It’s a homecoming game being played by boys who have lost their homes.
“We’re playing with anger,” running back Lukas Hartley says.
It’s in the middle of a high school football season in which they’ve been taunted for their circumstances, doubted for their schedule, and wearily pitied as that poor little team whose town burned down.
“We want it more than anyone else who’s ever stepped on this football field,” lineman Kasten Ortiz says.
It’s just another night in Paradise, a chilly Friday at Om Wraith Field, where the Bobcats are furiously placing a different sort of stamp on the pregame crowning and halftime float ceremonies.
Homecoming is where the hit is.
The Bobcats fly at visiting Willows from the opening moment, delivering blows that echo through the ancient concrete stands, bounce off the burned championship plaque, soar past the partially melted scoreboard.
After one play, three Willows players are limping to the sideline. On another, Hartley hauls five of them down the field draped over his back and hanging on his legs. On yet another, Tyler Harrison runs through hole so big it’s as if the Paradise linemen made the defenders disappear into the darkness.
By the time Willows looks up, they are trailing 27-0 and it is still the first quarter. When the game finally ends with a running clock and every Bobcats benchwarmer on the field, the final score is 57-0.
“Hungry,” Willows coach Manuel Rakestraw says of the Bobcats. “You can tell they’re hungry to play football.”
At the other end of the field, Paradise coach Rick Prinz is shaking his head at the wonder of it all.
“A mission,” he says. “We’re on a mission.’’
It is, thus far, a mission of magic: eight wins, no losses, 362 points to 40 in a season that has been beyond storybook.
Nearly a year after the most destructive wildfire in California history annihilated their town and caused 86 deaths, the Bobcats are two games from heading into playoffs that could lead them to a coveted sectional title, perhaps even a state championship.
Their journey has brought folks back to the slowly rebuilding city for Friday night reunions and restored a sense of community pride and spirit. On this homecoming night, even though a bank of lights went dark and the stadium bathrooms were still unusable, the stands were filled with the illuminating cheers and working hugs.
“Everybody is talking about the football team, it’s the glue that’s holding a lot of this together,” says Wendy Marsters, a longtime Paradise High biology teacher. “The heart of Paradise is back and beating again.”
It would be a dream season, really, except that the Paradise football players, like many of their fellow students, continue to live an evolving nightmare.
Only three members of the team actually live in Paradise. The long commutes and uncertain housing situations have kept their lives in an uproar. They have lost their routines, their traditions, their footing. And, after the second game of the season, they nearly lost their giant, beloved offensive line coach, Andy Hopper, who suffered a cardiac event that required three surgeries and included at least one doctor’s prediction of probable death.
The Paradise Bobcats are on a mission, certainly. But it is a mission not so much to triumph as it is to adjust to a new normal. This new existence revolves around the only constant in their lives, the one place they can be mad and somebody will listen. They play angry football because football is the only thing that understands.
“A dream season?” Hartley says. “A dream season for me would be, at the end of the day, I get to go to my old home.”
When practice for this season began last spring on a scruffy field next to temporary school in an airport warehouse, the Paradise Bobcats couldn’t even find a football.
Seven months later, they have outscored opponents 171-12 in the first quarter.
“I’m surprised ,” says Prinz, 60, the silver-goateed, fatherly former youth pastor who is in his 21st season as coach. “I wasn’t sure we’d even be able to field a team.”
In the wake of the fire that destroyed the homes of 95 of the 104 players in the program, the Bobcats no longer had equipment or a league or a schedule or even someone to drive the team bus. Every player survived the fire, but after many left town with their relocated families, the varsity was initially whittled from 56 players to 22 who practiced in jeans and T-shirts.
Seven months later, the offense is averaging more than 400 yards per game rushing and the defense has pitched three straight shutouts, giving up only four touchdowns all season.
“I thought we might play evenly with some of these teams. I never expected this,” Prinz says. “There’s a lot I didn’t know.”
He didn’t know that several of his missing stars, who spent the spring semester in places like Fresno and San Diego and Oregon, would get homesick and return to Paradise in the fall to live with siblings and grandparents. Those returnees swelled the number of varsity players to 39.
The schedule, which has been criticized on social media, was constructed before those players returned. Thus, it is filled with mostly smaller schools, contributing to the one-sided nature of the games.
“When I made the schedule, I had no idea so many kids would be coming back,” athletic director Anne Stearns says.
Once the playoffs begin, the Bobcats will be placed with more enrollment-appropriate competition.
“It’s so important that they’re winning,” Stearns adds. “Winning is the one thing that helps these kids feel connected to something. Losing for us would be 100 times worse than any other team losing. For us to have a chance with the number of players I thought we were going to have, our schedule had to happen.”
