Undeterred by tragedies, Paradise football player shines bright for his team

Paradise football player Brenden Moon celebrates with his teammates.
Brenden Moon witnessed the destruction of his hometown and his mother’s death in the same year. His strength has served as inspiration for his Paradise teammates.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As Brenden Moon sprinted across an empty stretch of dying grass with an intercepted pass last Friday night, the miracle of the unbeaten Paradise High Bobcats firmly in his grasp, his eyes drifted to the oddest of places.

“I know it sounds weird, but I wasn’t looking at the end zone or at the guy chasing me,” Moon said. “I was looking at the sidelines.”

He was looking at his teammates who, as they have done for the past year, were churning and sweating and running alongside him.

They waved their hands as if pushing him forward. They shouted his name as he gasped for breath. They matched him stride for stride as he raced toward a touchdown that was the clinching blow in the Bobcats’ 28-13 sectional semifinal victory over top-ranked West Valley High.

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Brenden Moon saw them and flew.

“It was so cool,” he said. “It was so perfect.”

He saw the teammate who drove him out of last year’s devastating fire that decimated the Paradise community and claimed 86 lives.

He saw the teammates who let him sleep on air mattresses and spare beds for two months while he waited to return to his foster parents’ partially burned home.

The 17-year-old senior saw the football family that supported him not only during the last year’s shared tragedies but also during a recent unspeakable private one.

He saw the people who literally held him up after the Sept. 9 death of his mother, Sarah Lytle, who hung herself in a Butte County Jail cell.

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He saw the strong safety who offered a strong shoulder when he confided in him the horrors of seeing his mother, burn marks on her neck and on life support, handcuffed to a hospital bed.

“Nobody should ever have to see something like that,” teammate Dylan Blood said. “I told him, ‘You are one tough kid.’”

Paradise's Brenden Moon intercepts a pass in front of West Valley receiver Dylan "Charlie" Booth and is off on his way to a touchdown.
Paradise’s Brenden Moon intercepts a pass in front of West Valley receiver Dylan “Charlie” Booth during a playoff game in Cottonwood, Calif., and is off on his way to a touchdown.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
During his interception return, Brenden Moon said he looked toward the sideline.
During his interception return, Brenden Moon said he looked toward his team on the sideline.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He saw one of the assistant coaches who embraced and empowered him when he showed up for practice just days after her death.

“I told him, ‘If you need a break, anything, just ask,’” defensive assistant Nino Pinocchio said. “He said, ‘Coach, I want to be here. I want to be here.’”

He saw the head coach who called an audible during a game against Sparks (Nev.) just one day after Moon gave his mother’s body a final hug. The coach ordered that the offense give the backup running back the football until he scored. Moon ran for 18 yards. He ran for another yard. He scored. He cried.

“We were going to spend the rest of the game giving him the ball if necessary,” Coach Rick Prinz said. “He hugged me and thanked me and I’m like, ‘No, thank you.’”

Finally, he also saw the running back who recently left school during lunch period to drive him to the memorial service for his mother, who had long been plagued by drug addiction and bipolar disorder and died at the age of 43.

“Brenden Moon has gone through hell this year,” teammate Lukas Hartley said. “Like all of us, this team is his temple and this season is his savior.”

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Like all of them, Moon was reminded during that sprint to the end zone that he has not been running alone.

“Football is the one place I can let everything out,” he said. “Football is the one place I feel normal.”

Brenden Moon

After he scored on the 75-yard return, he patted his heart twice, raised his hands to the sky, and again heard his teammates.

“‘Yeah, man, that’s for mom, that’s for mom!’” they shouted.

It was as if they all shared the same mother as brothers. If you ask them, they say they are.

“After all we’ve been through, we have each other’s backs in everything; we play for each other,” Blood said. “Paradise is something within each of us, and we’re fighting for it together.”

During this Thanksgiving week, with the 12-0 Bobcats just one win from a sectional championship too crazy to even dream about, nowhere is the grateful spirit of that fight better epitomized than in the glowing 5-foot-4 Moon.

“I’m most thankful for my teammates,” he said with a smile. “I love those boys with all my heart. I’ll always love them as if they are my blood. I couldn’t have gotten through this without them.”

Paradise's Brenden Moon is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown.
Teammates surround Brenden Moon after his touchdown off an interception return. As he was running the ball back, Moon said he thought: “ ‘I’m going to score a touchdown, right?’ That’s crazy!”
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Their inconceivable journey continues Saturday night in the sectional title game against favored Sutter Union High. The Bobcats are seeking a championship that was denied them a year ago when their season was cut short after the Nov. 8 Camp fire destroyed about 14,000 homes and left most of their city in rubble. While all the players and coaches survived, 95 of the 104 players lost their homes, as did all but one of the coaches.

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Any kind of championship 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 the school was initially unsure it could field a team.

Dropped from their league because of uncertain enrollment numbers, they had to cobble together a makeshift schedule, and nobody knew what to expect.

Well, would you believe a dozen consecutive wins while outscoring opponents 553-86? Would you believe that, after facing criticism for whipping up on mostly smaller schools during their piecemeal regular-season schedule, they steamrolled similar-sized, powerful and previously unbeaten West Valley, leading 28-0 before the Eagles recorded two late scores?

“A year ago, I wasn’t even sure we’d be playing,” Prinz said. “Yeah, I’d say this has been pretty amazing.”

And it could get more incredible. A sectional championship would advance the Bobcats into the state bowl system for the first time in school history, placing them just two wins from a state bowl championship.

“There is something special happening here,” Blood said. “We are doing this for each other. We are doing this for the town. You can just feel it in all of us.”

