After devastating fires, Paradise football team gives a community hope

Paradise football rising from the ashes (2:27)

In this E:60 excerpt, the devastating Camp Fire and its effect on Paradise, California, and the Paradise High School football team is chronicled. Catch the full feature at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPN. (2:27)

E:60's prime-time debut, featuring a story on the Paradise High School football team, reported by Tom Rinaldi and produced by Russell Dinallo, airs on ESPN tonight at 7 ET.

THE FIRE IS still there, nine months after the last flames were extinguished. It is alive in the scarred earth and the scalped hillsides. It's out there on the streets, where signs advertise businesses that no longer exist and where husks of cars, burned to a uniform brown, sit on cracked asphalt next to piles of warped metal.

It's there in the Paradise High School football stadium, where the ponderosa and lodgepole pines that once crowded Om Wraith Field now stand as blackened stumps and charred trunks, like a mouthful of rotted teeth. It's there in the dragonflies hovering waist-high over that field, thousands of them, lured by the last remaining rectangle of damp grass amid the scalded earth.

It's in the new billboards along Skyway, advertising fire lawyers (CAMP FIRE CLAIM?) and honest local contractors (with obligatory American flags) and compassionate lenders (Understanding YOUR Needs). It's in the signs, homemade and professional, touting the durable hashtag of disaster, #ParadiseStrong. It's in the utility trucks and workers in hard hats who drive up the ridge in the morning and down at night. It's in the chimneys that stand alone, and in the laundry hanging outside the trailers stuck in the middle of barren red-dirt lots, their occupants' cars parked in neat rows in a subconscious simulation of normalcy.

The fire lives through the night, in an uninterrupted darkness that makes the stars seem too many and too low, and in the ghostly silence that accentuates the desolation. The fire, nearly a year later, lives amid the absence.

The fire has always been here, in some form: myth, threat, reality. The town sits roughly 1,800 feet above the hot and flat Sacramento Valley, and the unique topography -- horseshoe-shaped and resting atop sheer volcanic buttes -- makes it a geologic fire pit. The town, which has traveled a uniquely Californian route from mining outpost to logging community to exurban city popular with retirees, grew along with the risk. "Every kid who grows up in Paradise is taught from birth to fear fire," says Paradise High assistant coach Andy Hopper. "Fire has always been our monster."

NEARLY 27,000 PEOPLE lived in Paradise at 7 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2018, when the Camp Fire began its two-week march of vengeance through 153,000 acres and 18,000 homes. It killed 86 people, and 95% of Paradise -- its homes and businesses and trees and shrubs and lawns and cars and trucks and furniture and tools and clothes and jewelry and family photos -- was incinerated. What remains is a landscape wiped clean, nearly devoid of landmarks. Lifelong residents sheepishly admit to getting lost, the land beneath them suddenly unfamiliar.

There are maybe 2,000 residents remaining in Paradise. Thirty-seven of the 40 varsity football players at Paradise High were among those displaced after their families lost their homes. The luckiest of those 37 live 15 minutes down the mountain in Chico or 25 away in Oroville or a short trek up the mountain in Magalia. Some live as far away as Wheatland (a 75-minute drive) or Orland (a 55-minute drive if you don't get stuck behind a tractor). When Paradise High reopened in August, those students could have attended schools more convenient to their new homes, but few did. The pilgrimage up the mountain began early on the first day of school; a projected enrollment of 600 became 900. Some had moved to Oregon or San Diego or Fresno only to return. No one off the mountain could hope to understand what still lives inside them.

"It's like they've been drawn back," says head coach Rick Prinz, whose teams have won 10 North Section titles in his 20 years. "It's like 'Field of Dreams.'"

Wildfire is heartless and angry. Nothing is more humbling, or more capable of conveying the concept of human frailty. It moves faster than the mind can process, consuming land with voraciousness, its self-generated winds sending embers hopscotching miles ahead in an endless quest to multiply. It moves like liquid across hillsides and through structures, following the contours of the land as if poured from the sky. Much of the reporting on the fire's spread relied on a football field as an accepted unit of measurement. The fire moved at the rate of a football field a second. It was both comprehensible and wholly unbelievable.

Wildfire is also capricious. One home can be left standing in a neighborhood, for reasons nobody can fathom, just as one high school and one football field can be spared when all around them -- condominiums, apartments, houses, trees -- are just memories.

The Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, devoured football field after football field across the landscape, yet the one field in its path, the scene of some of the town's most memorable events, was unscathed. And after the players, dispersed throughout a handful of counties, returned to the mountain at a near-miraculous rate, it was decided: This team, and these boys, were destined to start the healing.

PARADISE FOOTBALL IS defined by the acronym "CMF." Those three letters are lasered into a new metal sign on the press box commemorating the fire, and they're chanted repeatedly during games by players, cheerleaders and fans. For public consumption, CMF stands for Crazy Mountain Folk, but if you ask the right people, you'll find that its origins trace back to a more vulgar -- and easily sleuthed -- version of MF.

The Bobcats break their team huddles during home games with screams of either "Don't come up the mountain!" or "Get off our mountain!" Before the team's first scrimmage, on a Saturday morning against Sacramento's Casa Roble High, Hopper walked the sideline -- tears welling in his eyes -- yelling "Mountain football!" until he was sure everyone had heard it. Never before has 1,800 feet -- the elevation from the valley floor to the top of the ridge -- buried itself deeper into a collective psyche.

"We're a little strange up here," Hopper says. "We're all misfits. We've tried Chico, and it didn't work because we're all a little odd. We embrace that. I'm the first to admit how strange I am. But as long as nobody tells me how to be, I'm good. People love me up here. We can be ourselves, and we can all have our opinions. That's why I love this community and why it needs to come back and thrive."

Hopper was 14, proud owner of a green mohawk and the attitude to match it, when he first met Prinz -- then a youth pastor -- at a church function. "For whatever reason, he decided, 'I'm going to take care of this guy,'" Hopper says. "I didn't even really like football in high school." Their relationship over nearly 30 years has evolved from father-son to coach-player to boss-employee to the inspiration for a buddy comedy: Prinz exuding methodical, relentless calm; Hopper filling the room with positivity and unrestrained joy. Hopper is the kind of guy who's your friend seconds after an introduction. Within 10 minutes, you could ask to borrow his truck and he'd toss you the keys. He's a probation counselor at the Butte County Juvenile Hall, the rare match of personality and vocation. "He was a pretty good football player," Prinz says, "but he's a better coach -- a way better coach. You never want to follow him on a speech."

On the morning of Nov. 8, Hopper dropped his son off at Paradise High and returned home. He knew the weather report -- red-flag warning, winds of 50 mph, dry conditions -- and smelled the smoke. "The sky turned black, and you could see it coming over the ridge," he says. "I'll never forget that moment. It just hit you right in the stomach -- boom! I started grabbing all my pictures, hard drives, the things you later look at and say, 'What the hell?' I didn't think to get my grandmother's ashes, or my football rings. What was I thinking? I can't describe it. You would think your instinct would kick in, but it didn't. It shut me down. My son was still at the high school, and I just imagined my town burning down."

These days in Paradise, the easiest question to ask is, "What's your fire story?" Everybody has one. Sophomore fullback/defensive tackle Ashton Wagner, the first freshman to play varsity for Paradise, is the fourth generation in his family to play football for the Bobcats. ("Wagners were always guys you knew not to mess with," Paradise grad and ex-NFL wide receiver Jeff Maehl says, admiringly. "There was always a certain temperament in that family.") Ashton was at the high school at 7:30 a.m. -- "just chillin'" -- when bits of burning cardboard started falling from the sky. Within an hour, the sun was gone, the sky was black and he was bombing down Skyway in the passenger seat of a borrowed Toyota Tacoma pickup. His best friend, Stetson Morgan, was in the middle and his other best friend, Silas Carter, was driving through the smoke and the flames, dodging ditched and burning vehicles, despite being 15 years old and not having so much as a learner's permit.

The Wagners lost 12 houses -- "at least," says Craig Wagner, Ashton's grandfather -- on 50 acres of land. After the fire, Ashton moved to a high school near Fresno to compete on a state-ranked wrestling team -- at 240, he's a beast of a heavyweight -- and live with family. It felt empty and incomplete. "He lasted two weeks," Craig says. "That happened to a few of 'em." The Wagners are a logging family, dating back to the days when the trees on the hillside were harvested and sent down the hill to the Diamond Matchstick Company in Chico. Long before Nov. 8, 2018, the trees in Paradise were identified as the perfect source for matchsticks.

