Joe Davidson

After hell hit Paradise, football team unites community in moving return to normalcy

Terry Logue went home this summer to Paradise.

The view broke his heart. The old coach who has led the Bear River High School program since 1986 was with his wife Andrea. Butte County means a great deal to her, too.

Logue took in the sights and had to collect himself. He nearly cried.

Home looked like hell on Earth. Paradise was in charred ruins, dotted by burned-out cars, piles of ruble where buildings once stood. There were scorched trees and vegetation.

“I grew up there, and couldn’t believe what I saw, what it looked like – a war zone,” said Logue, a 1969 graduate of Paradise High who coached the football program in the early 1980s. “You’d see five or six houses in a row, then nothing – blocks of nothing but a chimney and driveways, total destruction.

“But what cheered me up was going to the Paradise High football field. The school made it through OK, the field too. There were trees surrounding it, some charred. But it was happy.”

On Friday, there was unbridled joy and relief in Paradise, the dawn of a new day. Bobcats players carried the expectations of a still-grieving community on their shoulder pads, and then seized the moment, delivering a decisive 42-0 victory over Williams.

Logue wasn’t there, coaching his Bruins past Truckee in Grass Valley, but he was back home in spirit.

Some 5,000 packed into Om Wraith Field, a place that normally holds 2,500. But this was no normal night.

Friday marked the first game for Paradise since the November Camp Fire scorched more than 150,000 acres, wiped out 8,000 structures and claimed 86 lives.

Nearly all of the Paradise football players and coaches were displaced by the deadliest fire in state history. None of them lost their lives, but only nine of the program’s 104 total players had a home to go to. All of the others were left to sift through ash and rubble. Every coach in the program lost their home. Each of them knew someone who had perished.

A town that not long ago had 27,000 residents is now down to about 2,000. Large parts of Paradise will never recover.

Paradise was 8-2 last season in football and was set to host a Northern Section playoff opener just as the fires took off. School administrators and coaches agreed they had more pressing concerns. They canceled the remaining part of the season to focus on finding loved ones, of finding a place to stay, or helping others.

The Sacramento region could feel the anguish. Smoke clogged the air and postponed games. Coaches such as Chris Horner of Casa Roble reached out to Paradise coach Rick Prinz to offer support – words, supplies, anything.

Horner’s program visited Paradise players and coaches last fall, a sobering, humbling experience. Suddenly, no one was complaining about cellphone signals or why their girlfriend hadn’t gotten back to them. This was real life. Players who had never met bonded. They became united.

Horner and the Rams later invited Paradise players and coaches for an evening of Casa Roble playoff action in a terrific display of sportsmanship. Casa Roble earlier this month was invited by Prinz to scrimmage his team, out of appreciation for the kindness the Rams program showed last fall.

“The Paradise players and coaches seem to be in a good place,” Horner said Sunday. “There are only three players in the whole Paradise program that actually live in town. It shows the dedication and love the people of Paradise have for their community.”

As for Friday’s victory, Horner said, “(Wife) Michele and I and the Casa community could not be happier for the town of Paradise getting back on its feet, and we’ll follow their progress.”

Paradise had 56 varsity players last season. It is down to 35 now. Some families, teachers and administrators left the region for a fresh start.

Jeff Marcus came out of retirement as Paradise principal to lead the school, even though he lost his home to the fire.

The Bobcats began workouts for this season in January at the Chico airport. Prinz reminded his team before Friday’s kickoff that the Bobcats had “nothing. No facilities. We didn’t even have a football. We went out on the gravel field to run plays, remember?”

Paradise running back Lukas Hartley said before Friday’s game, “Our town is looking for an event that they can rally behind. It’s the one thing that’s truly bringing us all together.”

Paradise players walked down the stadium steps in uniform, carrying two American flags. One was to honor those who died in the fires and one to thank the first responders who risked their lives to save anything and anyone they could.

Three Paradise students started to sing the national anthem, but the public address volume was not loud enough, so the audience joined in.

The voices included Carl Chapin, a 1981 graduate of the school and a longtime Sacramento-area prep coach. Chapin grew up in Paradise, is a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame and could feel the region’s hurt last fall right down to his Elk Grove home. On Friday, Chapin and wife Deanne rode a bike through Paradise to witness the destruction and later, the rebirth..

“At the game, every where you looked, there were people hugging and reconnecting,” Chapin said. “It absolutely and positively brought the Paradise community together for a night of normalcy.”

The man who has helped hold it all together is coach Prinz. In his 20th season, he has guided 18 playoff teams to go with 10 league championships. He never thought of leaving players that never needed a leader more.

After the game, the spent coach said, “Getting here was so hard, so many distractions. To come out here and play like that ... I’m just so proud of them. It’s a great rallying point for our community. The people are rebuilding. Maybe watching these kids, they’ll say, ‘Hey, it’s going to work.”

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Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.