Their escape from the fire ended in the rain and cold, their strong backs shivering, their proud eyes flowing.
The soaked quarterback rocked in a teammate’s soggy arms and cried, “It was my fault. It was my fault!”
The frigid running back, his feet planted in a chilly end zone puddle, whispered, “I don’t want to leave this field. I can’t leave this field.”
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. The Paradise High Bobcats football team’s resurrection season was supposed to march on forever.
One year after losing everything, nothing could stop them. A dozen consecutive wins, an unimaginable undefeated run that had the team pointed toward a state bowl game.
“I think at some point, we thought we were invincible,” Coach Rick Prinz said.
Then, in a biting rainstorm, they stepped on the gray turf field at River Valley High to face powerful Sutter Union High and the truth surfaced.
They weren’t supermen. They were 39 vulnerable young men who spent six months trying to hit their way through the pain of losing their homes in the Nov. 8, 2018, Camp fire that destroyed their town and took 86 lives.
Their young shoulders had been fitted with the burden of responsibility for restoring hope, rebuilding bonds and reviving a lost community. Some of them were not old enough to drive, yet were tasked with steering Paradise into a rebirth through weekly town reunions in the concrete bleachers of their ancient home stadium.
They grew into the challenge, becoming the heroes their neighbors craved. They approached games with a solemn grace, then snapped on their insurance-bought helmets and beat the stuffing out of somebody.
They won big, bigger, then even bigger, wiping out opponents in front of hundreds of fans who hugged and wept and momentarily forgot the destruction wrought upon their lives. Throughout a magical autumn, on a field across the street from burned and twisted wreckage, they created the most raw and brutal sort of transformative beauty.
“They’ve been a rallying point for a lot of people,” said Greg Bolin, Paradise’s vice mayor. “They didn’t give up, they didn’t stop, they fought through the adversity ... they’ve been an example of what our whole town is doing now.”
Two days after spending Thanksgiving in trailers and apartments and farms far from their lost Paradise homes, the enormity of the mission ultimately overwhelmed them.
“It was finally all too much,” assistant coach Andy Hopper said. “They finally wore down. They finally fell apart.”
They lost fumbles. They threw passes that were intercepted. They committed penalties. They failed to score three times after moving close to the goal line.
They lost 20-7 in a game they never led, but a game they could have won, and afterward they gathered in an end zone and cried.
They wept not only for the loss of a game, but for the end of a season that offered a piece of normality to which they had been clinging for months.
They cried for the loss of daily practice, of nightly team meals, of parking lot hangouts, of togetherness that kept some of them in school and all of them in a familiar and stable place.
“I guarantee you, those tears were about losing their family,” Prinz said.
Soaked quarterback Danny Bettencourt looked around, as if lost.
“Where do I go now?” he said. “What do we do now?”
Frigid running back Lukas Hartley ducked his head and uttered what, under different circumstances, would have been considered an exaggeration.
“I didn’t cry this bad when my house burned down,” he said.
Even in their final hours together, the Bobcats could not escape the scars of the preceding months.
After the team’s final practice, on a darkened field in near-freezing temperatures, Prinz addressed the team with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his green parka.
“I love you guys. I want to keep going on … and the only other thing I have to say is this,” he said, suddenly pulling his hands from those pockets and waving them in the air.
Adorning six of his fingers were gold and silver rings from Prinz’s six sectional championships. They glowed through the chill. The surprised players gasped, then loudly oohed and aahed.
“You want one of these?” Prinz shouted. “Look at these. You want one of these?”
The excited chatter was interrupted by a voice from the back.
“I want one of those, because all of mine burned up!” defensive coordinator Paul Orlando shouted.
A similar chance at a section championship and state bowl bid was denied last year when their season was cut short after the Camp fire, the most destructive wildfire in state history, destroyed about 14,000 homes and left most of their Northern California city in rubble.
Winning their way back seemed unimaginable last spring when they began practice with no helmets, no pads, not even a football. Many players had moved out of the area with their families, so it was initially questionable whether the school could even field a team. The Bobcats were dropped from their league because of uncertain enrollment numbers and had to cobble together a makeshift schedule.