The second thing that Prinz didn’t fully understand was how drastically his players’ attitudes were changed by the fire. They became wholly consumed by football because there is little else in their lives. That focus led to a ferocity that even went beyond one of the program’s mottos: “We Just Hit People.”
“They’re different, they’re really different,” Prinz says. “They’re edgy. They’re playing with that anger. They’re taking the physical thing seriously. … There’s so many distractions off the field, they get here, it all comes out.”
You can hear it not only in Bobcats’ hits, you can see it in their steely stares when they talk about this season and its meaning.
“We’re way more focused, we’re not messing around, we act like the other team took our homes from us instead of that fire,” running back and safety JD Webster says.
And make no mistake, nearly a year later, that fire is still with them, the harrowing stories of escape still jostling their young minds.
“I wake up every morning thinking I’m still in my house in Paradise,” Webster says. “It’s been almost a year and it still feels like yesterday. It’s not getting back to normal.”
The anger comes not only from what has been lost, but from what has changed. Addresses and routines. As the season has progressed, they’ve slowly realized their lives will never be the same.
“It’s been harder than I think anyone imagined,” Prinz says. “These kids are just scattered.”
Only three players actually live in what exists of the rebuilding town of Paradise. Most of them commute from rented homes and tiny apartments and worn trailers in towns as far as 90 minutes away. By the time practice ends, some are too weary to trek home, so they hang out in the school parking lot. Every afternoon and evening, they’re in that parking lot, swapping stories on flatbed trucks, checking out music in front seats, eating fast food off of trunks.
“There’s no place left in Paradise to really hang out; you can’t go to anybody’s house, so the parking lot becomes our entire social scene,” Hartley says.
Eventually, Prinz orders them to leave, as he naturally worries that nothing good can come of a bunch of teenagers spending too much time in a parking lot.
“The problem is,” he says, “many of them feel like they have nowhere to go.”
Some of them end up sleeping on teammates’ couches or in coaches’ homes. None of it feels right for any of them. Their entire world has become that parking lot and, below it, the football field.
“Everybody has lost so much, you grab what you have left — which is football — and try to get to the finish line as fast as you can,” says Hartley, who spends several nights a week with friends.
Like other players on the team, Hartley has lost weight this season, as much as 15 pounds at one point, because his meals are as inconsistent as his life.
“You wake up in somebody else’s house and your big question is, do you eat their breakfast food or do you go buy a $9 burrito?” he says.
Harrison, another star of the offense, spends many weekends with his parents in San Diego. During the week, he lives about 15 miles away in Chico with his grandmother. Sometimes he borrows her aging car to drive to practice, and often it stalls, leaving him waiting for as many as two hours by the side of the road before somebody on the team can pick him up.
“We’re playing football like this is all we got, because it really is,” Harrison says. “Our team has become so close, like a family. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
After their second game of the season, the family suffered another blow when their inspirational leader, line coach Hopper, woke up feeling like his insides had exploded. He had suffered an aortic dissection, a serious tear involving the inner layer of the large blood vessel branching off the heart.
His medical odyssey involved two helicopter rides to a Reno hospital, four weeks of various procedures because of complications, and one doctor’s pronouncement that, “I don’t know if you’re going to make it.”
Hopper, whose 370 pounds mirrors the size of his influence on the team, lost everything in the fire. He believes the accompanying stress is what led to the potentially lethal condition. Like other Bobcats, he believes the strength from the football season will somehow restore him.
This belief was solidified one Sunday afternoon when he looked out his front window and noticed Josh Alvies, one of his linemen, was cutting his grass without being asked.
“Coach Hopper created a brotherhood among us, he’s like a second father to all of us,” Alvies says. “When he’s hurting, it hurts all of us, and I wanted to do something to help.”
Hopper missed five games, following them all on feeds from parents who videotaped the action on their phones. He returned against Willows, coaching from a sideline chair with a new belief.
“This season is bigger than us,” Hopper says. “There’s someone in control over this whole thing. I think the Lord has had his hands in this all along. I’m just happy to be a pawn in that plan.”
No matter whom the Bobcats face, would you want to bet against their anger? Would you want to bet against this family?
When the Willows game ended, the players gathered together, stuck their hands in the air and roared the strangest chant.
“Doughnuts! Doughnuts! Doughnuts!”
Turns out, they had been promised doughnuts by defensive coach Nino Pinocchio after every shutout but had not received any in three weeks, partially because every doughnut place in Paradise disappeared in the fire.
They were hungry.
This is the fourth in a series of feature columns by Plaschke on the Paradise High football team that will be published over the course of the season. If you wish to donate to Paradise High athletics, contact athletic director Anne Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.