PARADISE, Calif. —
On a hot August Friday night, 48 Paradise (Calif.)
football players, glowing from a brilliant golden, orange sunset peaking through giant pines on the visitor's side, marched down the concrete bleachers onto Om Wraith Field.
Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" bellowed from the public address speakers. The packed crowd roared, hooted and wept their approval at the traditional entry to all Paradise varsity home games.
This was different and more emotional, of course, than any entry the Bobcats had made in the 67-year history of Paradise football.
Video: Paradise football brings community together
Town embraces sports, rise from ashes nine months after deadly Camp Fire.
This entrance was, after all, nine months after the Camp Fire roared through this Sierra Nevada foothills community and all but leveled the town of 27,000. The deadliest and most destructive inferno in California history left the townspeople broken, stunned and reeling.
But in the first true gathering of the community since Nov. 8, 2018, this high school football game served as a revival, and the Bobcats, their pulse. Their strength. Their fight.
Just as they were taught on the gridiron as young boys in the Bobcats' junior program.
"I played on older teams as a 7- and 8-year-old and got the crap beaten out of me on the field until I learned, you're going to fight back," senior tackle Elijah Gould
said. "You're not going to roll over. That's what football is around here."
To reinforce the point, a stark, weighted silver plaque was made especially for this night with the inscription "C.M.F. 11-8-18." It was placed strategically at the top of the stadium for each of the players to slap before marching down the stairs.
C.M.F stands for "Crazy Mountain Folk," a cleaned up version of how the Paradise residents identify and take pride in. They wear it on T-shirts and display it on signs about town.
To get through the last nine months, they've needed every ounce of "crazy" and energy to clean up, return and begin to rebuild a town that lost 86 lives and more than 18,000 structures.
On this night, however, they just needed the Bobcats — the 35 in uniform and 13 seniors from the 2018 team whose 8-2 season was cut short by the fire on the eve of the playoffs. Carrying American flags to honor first responders and victims, the 2018 seniors, wearing street clothes, led the charge down the bleachers.
By the time they hit the field, players were in a lather, flailing fists, screaming to the sky, embracing as if they had won the championship. The lottery. The Super Bowl.
"It was even better than I thought it would be," senior tackle Kasten Ortiz
said. "I had chills going up my spine thinking about it the day before, but the feeling of actually getting to the field and playing was magical."
Said senior running back Lukas Hartley
: "It really felt like I was dreaming out there. It didn't seem real. We had waited so long and worked so hard to get to this point."
Hartley was so excited, he vomited twice on the field in the first quarter and had to be taken out. He later scored on an 11-yard touchdown as the Bobcats took a 21-0 first-quarter lead, and later still sprinted to the end zone on a 23-yard second-quarter run.
The team's opponent, Williams (Calif.), never really stood a chance. And the final score, a 42-0 Paradise victory, didn't particularly matter. The opposing players knew that.
Before the game, they handed over a poster during the coin toss that read: "One team, one dream. Paradise Strong. Good luck, Bobcats!" They also delivered a donation to the school and football program for reportedly $3,000.
This game clearly stretched beyond the 100-yard long by 53-yard wide field. This was evident by the overflow crowd of 5,000 fans, more than double the normal capacity at Om Wraith Field. Families clad in green and gold, many in face paint, filled just beyond the end zones. They sat in lawn chairs and on blankets.
Many displaced community members, back in town for the first time since the fire, bonded through cheers, hot dogs, touchdowns, beverages and even tears.
On this night, anyway, these were tears of joy and relief, intertwined with handshakes, embraces, smiles and laughter. This was a community reuniting. Reconnecting. Recharging.
"This is the beginning of the healing," said Paradise offensive coordinator Andy Hopper, a larger-than-life figure who constantly offers a mountain of levity, passion and humor. "Now we can get back to some normal."
Even with throngs of media — more than 40 were credentialed including an ESPN crew that will continue to follow the team throughout the season — and the big crowd, life on campus is beginning to get back to the way it was before the fire, students said.
Sophia Scribner is a senior varsity basketball and volleyball player and sports medicine student who helps tape up and mend the football team. She said getting back to school the week leading up to the game, and playing sports, has helped mend her both physically and emotionally.
"There were a lot of ups and downs (after the fire) and sports really got me distracted and helped me feel a lot better," she said. "It's given me a lot of relief that I can come back with all my teammates. With those relationships, I haven't been feeling so lonely."
She said the football team has always been close, but even closer heading into last week's game. The team started with 22 players in spring workouts, but that number grew to 35. "They are truly brothers to the bone," she said.
That played out after the game, with the weight and burden of the event was finally over.
The team gathered in the end zone. They embraced some more. Hooted. Hollered. Even howled. They raised their helmets more than once for cheers of "Green machine."
"Does that feel good?" Hopper asked rhetorically.
"Yes!" the players responded immediately.
"Is all that hard work worth it?"
"Here's what I pray for you tonight," Hopper continued. "That you started healing tonight. That it's going to continue the rest of the season. Doggone it guys, you've been through so much. This feels great. You have a family that loves you."
After Hopper, another longtime assistant, Nino Pinocchio, immediately addressed the team.
"Look around you," he said. "There's a hell of a lot of smiling faces out there. You did that! You did that! You brought some love back here."
They brought more than that, said head coach Rick Prinz. The triumphant Bobcats inspired hope.
"It is a great rallying point for our community," he said. "The
people are rebuilding. Maybe watching these kids, they'll say, 'Hey,
it's going to work.' "
The coaches reminded the Bobcats that Friday's win was just the beginning. They have a big challenge in Week 0 at former Northern California champion East Nicolaus, and many more games after that.
But for at least this one simmering August night, the coaches encouraged the Bobcats to soak in the victory. The pride. The crazy.
Prinz called the team and last year's seniors together for one last helmet raise, and they spontaneously chanted "CMF! CMF! CMF!" endlessly into the night sky.
When they were done, they formed a giant fist, joined at the heart and signed off on the first leg of a long journey.
"Brothers to the bone!" To donate to Paradise High athletics, contact athletic director Anne Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.