Orlando’s lament illustrated again that, even though they had compiled a 12-0 record while outscoring opponents 553-86, their journey began in ashes.
A day later, before the sectional game, there was another twist when team parents Greg and Shelly Kiefer showed up at Paradise High to stage the pregame meal before the team boarded a bus for the hourlong ride to Yuba City.
The parents brought out a cooler filled with ham, turkey, buns, chips, pickles, bananas and water. There was only one problem: They were locked out of the cafeteria. The coaches who had the keys had already left for the game, and nobody else could unbolt the door.
And, oh yeah, it was raining.
“This is our program now,” assistant Hopper said with a shrug and a grin. “We go with the flow.”
The meal was eventually set up in a small covered patio outside the locked doors, and the players grabbed their food and ran through the rain to eat on the bus.
“It’s been that way all year, our infrastructure has been so affected, in so many ways,” said Prinz, who did not have a cafeteria key. “Even though we’ve won, it’s been such a constant and tough transition.”
For each of this season’s glorious signs of rebirth, there was an accompanying scene of loss.
The sight of the players slapping their hands on a Camp fire memorial plaque and then marching down the steps of Om Wraith Field before home games to Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” was a compelling symbol.
Yet, so too was the sight of the players running off at halftime into what was surely this country’s worst locker room, a dark and barren onetime softball field where they would sit on their helmets for discussions and relieve themselves in the bushes.
The Bobcats have always used that space above the football field because their team room, located inside the school, isn’t big enough for all the players. Before the fire, the area was lighted and manicured and fine. But the fire razed it, and it has since been used as a logging area.
“Remember, we’re Crazy Mountain Folk,” Hopper said. “We can do halftime anywhere.”
Crazy Mountain Folk is this team and town’s official motto, and chants of “CMF! CMF!” echoed above the sidelines during the sectional title game, as it had throughout the season.
“Everything we’ve been through, it’s made you grow up, you’re men, you’re grown men tonight,” Prinz shouted during his pregame speech. “Those guys didn’t lose anything! They didn’t lose their house! They didn’t lose their town! You had to battle through it, and it made you grow up!”
In the end, they fought like men but it just wasn’t enough. They cursed and they hit and they pleaded with one another to give more, but they had given all they could.
With the team trailing 7-0 at halftime, lineman Elijah Gould shouted, “This is our one shot, right here, right now!”
With the team trailing 14-7 in the third quarter, Hopper screamed, “Run for your lives! Run for your lives!”
With Sutter driving in the final minutes with a 20-7 lead, Hartley ran up and down the sideline shouting, “Don’t let it end! Don’t let it end!”
But it did end, the crazy dream finally succumbing to cold reality, leaving a few dozen Paradise players wandering around a rain-soaked field beneath quickly emptying bleachers, unsure of what might come next.
“It hurts. It hurts so much,” safety Dylan Blood said. “We wanted to win this so bad for our community. We wanted to give people hope.”
The longer the players stood in the end zone, the harder the rain pelted. Yet, slowly, a crowd grew around them.
Paradise fans weren’t rushing to the warmth of their cars in the parking lot. They were coming to the field to mourn with the team.
Huddled in ponchos and crowded under umbrellas, they climbed down from the slick bleachers to share hugs and give thanks.
One woman walked up, kissed Prinz on the cheek, and disappeared into the darkness.
Another woman said, to no one in particular, her voice rising among the rain’s patter, “For three hours every week, they gave us healing.”
Soon, so many fans were mingling with the players that the end zone resembled a mosh pit, everyone clutching one another, a team and a town coming together to weather a storm.
The 2019 Paradise Bobcats eventually staggered off the field for the final time as if they had lost. Hopefully, one day they will realize that in ways far more powerful and sweeping than any wildfire, they actually won.
Undefeated, they were. Invincible, they are.
The hills that stretch above this grassy pasture were once ablaze, an apocalyptic fire consuming their homes, disrupting their families, melting their childhoods.
After losing everything in the deadly Camp Fire last year, the Paradise High football team leans on camaraderie and community to rebuild their lives.
It was a night of healing, filled with both mourning and magic for the Paradise High football team, playing in its first game since the Camp fire.
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