Combs (Pinal County, Ariz.) High School left Kyle Flake’s seat empty and the procession line open for him during graduation ceremonies Tuesday night on the football field.
When his name was called, Flake’s three siblings – 21-year-old Kaytlinn Hewitt, 16-year-old Ben Flake and 12-year-old Whaelynn Flake – walked onto the stage and accepted the diploma on Kyle’s behalf.
Whaelynn carried a big photo of Kyle in his football uniform as the trio received the diploma. Ben, who will be graduating next year, pointed to the sky as he walked off the stage.
“Kyle inspired me by just always doing the right thing and how he just makes everyone around him happy,” Ben said.
Kyle Flake, a top football player and wrestler, died earlier this month after sustaining injuries in a car accident April 29 in Florence. He was 18. After being declared brain dead, Flake was kept on life support for two days, before surgeons removed his organs, including his heart, kidneys and lungs, to be donated to extend others’ lives.
Kyle’s father, Paul, and stepmother, Sabrina, wore shirts with “#kylestrong” on the front during Tuesday’s graduation.
Cheryl Ardisani, his mom, was moved to tears Tuesday night by the stories Kyle’s friends shared with her about how Kyle gave back, stories she never knew about. One such story involved a freshman who was bullied and Kyle taking him under his wing, telling him he wouldn’t let anybody hurt him.
“My motto, because I worked in a funeral home, was, ‘Treat it like an old Chevy, and use whatever you can, because if you can help somebody else, you should,’ ” Cheryl said. “So he took on that, ‘I’m going to help as many people as I can.’ ”
It wasn’t until a long hospital visit with his dying great-grandfather in December that Kyle made the decision to sign up to be an organ donor.
“He spent quite a few hours with my grandfather,” Paul Flake said. “He said the next day, ‘This is something I need to do.’ He signed up on Dec. 22.
“It wasn’t a shock to us. But at the same time, we had the same type of idea that this would be the best thing.”
Travis Miller, elevated to head football coach after last season, was Flake’s wrestling coach at Combs for four years. He said that Flake’s impact was felt well before he died. Flake was voted by his peers as Most Inspirational Student, Miller said. On Friday, graduates got together and wrote messages to Kyle on green balloons and released them into the sky. The color green represented the act of donating life, Miller said.
Every year, the departing senior class gives a gift to the school. This year’s gift was a memory garden with a stone walk-up. A path will lead to the bench with stepping stones. The bench’s engraving will read, “In memory of our Coyotes,” and each stone will have a name engraved of a student lost. The last stone will have Kyle’s name on it.
Miller said he would like to see local businesses and other community members create a memorial at the football field.
“As the head football coach, for years to come, I plan on using Kyle as an example as I teach my players about hard work and being a leader like Kyle was on the football field and as my captain on the wrestling mats,” Miller said.
Flake was a three-time state qualifier in wrestling. He was among the team’s top tacklers last season as a linebacker/strong safety.
Miller said Flake got some of the wrestlers and football players to come to Miller’s 6-year-old son’s birthday party and hang out with him.
Miller said he could see a little bit of Pat Tillman in Flake with his huge heart and willingness to help others. Flake even wore Tillman’s number, 40.
“To say he was kind of a Pat Tillman-like kid, no question,” Miller said.
There is a sense of victory that through Flake’s death he has extended the lives of at least five others with his lungs, heart and kidneys.
“We’re sorry for the loss of our son,” Paul Flake said. “But at the same time we’re so excited for these families to have an opportunity to prolong their lives.
“Not only pray for us, but pray for them, as well.”