The hills that stretch above this grassy pasture were once ablaze, an apocalyptic fire consuming their homes, disrupting their families, melting their childhoods.
Now, six months later, on a makeshift practice field with no yard lines or end zones, the Paradise High football team smolders.
The several dozen teenagers get dressed in the front seats of their dusty trucks and rickety sedans because there is no locker room. Some are wearing second-hand cleats. Others are wearing borrowed shorts.
Their young faces are consumed by yawns because they spent the night sleeping on a couch. Or they spent the last three months sleeping on the floor of a trailer. Or they awoke at 5 a.m. after sleeping on an air mattress 90 minutes away.
They are overwhelmingly tired. They feel like they are homeless. They shuffle their feet across a concrete parking lot and step wearily through an opening in a fence.
But once their toes touch the grass on this soft spring afternoon, they run. Oh, how they run, together in their green Paradise Football T-shirts adorned with the giant face of a bobcat, running from their aborted season, running from disrupted lives, running through their pain.
They bounce off one another with screams. They jump around one another with joy. They huddle together and place their arms on top of one another and erupt in purpose.
“Brothers to the bone!’’ they shout.
In these first days of Paradise High’s spring practice, their first official workouts since the historically hellish Camp fire on Nov. 8 destroyed their town and caused 85 fatalities, the Bobcats are searching for normal.
“Being out there on that field is the only thing that feels right,’’ says Taylor Brady, a sophomore receiver.
Though all 104 players in the Bobcats program survived the deadliest fire in California history, 95 of them lost their homes. With the fire leading many to move elsewhere to find housing, the team also lost many of its players to relocation. One running back moved to Oregon. Another one is in Pennsylvania. Another one is in San Diego. A 76-person varsity squad has been whittled to 36. The junior varsity squad will now include freshmen because the freshman team has been eliminated.
The fire occurred on the eve of the team’s first-round playoff game, so it was the only one of the 15 Paradise High sports teams that also lost its season, suddenly ending an 8-2 campaign that some felt could have ended in a championship.
The players miraculously didn’t lose their school, or their beloved Om Wraith Field, but for health and safety reasons they have been banned from playing there until this summer. When they come back, they will find a scoreboard that has been partially melted and stumps of dozens of trees that once shadowed the goal posts. Also gone is the shipping container that housed much of their equipment, its contents reduced to ashes.
“I don’t know if anybody outside of our town can understand what we’ve gone through,’’ says Spencer Kiefer, a junior linebacker. “Just getting a chance to play football again is amazing.’’
They lost so much, yet they still have one another, so on this spring afternoon they play through every whistle, smother every blocking bag, climb over one another in every scrum, awash in the joy of being together again and the hope of an autumn reborn.
”I lined up and looked to my left and saw my buddy Ray, I looked to my right and saw my buddy Nate, and I finally felt at home,’’ says Riley Hopper, a freshman center. “It made me forget, and it reminded me, all at the same time.’’
They lost so much, but they still have their coach, the venerable Rick Prinz, a 60-year-old with a quiet stare and a white goatee. He has 30 years invested in the school, 20 as the head coach, and last season was going to be his finale. He was going to retire, but that plan literally went up in flames. The fire was still burning when he decided to stick around because that’s what leaders do.
“Now that we’ve had this catastrophe, I can’t walk away, I can’t just leave the kids like this,’’ Prinz says. “I feel like I have a responsibility to help our school and the football program get back on its feet, whatever that’s going to take, I’ve got to try to do it.’’
They lost so much, but they still have an upcoming season awaiting them, although their smaller size — enrollment is expected to drop from about 1,000 to 350 — forced them to leave their division and play an entirely new and odd 10-game independent schedule cobbled together by athletic director Anne Stearns.
They will play at least three schools that are twice their size. They will play a game 2 ½ hours north at Mount Shasta High — even though they have no idea how they will get there because Paradise also lost most of its bus drivers to post-fire relocation. Stearns had to make dozens of phone calls and play the sympathy card dozens of times just to find those 10 teams, and yes, she is considering acquiring a special license so she can drive the bus herself.
”Nobody wanted to play us because they were in a no-win situation,’’ Stearns says. “If you lose to Paradise, it doesn’t look good for you to lose to a team that lost half of its student body. If you beat Paradise, then you beat the team from the town that burned down.’’
