Advertisement
Sports

Column: Paradise football brings smiles and tears in first game since Camp fire

Paradise High football team plays its first game since the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed its town.

A flattened town rose again Friday night, finding its breath on the backs of a high school football team that furiously carried it toward hope.

The Paradise High Bobcats’ first touchdown of their rebirth season was scored by a player who moments earlier had vomited on the field.

“The puking felt real,” said Lukas Hartley. “Everything else felt like a dream.”

Their second touchdown was scored by a player who turned pale after plopping down on the bench to catch his breath.

Advertisement

“I get the ball, my heart was racing, I get into the end zone, my heart is still racing,” said Mason Cowan. “It was the perfect night.”

It was a night of hitting and healing, of howls and tears, filled with both mourning and magic. Afterward, perfect indeed, it ended as a night when a decimated mountain community and its beloved football team came together for one more roaring proclamation of life.

As Coach Rick Prinz was about to give his celebratory speech on the field to the Bobcats after their 42-0 victory over Williams, he noticed some townsfolk lingering on the edge of their group. They were among the 5,000 who had crammed together to witness the first sporting event at the school since the Nov. 8 Camp fire destroyed their city and caused 86 deaths. They had come not only for the football, but for the family, to reunite with displaced neighbors, to rediscover themselves among streets of burned metal and stacked rubble, to bond together over their dreams to rebuild.

They arrived four hours early, sat under a broiling sun, cheered deep into the night, and didn’t want to leave, so when Prinz saw them standing along with family and friends outside his postgame meeting, he had an idea. He brought his kids over to the crowd to create a most unusual, yet completely fitting, giant group hug.

Advertisement

“We’re going to cheer together!” Prinz screamed and so they did, team and town, everyone forming a big circle, embracing and leaping and waving their fists into the air, chanting Paradise’s trademark acronym.

“CMF!...CMF!!...CMF!” they shouted, again and again.

That stands for, “Crazy Mountain Folk,’’ a wonderfully fitting moniker on a night when a city rallied around a group of teenagers and chose life.

”Can you feel it?” said assistant coach Andy Hopper, nodding at the sweaty hugs that followed the shouting. “Tonight, the healing began.”

The start of the game felt like Paradise itself these days, comfortingly familiar yet painfully different.

The helmeted and padded Bobcats took the field by marching down through the bleachers to their traditional entrance song that now holds new meaning.

“Sooner or later, God’ll cut you down,” crooned Johnny Cash from a CD being played over the Om Wraith Field loudspeakers. “Sooner or later, God’ll cut you down.”

The team was being led by last year’s seniors whose championship-hopeful season was cut short by the fires. They were grateful to do it. They needed to do it.

Fans cheer as graduated players from last year’s Paradise football team enter the stadium before Friday’s season opener.
Fans cheer as graduated players from last year's Paradise football team enter the stadium before Friday's season opener.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Advertisement

“Nine months ago something was stripped from us … we never got our last game,” said former lineman Ezra Gonzales. “This is closure.”

Their march also included what could be a new fire-related tradition. When passing in front of the press box, the Bobcats loudly punched a new metal plaque memorializing one of the worst moments of their young lives.

“C.M.F. 11-8-2018” read the sign, and the kids saw it and fists flew.

”I felt like hitting it was the right thing to do,” said quarterback Danny Bettencourt. “We’re always going to remember it, but we’re also trying to move past it to create new memories.”

The march took the Bobcats through a sea of fans filling the ancient Om Wraith Field bleachers and lining the end zones, folks who were also experiencing their own new football normal.

Because the fire destroyed many of the trees that once covered the field in shade, the sun had free rein to pound the bleachers amid 95-degree heat, leading to at least four people being treated for heat exhaustion.

With the fans cheering, the Paradise High School football team gathers on the field before their game against Williams.
With the fans cheering, the Paradise High School football team gathers on the field before their game against Williams.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The stadium restrooms were still suffering from residual fire damage, so everyone lined up for a row of portable toilets.

Even the stadium entertainment had taken a hit. The mighty Paradise pep band now numbers just 19 musicians, about half of its previous size. They have three tubas but just one trumpet, and one of the drummers is now longtime music teacher Bob Schofield.

Advertisement

“We will forge ahead,” Schofield said with a weary smile.

That was the attitude adopted by the crowd when the sound system shut down while a couple of students were singing the national anthem. The fans picked up the tune and finished crooning the anthem themselves.

“This day is bigger than football, it’s about our community.” said principal Jeff Marcus, who came out of retirement to run the school even after the fire destroyed his home and led him to live in a converted boathouse on a rice farm outside nearby Chico. “It’s a time of healing, reuniting, moving forward together.”

What may have been the biggest event in the 65-year history of the school actually began a day earlier, when the football team finished its preparations with a passionate reminder of their mission.

The Bobcats varsity team has just 35 players, down from 56 last year. Nearly all of them lost their homes in the fire. Many of them had made miraculous escapes down the mountain. None of them were in permanent housing when they aimlessly began this comeback out of the school’s temporary warehouse facility at the Chico airport last spring. Now on the verge of their first official step, Prinz gathered them together to remember how this journey began.

“We started back last January, down in Chico, at the airport, we had no facilities, we didn’t even have a football … we went out on the gravel field to run plays, remember?” he told them as they knelt together on the field Thursday night. “That was a tough time because, in my heart, I didn’t even know if we would have a football team. … I didn’t know if I’d have a job next year at Paradise High School … it was tough.”