"I owned a house on Pearson, my brother owned a house on Pearson, my daughter owned a house on Pearson," Craig says. "We had all of Pearson, and then this whole town burned down in four hours."

His laugh is brief and corrosive in a way that suggests the past nine months have exhausted every other alternative.

Football can't bring back 18,000 burned homes or 86 lives, and these players are nothing more than kids, really. But football is something tangible -- last year's 8-2 season, which Prinz believes would have brought Paradise another section championship, ended when the fire started -- and nobody in Paradise can remember the last thing that gave them hope.

"There's a lot of pressure," Hopper says, "and we'd be fools to think they don't feel it."

Most of the players' stories feel like depositions: dispassionate, factual, repeated so many times they sound rehearsed. Like everyone affected by the fire, these boys have aged over the past year, become more circumspect and empathetic and self-aware. The shared trauma has created a bond that is understood but remains -- since they're still high school boys -- mostly unspoken.

Senior running back Ben Weldon is telling the story of how he and his mom smelled the fire, packed their stuff and had to make a narrow escape to the east to avoid the advancing flames. The story is heavy on directions and alternate routes and trees across roads.

"And your house?" I ask.

"Yeah," he says, and draws the word out for an extra beat or two. The pause says: Really, dude? "So, yeah -- our house burned down."

Everything changes. Thoughts can't be trusted. As a kid, Hopper remembers being told, again and again, to head for Paradise Lake and jump in 'til the fire passes. In the early moments of confusion and panic on Nov. 8, after he'd brought his son to school and returned to his home, Hopper's first thought was to get his wife and two children and head for the lake. Those instructions -- jump in the lake and save yourself -- played in his head like a long-forgotten nursery rhyme. He realized Paradise Lake was the wrong direction. Wait a minute, he thought, I'll die if I head to the lake. "It's frightening what your mind does at times like that," he says.

Sounds haunt. Sirens and helicopters become the disaster's score. Hopper doesn't remember sirens -- the fire was too fast for emergency vehicles -- or helicopters -- he was off the mountain by the time they'd arrived. He remembers the sound of exploding propane tanks, though, one after another like popcorn, announcing the fire's path. He sometimes hears them where they don't exist.

"I try to act like none of this bugs me, but it does," he says. "I know I'm not the only one. Far from it. Ever since the fire, I've made myself go to counseling at least once a week, and it's helped me tremendously. To get through this, we need to be able to talk about it."

THERE'S A TWISTED, half-melted piece of metal on a shelf in Jaden Decheine's bedroom in the small Orland house his parents rented in the weeks after the fire. In another form, the metal was once the face mask from the helmet he wore last season as a Paradise junior varsity player. It was the only possession he found when he and his family sifted through the ashes of their Paradise home.

Jaden is a 270-pound junior offensive tackle who doesn't figure to play much on Friday nights this season. Just to be on the team, though, he wakes up before 5 every morning to catch a 45-minute ride -- again, not accounting for tractors -- with his father, Mike, to the bus stop in Chico. While his father continues on to his job as an apprentice electrician, Jaden waits for an hour -- the sky lightening from pre-dawn purple to sunrise orange -- for the Paradise school bus to arrive and take him the final 15 minutes to campus.

After the fire, Jaden attended Orland High for the remainder of his sophomore year. Quiet and soft-spoken, he nonetheless found himself in repeated violation of the same school rule. He refused to wear the school's blue-and-white PE uniform, viewing it as a betrayal of his green-and-gold brotherhood in Paradise.

"He wouldn't wear any other colors," Mike says, laughing. "He got in trouble for it, but what could I tell him? That's how I raised him."

Jaden finished the school year in Orland and spent three weeks this summer working out with the Trojans football team. Rarely demonstrative, Jaden became withdrawn and aloof. "From the beginning, it never felt right to play somewhere else," he says. "I just felt I was betraying the brothers I had worked so long with. And I didn't feel it was right in my soul to do that." Jaden had been through a trauma familiar to his Paradise teammates -- driving with his mom down Skyway through the flames, knowing everything behind him was gone -- but completely foreign to anyone in Orland. "I felt alone," Jaden says. "I didn't have any friends, I didn't make any friends. It was just me and my family, and nobody else understood what I was going through."

His parents, aware of his unhappiness, proposed a solution:

"If you want to go back to Paradise, we can make it happen."

"Yes, of course," he said, "but if I'm going back, I'm playing football."

