PARADISE – It’s a homecoming game being played by boys who have lost their homes.
“We’re playing with anger,” running back Lukas Hartley says.
It’s in the middle of a high school football season in which they’ve been taunted for their circumstances, doubted for their schedule and wearily pitied as that poor little team whose town burned down.
“We want it more than anyone else who’s ever stepped on this football field,” lineman Kasten Ortiz says.
It’s just another night in Paradise, a chilly Friday at Om Wraith Field, where the Bobcats are furiously placing a different sort of stamp on the pregame crowning and halftime float ceremonies.
Homecoming is where the hit is.
The Bobcats fly at visiting Willows from the opening moment, delivering blows that echo through the ancient concrete stands, bounce off the burned championship plaque, soar past the partially melted scoreboard.
After one play, three Willows players are limping to the sideline. On another, Hartley hauls five of them down the field draped over his back and hanging on his legs. On yet another, Tyler Harrison runs through hole so big it’s as if the Paradise linemen made the defenders disappear into the darkness.
By the time Willows looks up, the team is trailing 27-0 and it is still the first quarter. When the game finally ends with a running clock and every Bobcats benchwarmer on the field, the final score is 57-0.
“Hungry,” Willows coach Manuel Rakestraw says of the Bobcats. “You can tell they’re hungry to play football.”
At the other end of the field, Paradise coach Rick Prinz is shaking his head at the wonder of it all.
“A mission,” he says. “We’re on a mission.”
It is, thus far, a mission of magic: eight wins, no losses, 362 points to 40 in a season that has been beyond storybook.
Nearly a year after the most destructive wildfire in California history annihilated their town and caused 86 deaths, the Bobcats are two games from heading into playoffs that could lead them to a coveted sectional title, perhaps even a state championship.
Their journey has brought folks back to the slowly rebuilding city for Friday night reunions and restored a sense of community pride and spirit. On this homecoming night, even though a bank of lights went dark and the stadium bathrooms were still unusable, the stands were filled with the illuminating cheers and working hugs.
“Everybody is talking about the football team. It’s the glue that’s holding a lot of this together,” says Wendy Marsters, a longtime Paradise High biology teacher. “The heart of Paradise is back and beating again.”
It would be a dream season, really, except that the Paradise football players, like many of their fellow students, continue to live an evolving nightmare.
Only three members of the team actually live in Paradise. The long commutes and uncertain housing situations have kept their lives in an uproar. They have lost their routines, their traditions, their footing. And, after the second game of the season, they nearly lost their giant, beloved offensive line coach, Andy Hopper, who suffered a heart condition that required three surgeries and included at least one doctor’s prediction of probable death.
The Paradise Bobcats are on a mission, certainly. But it is a mission not so much to triumph as it is to adjust to a new normal. This new existence revolves around the only constant in their lives, the one place they can be mad and somebody will listen. They play angry football because football is the only thing that understands.
“A dream season?” Hartley says. “A dream season for me would be, at the end of the day, I get to go to my old home.”