LOS ANGELES - The football players at Paradise High School are proof that, in the face of disaster, it is often the youth who are the most resilient.
Ninety percent of the team’s Northern California town was destroyed Nov. 8, 2018, by what is now called the Camp Fire. Most of the players lost their homes to the fire.
Only half of the students in the district returned after one of the deadliest and most destructive fires in the state’s history. Out of nine schools, there are now four. Only three of the football players still live in Paradise. The rest are in other towns, and some are commuting more than an hour to school.
While the school district’s superintendent, preparing for a smaller student population once this year’s senior class graduates, is worrying about the possibility of having to lay off teachers, it’s the high school football team — with its strength, determination and heart — that is providing hope for a town struggling amid the devastation.
The world turned upside down for the students, but the football team experienced what can be described as a miracle this season. The players, referred to as the Bobcats after the school mascot, were undefeated, winning 10 games in the regular season.
“This is just like a dream story,” Paradise Unified School District’s Superintendent Michelle John said.
The staff and coaches are amazed, considering the beginning of the school year.
“When we started back in last semester, we had 22 players signed up to play football. So we didn’t know what we would have. When summer hit, they just started drifting back. (A) couple of kids here, a couple of kids there. We had some key guys come back from San Diego, a key player from Oregon,” head football coach Rick Prinz said.
“They just weren’t doing well away from their peer group. They needed their team. They needed their coaches. They needed each other,” said Prinz, who lives in Paradise, in one of the few houses that survived the fire.
‘Just felt normal’
Many of the football players said they also needed to be there, on the football field, because when they are, “I just felt normal, like everything up here is just like normal to all of us,” high school senior Spencer Kiefer said.
Coach Prinz added, “I could see it with the kids when we went out on the practice field, that they kind of just left everything behind and focused on football and what they were doing there.
“You could just see it in their demeanor, how relieved they were to have something normal because everything had changed,” he said.
The fire left its mark on the area surrounding the football field and the red track that encircles it. A few blackened trees next to the field still stand and many more tree stumps remain as signs of what happened a year ago. The football field, next to the high school, was untouched, allowing the players to practice on green grass.
It is not just football: 85% of the high school’s students are playing a sport, whether its volleyball, basketball or soccer. Out of 300 boys at the school, 100 of them play football.
“They had already lost so much that it was one thing that they could connect to,” Anne Stearns, Paradise High School’s athletic director, said.
While the football team is talented, their success may also be in part thanks to surviving a life-changing disaster.
“I think, after the fire, we all kind of grew up and became like young men, like, instantly, pretty fast. And that’s definitely contributed to our good season,” Spencer said.
Athletic director Stearns said, “(They) just really want to be a part of something special, and they see that, and they see that every game is just one more day that they get to hang out with their family.”
The athletes said they consider each teammate a brother. Senior Jeff Trinchera, also on the football team, has welcomed a few teammates into his family because his home was spared by the fire.
“Late after the fire, we ended up having some friends stay over for a few months,” he said.
Jeff said he did it because some of his teammates were “just having issues like getting rides to practice, getting things situated for school. So it was just easier for them.”
Although everything around town seemed different after the fire, Jeff said some of that change is actually positive.
“I see a lot more connections between people who didn’t used to talk to each other. It’s just seeming like everybody gets along a lot better and understands that we all go through different things on a daily basis,” he said.
There is also a greater connection and normalcy that can be felt when former Paradise residents return for Friday night football games.
“It’s just good to know that we’re back here to play for the town and get everything back together,” Spencer said.
WATCH: Student Athletes in Paradise Teach Coaches Life Lessons
Paradise High School coaches and staff said the students are teaching them about resilience.
“The fact that so many of them have lost so much and they don’t take the little things for granted,” Sterns said. “They’ve grown up so much, and so for me, I am always learning to take every moment and just take it for everything that it is and live life to the fullest.”
“Mostly what I learned is, when there’s adversity, and there always is, you just take one, it’s just one step at a time. You can’t look at so many things going on. You just gotta keep moving forward,” coach Prinz said.
“We really want to show what Paradise football can do around here and show everybody that we’re not just victims. We’re survivors,” Jeff, the senior football player, said.
Editor's Note: The Paradise Bobcats football team played in the Northern Section Division III championship game Saturday night, losing to Sutter Union High School 20-7. In the end zone after the game, senior running back Lukas Hartley, who plans to become a firefighter after graduation, cried with his teammates, telling reporters “I didn’t cry this bad when my house burned down.”