That meant more driving and more waiting and later dinners, but they agreed. "They just didn't understand him over there," Mike says. "The first week he was back up here was the first time he seemed like himself since the fire."

Mike is leaning against a waist-high chain-link fence that separates the track at Paradise High from the visiting bleachers, watching a Wednesday night practice roughly 48 hours before the first game of the season. He's got a long beard the color of corn tassels, a sunburned face and bright blue eyes.

He's got time to kill, so he's telling his fire story, how he waited at the bottom of Skyway, helpless and nauseous, hoping for his wife and son to materialize out of the smoke and flames. For three hours, with the road closed to uphill traffic and all cell communications cut off, he watched people run and drive down the mountain as the flames grew in the distance. He looks away, adjusts his baseball cap. It's all coming back. He holds his hands about a foot apart to describe an ember that helicoptered down the mountain and landed near his feet. He waited for his family as pieces of the earth fell from the sky.

"I didn't know if I'd ever see them again," he says, "and I think about it every day. When I wake up, I think about it. When I drive my son to the bus stop, I think about it. When I come up here to get him after practice, I think about it. I'm not over it, and I don't think anybody up here is."

He kicks the toe of his boot against a weed in the concrete and stops talking. Eventually he looks up.

"I don't know," he says, "do you ever get over it?"

His son used to walk the four blocks up the bike trail from Buschmann Road to the high school and then call his parents to let them know he made it. Now they wake up before 5 every morning to drive to the bus stop, where the father hugs his son and heads for work. And now Mike Decheine is standing here on a 95-degree night watching a high school football practice for the third time this week because his son felt traitorous in another school's colors. He has worked a long day in the blistering valley heat below. His town is gone. One of the first things he does every morning is check to see if there are new rental homes on the market in Paradise, and every morning he gets disgusted by price-gouging landlords doubling their rents to profit from tragedy. The practice has another hour of life left in it, and then he's got another hour to drive to a house he never wanted in a town that'll never feel right.

IT WOULD BE difficult to overestimate the hype for the first game of the 2019 season, Aug. 23 against Williams High School, but that doesn't mean nobody tried. It was called "the biggest event in the history of Paradise" by principal Jeff Marcus, an assistant football coach who returned to run the school this year after four years of retirement. The buildup, buoyed by media attention, caused a Bobcat sitting with a few teammates in the back of a pickup two hours before the game to declare, "I'm not nervous about the game; I'm nervous about all those people watching us."

As is tradition, the players walked from the practice field and through the stands and down the concrete bleacher steps to the sound of Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down." With 5,000 people standing and cheering and crying, it was nearly impossible to hear the music. Two days before the game, Hopper said, "If there's someone not crying, I think they're the ones who are going to be judged, not all of us crying like little babies." As foretold, he bawled on the sideline, hugging everyone he could find.

The night went from hopeful to joyous to -- at least as close as they could hope to come to it -- normal. After about a quarter, it became just another football game, one the Bobcats dominated, leading 35-0 at halftime and winning 42-0. In the parking lot after the game, running back Stetson Morgan is engaged in the angst-ridden balance between talking to a reporter and trying to get a ride to wherever it is everybody is going after the game. This requires him to vacillate between near-Victorian politeness ("I'm sorry, sir, can you repeat the question?") and teenage frenzy ("Caleb, dude, why can't you just give me a ride?").

I'm talking to Stetson because he scored one of Paradise's six touchdowns, and because his family has endured more than most in the fire's aftermath. They remain displaced, living in a one-bedroom, one-bath trailer they hope is temporary. After Stetson goes to wherever everybody is going after the game, he will head back to the pullout sofa bed in the trailer's combination living room/kitchen.

"That touchdown meant a s--- ton, sorry for my language," he says. "It meant so much to my family and my team. The feeling was amazing, like happiness and relief. I can't put it into words."

Stetson's eyes bounce around the parking lot as car after car heads into the night. He apologizes one more time and hurries off to hop into a sputtering pickup driven by a teammate who looks like his last best chance.

The night was a good first step, everyone agrees -- toward a successful season, toward healing, toward something that might someday resemble whatever defines normalcy. Nearing midnight, the town is completely quiet, its streets empty. The darkness is profound, alive, the stars closing in like a false ceiling. More than 5,000 people -- students, parents, friends -- have scattered down the mountain like buckshot, headed for the places they live but refuse to call home.