They have one another, their coach, their schedule and, above all, their mission. It is a mission fashioned from the moment those boys were chased down the hill on that nightmarish Thursday morning in November, some sitting in smoke-surrounded cars weeping in fear, one of them even stuck alone outside in a parking lot crying into the phone to his parents that he was going to die.
They all have different escape stories, they all have different tales of landing in trailers or hotels or on floors, but their mission is the same, one you can hear in spring shouts filled with equal parts joy and revenge.
“That fire picked a fight with the town of Paradise,’’ says Greg Kiefer, father of Spencer. “When these kids come back, they’re going to smoke people.’’
The first day of the official comeback of the Paradise High football team was briefly delayed by a tiny glitch.
They didn’t have a football.
Shortly after school resumed in January in an old Facebook warehouse at the Chico Municipal Airport, Prinz summoned the players to an adjacent weed-choked field to begin the comeback, and he realized just how much had been lost.
“I looked around and thought, wait a minute…’’ Prinz remembers. “My first speech to the team was, ‘Does anybody have a football?’’
They lucked out. Danny Bettencourt, a junior quarterback, had one rolling around in the trunk of his car. His father bought it for him after the fire. It was quickly retrieved and brought to a relieved team. On a field of dirt and gravel and dog poop, with the players wearing jeans and stepping around potholes, winter workouts began.
“It’s actually pretty shocking that we’re still able to keep going,’’ Bettencourt says.
Considering Paradise is such a tradition-deep football town, it might have been more shocking if they had quit. On Friday nights when the Bobcats play at home, the Sierra foothills village virtually shuts down, several thousand of the formerly 25,000 residents filling Om Wraith Field.
“A big part of the soul of the town is football,’’ Stearns says.
The players enter the stadium by walking down through the packed stands. They have traditionally been accompanied by the school marching band’s rendition of a song that now has new meaning — Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.’’ The concession stand sells a Prinz Dog. The Bobcats usually win.
“It’s like something out of a movie,’’ Prinz says.
The star is the high school varsity team, which builds off the strength of an enduring youth football program that runs the same system as the varsity and turns 8-year-old kids into green-and-gold Bobcats.
“The football program is that mountain,’’ Greg Kiefer said. “Other teams and their fans all call us a bunch of hillbillies, but those hillbillies whip their ass.’’
It is Prinz who has created that attitude, leading the Bobcats to 18 playoff appearances in his 20 years with 10 league titles, 10 sectional appearances, six sectional titles, a 166-54 overall record and various coaching awards.
He is such a beloved character, everyone refers to him as “Prinz.’’ He runs an old-fashioned Wing-T rushing offense. He lives by old-fashioned sayings like the one that adorns the back of the football team’s caps — “We Just Hit People.’’ Yet he is so approachable, the wall above his desk in the middle of the school’s makeshift weight room is filled with thank-you notes and drawings from students.
“I can’t imagine trying to do this without him,’’ Stearns says of Prinz. “He has so much respect in the community, a lot of kids are staying here just because of him.”
The folks from town will tell you Prinz is the perfect person to lead this team through fire, although on that Thursday morning of Nov. 8, he had his doubts.
One moment he was texting members of his 8-2 team to remind them that practice was still scheduled despite the threat of a fire. The next moment he was escaping down the hill toward Chico like the rest of them.
But unlike most of the residents who were driving through the flames on a gridlocked six-hour nightmare of a trip that usually takes 15 minutes, Prinz was actually pushing a car.
It was a 1947 red Ford truck that represented his lasting memory of his father. He couldn’t stand to see it destroyed, but it was running out of gas, so he pushed it several miles downhill before driving the rest of the way.
“It was dark as midnight, explosions all around, I just focused on getting out,’’ he remembers. “My dad left me that truck, and I wasn’t going to let it burn.’’
Among members of the football team, Prinz’s journey wasn’t even the most harrowing.
Spencer Kiefer, just three months after earning his driver’s license, was attempting to drive out in his Ford truck with his dog Gracie when he became stranded with about 150 others in a Paradise parking lot. He spent several hours shuttling between buildings while calling his parents, including his father, Greg, who was pulling the family trailer and couldn’t reach him. He was calling them in tears, telling them good-bye.
“I told my parents I didn’t think I was going to make it,’’ Spencer remembers.
By nightfall Spencer was finally able to join a caravan and drive down the hill. After escaping danger, he was comforted by a familiar sight in the back of his truck.
“I still had my football pads,’’ he remembers. “I was ready for our playoff game.’’