Lukas Hartley, second from right, bows his head with teammates during a moment of silence for the 86 victims of the Camp Fire.
Lukas Hartley, second from right, bows his head with teammates during a moment of silence for the 86 victims of the Camp Fire.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

He paused, and continued, “But here’s what we did have … we had each other… and we just started moving forward … you guys faced so much adversity to get to this first game … you have sacrificed to get to this first game … you’ve worked your butts off to get to this first game…but to get to this first game is not our goal, is it? ... what’s our goal? ... to win the game!”

The players ended their preparation with one public request of the visiting Williams team, a tiny school which was given $5,000 in equipment from Under Armour for agreeing to make the 90-minute drive north to play the supposedly depleted Bobcats.

”I don’t want no sympathy,” said lineman Elijah Gould. “I want them to come to take off our heads because that’s what we’re coming to do.”

A day later, after Friday classes ended, instead of returning home to rest, the players just stayed at school, spending their final hours before the first game together in the drama room. Because the fire has caused them to be relocated to so many different and even distant cities, Prinz didn’t trust the logistics of anybody leaving campus.

“This game will be the most important game in our lives. This game will be everything.”
Michael Weldon, parent of Paradise football player

Meanwhile, outside, four hours before the game, two hours before the junior varsity game, fans were already lining up to pay six bucks a seat to rediscover their city again.

The first fan was Michael Weldon, a postal worker who came so early because he just wanted to park himself in a prime spot for normality. He lost everything in the fire, so his Toyota truck was new, the clothes on his back were new. His son Ben is a defensive back and everything the kid owns is also new.

The only thing that isn’t new is Bobcat football, and that is why Weldon showed up simply to stand alone in the parking lot.

“This game will be the most important game in our lives,’’ he says. “This game will be everything.’’

An impromptu tailgater arrived soon thereafter, setting up in an adjoining vacant lot where there once stood a church. Matt Madden, a Chico police officer who used to coach in Paradise, threw up a tent and fired up a grill and waited for somebody to show up. He didn’t know if anybody would show up. It turns out everybody showed up, and soon he was surrounded in long-lost embraces.

“My house survived but everyone around me is gone, all my friends gone, nobody is left, and to see this today …” Madden said through tears. “Everyone coming back now, believing this can be a town again, it’s really something.”

Paradise’s Lukas Hartley runs with the ball during Friday’s game against Williams.
Paradise's Lukas Hartley runs with the ball during Friday's game against Williams.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Many fans found it difficult to experience this moment without crying. Some cried when they first spotted the team on the field. Others cried when they saw displaced friends in the stands. At least one woman cried when she saw just a glimpse of the field, with lines and goalposts and life. The high school was one of the few Paradise structures that survived the blaze.

”People are finally coming home,” said Woody Culleton, former mayor, who began softly weeping by the concession stand. “We lost our community and today we’re getting it back.”

After the teams had marched to the field for the start of the game, after a moment of silence for the fire victims it was their turn to show their feelings, with Hopper breaking down in tears during the national anthem.

“I was thinking, we lost everything, but maybe now we found it again,” he said.

Exhausted by hype, burdened by the responsibility, the players nonetheless somehow also found the energy to dominate.

“Don’t come to the mountain!’’ they chanted before the game, and then they proved it to the smaller Yellowjackets by knocking them all over the field.

The first touchdown by the nervous-stomached Hartley came after he smashed over a Williams defender at the end of an 11-yard run.

“All I saw was the end zone,” he said afterward, sweat streaking his charcoal-stained face beneath his American flag bandanna.

The second touchdown came on a 64-yard pass play that Cowan finished by wickedly throwing off a Williams defender before bouncing into the end zone.

Paradise assistant football coach Andy Hopper cries as he hugs running back Tyler Harrison before the game.
Paradise assistant football coach Andy Hopper cries as he hugs running back Tyler Harrison before the game.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I thought, ‘There was no way he is going to keep me from scoring,’” Cowan said.

The Bobcats led 21-0 at the end of the first quarter, 35-0 at halftime, and rolled from there. By the time it mercifully ended, Williams coach Jeff Lemus just shrugged.

“It was just a hard situation,” Lemus said. “There was a lot of emotion out there.’’

Before the game, it was announced that his school had donated a week of lunch money to Paradise for their rebuilding efforts. The Paradise players thanked them during the postgame handshake line, then ran off to celebrate the win.

Well, they all didn’t run. Several of them hobbled away with cramps, with tight end Silas Carter dropping to the ground in front of his dancing teammates while screaming in pain.

“They literally gave everything for this night,” Prinz said.

Their reward was noted by assistant coach Nino Pinocchio, who directed the team to stare into the stands. The players curiously turned their heads, then nodded in understanding.

“Look around you, there’s a helluva lot of smiling faces up there!” Pinocchio screamed. “You did that! You did that!”

It was a night of smiles, and resilience, and one incredible sunset.

In the middle of the game, through the spaces that were once occupied by trees, the field was lit with the incredible setting of the sun. It was such a deep tint of golden orange, it almost looked like a fire. On this night, though, thoughts of destruction were replaced with those of beauty.

A fan celebrates Paradise’s first touchdown of the season.
Cedar Fields celebrates Paradise's first touchdown of the season on Friday night.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It was enough to bring the booming Hopper to a whisper.

“We’re going to create something precious, something that people for generations to come will be able to tell the story about,” Hopper said. “One team. One family. One town.”

One glorious night.

This is the third 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 the Paradise High athletics, contact Athletic Director Anne Stearns at astearns@pusdk12.org.

The hills that stretch above this grassy pasture were once ablaze, an apocalyptic fire consuming their homes, disrupting their families, melting their childhoods.


Newsletter
Get our daily Sports Report newsletter
Advertisement