Clifford’s Debater Spirit

Getting back into his passion for Speech and Debate, overcoming past trauma

Earlier this month, the debate team was preparing for its trip to one of their anticipated tournaments. The debaters where dressed in their business attire, their portfolios perfectly organized, some butterflies fluttering in their stomachs.

To add to their concerns, they had to figure out how to get to the tournament because the school did not have a bus for them, and first-year head coach Derek Clifford was unable to get behind the wheel of the spirit bus. Not because he can’t drive, but because he has memory, and nobody can blame him for that.

When he was just a 19-year old debater at Ricks College in Utah, Clifford was in a very serious car accident that threatened his life. 

Clifford, along with five of his fellow debaters and his debate coach, were piled into a van, excited, as they were on their way to California for a much-anticipated debate tournament, when they were hit. The van carrying Clifford and his companions swerved off the interstate and rolled, leaving Clifford with serious head injuries; one of his teammates was killed in the accident. 

The young Clifford was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. The hospital was where he stayed for the next several months, in a coma; his doctors were unsure whether he would ever wake up. 

Thankfully, Clifford eventually woke from his coma after three months, but he still had many challenges to face. 

The 19-year old woke from his coma to discover that he would have to completely relearn how to walk and talk. 

As can be imagined, this was nowhere near an easy process. The doctors attending to Clifford were unsure he would ever get back to the level of walking and talking he was at previous to the accident. 

But Clifford would not hear this; he made it through his physical therapy and was able to walk again way sooner than his doctors had predicted. When asked about how he was able to recover in such a speedy fashion, Clifford said, “I’m very competitive, you could say it’s my debater’s spirit.” 

For the past twelve years, Clifford has been a teacher in various schools throughout Utah, where he grew up, and Idaho, where he attended Ricks College, known today as Brigham Young University – Idaho. 

“It [Speech and Debate] pretty much put me in as a teacher” said Clifford on how participating in Speech and Debate has impacted his life.

Putting his Bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts to use, Clifford has been a drama teacher for much of this time, with some film study classes mixed in as well. 

Despite having a big passion for debate and being on both his high school and college debate teams, Clifford did not participate in that world following his accident in college. 

That is, until this year, when he began his first full school year teaching in Arizona and started his new teaching job at Perry as a film study teacher, but also as the speech and debate teacher.

Clifford said he enjoys returning to the world of debate as a teacher and being able to watch his students “start very shy and become these major forces.”

As the Speech and Debate team has had to endure multiple transitions of coaches in recent years, Clifford says, “it has been hard to get them to rely on me,” because the debaters have had to become very self-sufficient. Despite this, Clifford and the team have built a relationship that is conducive to many wins and awards.