SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After days of watching and hearing stories about how one of the deadliest wildfires in California history had torn through their community, the Paradise High Football team found some relief Monday night in the form of a bus ride.
After the San Francisco 49ers invited the Paradise team to Monday night’s game against the New York Giants, the 35 players, 16 cheerleaders and eight coaches boarded a bus provided by the Niners Monday in Chico, California, at around 11 a.m. to make the roughly 200-mile trek to Levi’s Stadium.
While everyone in the traveling party was looking forward to the game and expressed gratitude to the Niners for the invitation, the two things they wanted most could be found on that bus: an opportunity to sleep and a chance to spend time with their friends and teammates.
“I think the biggest reaction was on the bus ride here when they all slept,” coach Rick Prinz said. “They’re exhausted. They’re all displaced. (Almost) all of their homes have burned down. They’ve lost everything.”
“We were all just hanging out and having a good time with each other,” senior quarterback Cole Cline said. “We all really missed each other.”
The invitation to spend the evening with the Niners came after the Camp Fire ripped through Paradise late last week.
After word that Paradise, which was 8-2 despite being the smallest school in its section, had to forfeit their playoff appearance made its way back to the Niners, they got in touch with the Butte County Office of Education.
Soon enough, the Niners had offered buses for the team to come to Monday night’s game and stand with them on the sideline during the National Anthem.
Earlier Monday, the Butte County Sheriff’s Department announced that the death toll in and around Paradise had reached 29, matching the number for most deaths from a single fire in modern California history. More than 200 other people remain unaccounted for and more than 6,400 homes had been destroyed, according to the sheriff’s department.
“What that town, what that community has gone through, it’s just heart wrenching, gut wrenching for all of us,” general manager John Lynch said. “So, you just look for anything you can do. I think when you can take people’s minds off something for a short time, of course we’d do anything possible. I think it’s just a show of solidarity of our community, we’ve got to all stand together and reach out and help each other during a time like this.”
The Niners also will donate all proceeds from Monday night’s 50/50 drawing to the North Valley Community Foundation to help those impacted by the fires in Butte County.
In addition, San Francisco tight end George Kittle, quarterback Nick Mullens, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, left tackle Joe Staley and running back Matt Breida are signing and donating their game-worn jerseys from Monday night to be auctioned off with all money going to relief efforts.
Shane Wallen, the 49ers assistant strength and conditioning coach, grew up in Paradise, is a native of Chico and has started a GoFundMe page in efforts to offer support for his hometown. The fire destroyed Wallen’s father’s home in Magalia.
With the help of multiple Niners players making donations and lending their social media platforms, Wallen had already raised more than $19,000 of the $50,000 goal as of early Monday evening. Wallen stopped and greeted each player on Monday night.
During the National Anthem, the Paradise team stood in front of the 49ers on the sideline and received loud cheers from the fans at Levi’s Stadium. As the anthem began, Niners players put their arms around the Paradise players in solidarity.
“It’s nice to get away from everything that’s going on and getting my mind off of it,” senior linebacker Trevor Rickson said. “And I get to watch football, the game I love.”
While the school survived the fire, about 90 percent of the players’ homes did not. Like most of the community, the coaches, players and cheerleaders have spent the past few days living elsewhere and seeking updates on the status of their own houses.
Cline said he initially didn’t believe his parents when they told him they needed to evacuate last Thursday morning. Within an hour, the town was engulfed in flames. He and his family safely made it out and have been staying at a hotel in nearby Folsom. Cline and his family found out their home burned down on Sunday.
Rickson has a similar story, albeit with a different ending, leaving his home with his mother and sister around 9 a.m. on Thursday and going to his aunt’s house in Chico. His house, in a neighborhood where most burned down, is still standing.
“It’s hard but they all have a place to stay if they need it,” Rickson said.
Both players expressed their dismay at not being able to play the playoff game they’d spent their high school careers working toward. In the absence of the chance to play, Cline said he and his teammates have leaned on the lessons they’ve learned from the game to help them stay positive through the most trying of times.
“We just rely on each other to pick each other up and just love each other because that’s what we’ve done all year,” Cline said. “We’re a great group of brothers.”
Like Rickson, Prinz’s house also managed to survive the fire, a fact that was confirmed via texts from friends who sent pictures.
“Nothing around it made it and somehow it’s standing there and I don’t know how to explain that,” Prinz said. “And it makes you feel a little bit guilty and grateful at the same time. But Paradise is devastated.
“I can’t believe it. You wouldn’t believe it guys if you saw it. It’s on a hillside, everything is gone and there sits that house. It’s a miracle.”
After Monday’s game, the Paradise contingent will take the long ride back to Butte County and disperse to where they’re staying — some in hotels, some with relatives and some in evacuation shelters.
As of Monday night, they still haven’t been allowed to return to town to survey the damage. They don’t know what comes next. But for one night, they were happy to get away from it all.
“One of my players said it best after we suspended our season, he said, ‘I really want to play the game but I lost everything I own and I need to find out where I’m going to live,'” Prinz said. “So, this was a great break from that. He’s on this trip. That’s most of the team and most of the coaching staff. So, it’s a great diversion. It’s fantastic. And all of this … they’re going to remember it forever. It’s just a great show of humanity and support for us from people you don’t even know who would come in and be this kind.”