His words serve as an inspirational guide for those navigating the path of both academics and athletics, emphasizing the importance of embracing the journey with passion and a sense of enjoyment.


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