Moon feels it as much as anybody while playing with a visible anger that makes him one of this rocking team’s hardest hitters.

“Football is the one place I can let everything out,” he said. “Football is the one place I feel normal.”

Like all the Bobcats, the last time he felt normal off the field was the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, before the deadliest wildfire in California history. When the blaze hit, he was separated from his longtime foster parents, Debbie and David Turnbow, and wound up being driven down the blazing mountain by teammate Blood.

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Paradise's Brenden Moon grimaces during a timeout against West Valley in Cottonwood, Calif., on Nov. 22.
As Brenden Moon faced the tragedies of losing his house and then later his mom, playing football was a source of salvation.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I thought we were going to die,” Moon said. “Fire everywhere, explosions all around us, people crying, cars not moving, it was insane.”

Once they reached the bottom of the hill, because he didn’t want to squeeze into a tiny hotel room with his foster parents and another foster child, Moon began an odyssey of living in three different places in the next four months. He was used to it. During his 17 years, he has lived with his grandparents, his drug-addicted parents and in several foster homes before settling in with the Turnbows nine years ago.

“Look at his life,” Debbie Turnbow said. “He’s really had to become a tough young man.”

Like many of his teammates, Moon found stability in football, so he remained on the team last spring even as the Bobcats were going through workouts on a rocky field next to a temporary school housed in a Chico warehouse.

“The thing about Brenden is, he always shows up,” Prinz said. “He keeps coming back.”

Until he suddenly didn’t, in early September, when he missed three straight days of practice. The coaches initially didn’t know why; Moon couldn’t bear to tell them he’d been summoned to a nearby hospital to say goodbye to his mother.

“She was a very good woman with a very bad problem,” said Moon’s grandmother, Molly Holmes, who lives up the road in the mountain community of Magalia with Moon’s father, Joey.

Sarah Lytle and Joey Moon struggled with addiction throughout Brenden’s childhood, resulting in him eventually being removed from his home. But Moon tries to remember the good times.

“She knows I loved her, and I know she loved me,” he said. “Now I play football for her, I play life for her. I will push through for her.”

Brenden Moon speaking about his mother

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“My mom sang me a lullaby every night, every single night,” he remembered. “I ask other kids and nobody’s Mom did it every night. That is the one time I felt completely safe and centered.”

In recent years, his mother drifted in and out of his life, and he had not seen her since last fall. During her recent stint in jail, she would call him, but it was always when he was at football practice or working out at the gym, so they never spoke.

“When you get a call from jail, they don’t allow you to call back,” he said. “I hate that. I feel terrible about that.”

During the early morning hours after the Bobcats’ third win of the season, he received a call from his older sister, Delilah Ogarrio.

“She came right out and said, ‘It’s about our mom; our mom tried to kill herself,’” he recalled. “It was like a bad dream.”

Paradise's Brenden Moon (8) takes a break at halftime.
“The thing about Brenden is, he always shows up,” coach Rick Prinz said of his player, center. “He keeps coming back.”
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

They rushed to the hospital and found her on life support with tubes all over her body and burns and bruises on her neck.

“As soon as I walked in it was, like, crazy to see that,” Moon said. “I’ve never seen a bruise like that. I was wondering, couldn’t they have at least covered up her neck?”

He held himself together for her, continually showing up at the hospital that week to sit by his mother’s side until she passed.

“It’s amazing the strength he found at such a young age,” said Ogarrio. “He’s taken everything that life has thrown at him and made the best out of it.”

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When he said goodbye, he made his mother a promise.

“She knows I loved her, and I know she loved me,” he said. “Now I play football for her, I play life for her. I will push through for her.”

That push came to shove last week, when Moon found himself in the starting lineup after safety Caleb Bass had been suspended for coming off the bench during a scuffle the week before in a playoff win against Live Oak. Bass was one of six Bobcats sidelined because of the incident.

Moon was nervous about his first playoff start but, once again, a teammate had his back. After helping him all week during practice, Bass sent him one last text the night before the game.

“Get this […],” it read.

Sure enough, early in the second half, with West Valley driving and threatening to cut into a 14-0 Paradise lead, Moon got it. He anticipated that Eagles quarterback Kitt McLoughlan was throwing a slant pass, stepped in front of the receiver, and the ball sailed directly into his hands.

“I was like, ‘No way, did he just throw me the ball?’” Moon recalled. “Then I’m like, ‘I’m going to score a touchdown, right?’ That’s crazy!”

Brenden Moon is hugged on the sideline by assistant coach Nino Pinocchio after his touchdown.
Paradise’s Brenden Moon is hugged on the sideline by assistant coach Nino Pinocchio after his touchdown return.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It was arguably the biggest play in a Paradise season filled with them. It deflated the Eagles, inspired the Bobcats, and resulted in an almost instant belief that, goodness, this storybook season really could end in a championship.

“I knew we were going to win the game right then,” Prinz said. “For him and our team, it was an incredible gift.”

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After Moon scored, the gift kept giving. His grandmother and father, who never miss a game, cheered him from the stands. Hundreds of other Paradise fans who made the 90-minute drive to rural Cottonwood, filling the bleachers and lining the field, broke into a chant.

“Moon! Moon! Moon!” they cried.

Enveloped by his brothers, Brenden Moon didn’t notice.

“Really, they chanted my name?” he said. “Oh my. Really? Oh my goodness.”

As he spoke, his eyebrows rose along with his voice, his boyish face brightening, the toughest of them all overcome by the wonder of it all.

Times columnist Bill Plaschke writes about Paradise High School football team’s first season since a devastating fire destroyed their town in November 2018 and claimed the lives of 86 people.