There were initial thoughts that the playoffs could be salvaged. Red Bluff, Paradise’s first-round opponent, generously agreed to forfeit the next day’s game, which would allow the Bobcats a week to prepare for the second round. Stearns was eventually able to secure fields and equipment. The 8-2 team had a chance to save its championship hopes.
But two days after the fire, Prinz heard the pain in his players’ voices, saw the confusion in his coaches’ lives, and ordered the season canceled.
“There’s a little regret about it, I’m still emotional over it,’’ he says now, his eyes welling with tears. “But most of my kids had lost everything. Most of my coaches had lost everything. My team didn’t even know where they were going to sleep, and I’m going to ask them to practice? I couldn’t do it.’’
It wasn’t until later that Prinz learned that his home had survived the fire. Like everyone, his life was in limbo, and figuring out football was impossible.
“I couldn’t focus on the game in any way, shape or form,’’ he said. “And I have to be more focused than anybody. I was like, ‘Guys, we just can’t do this.’’’
Six months later, his team remains filled with remorse over the cancellation, although even those seniors who lost their championship hopes forever say they understand.
“We never had our chance, we never had our shot — it really hurt,’’ says Trevor Curtis, senior captain and center. “If I could play right now, I’d play, I’d pad it up right now.’’
He pauses and sighs. “But everybody had lost everything.’’
Four days after the fire, the team was invited to a San Francisco 49ers game, where they stood alongside the NFL giants for the national anthem. Then in early January, Prinz organized a potluck team banquet at a Chico catering hall. It featured fried chicken, casseroles, pizza, sodas and tears. It was an improvised celebration of a terminated season. It was the best banquet any of them could remember.
“It was so authentic, so raw,’’ Prinz says. “We all had our terrible evacuation stories, yet we were all there together, we all made it; it was like pure family.’’
These days, his players are truly brothers to the bone. They cling to one another. They cling to Prinz. During a recent school day, a steady stream of players and other students approached Prinz at his desk seeking encouragement or advice.
In the classroom, like many Paradise students, his players are often lost. The warehouse is loud and distracting. You can hear numerous teachers talking over dividers. Their grades are suffering. If it wasn’t for football, some of the players say they wouldn’t show up at all.
“I honestly see a little bit of post-traumatic stress in them,’’ Prinz says. “They’re a little bit different. They’re not as focused.
“They’re thinking about a lot of other things. Where are they going to stay? Is their family going to move? What happens now?’’
Their plight is epitomized by Stetson Morgan, a sophomore running back who sleeps on a fold-out couch in a modest trailer in the frontyard of his grandmother’s farmhouse. He shares the cramped box with his parents and older brother. There’s no internet. There’s no TV. His few clothes are stuffed in a cabinet above the couch. He lost all of his sports plaques and medals, his personal wall of fame destroyed with his youth. He gets angry. He spends a couple of nights a week sleeping elsewhere.
“I don’t know how I handle it, I just keep it all down,’’ Morgan says. “Everything comes out when I play football. Everything that is held down, it gets released on that field. I wish I still had my house.’’
Their spring practices at Marsh Junior High in Chico ended Friday. They will be allowed to return up the hill to their school field to begin their summer program June 10. Official fall practice will begin Aug. 5. Their first game will be Aug. 23 at Om Wraith against Williams, and you won’t want to miss it.
“The emotion of that game will raise the hair on your neck,’’ Greg Kiefer says. “Come on up. I’ll give you my seat.’’
That emotion was overwhelming on a recent day at Marsh, where everyone happily raced past the confusion in their lives to the stability of a stance or the familiarity of a formation. Even when they are hauling insurance-purchased and donated equipment out of a temporary shed, they run.
High in the distant hills, their town still looks like a disaster. The streets are lined with the skeletons of burned cars, the sooty rubble of demolished stores, brick chimneys standing as eerie sentries over piles of melted kitchens and bathrooms and life. It will be years before Paradise is whole again.
But down here on the practice field, the shouting young Bobcats celebrate in the safety, the tradition, the football.
”We were all a mess, and I’m still lost,’’ offensive line coach Andy Hopper says thickly, looking up toward the hills and wincing behind sunglasses. He lost his home and is living in a trailer with his wife and two children, including Paradise center Riley.
“I don’t know exactly where the Lord wants me to be,’’ Hopper says, “but I know it’s out here with these boys spreading love, being a family, all of us here for each other.’’
As practice ends, they huddle one last time, locking their arms together for one more chant.