The Paradise High School varsity football team was having a stellar season. Rolling to a 8-2 record in the regular season, they were set to face the Red Bluff in a first-round playoff game to advance to championship aspirations.
Then, devastation hit.
The Camp Fire blazed through the town of Paradise on November 8, essentially destroying the entire town. With all the work the team had put in throughout the year, they suddenly had much more important priorities in life.
Many of their neighbors in the town of 20,000 people died or remain missing amidst the blaze. Thankfully, the entire team and coaching staff had made it out safely. But the Bobcats decided to forfeit their playoff game, even though Red Bluff graciously offered to concede. After a season of hard work, their season had ended in the worst way possible.
The team and coaching staff met on Monday morning at Chico’s Pleasant Valley High, an emotional affair that marked the first time the team had been together since the tragic fire. They debriefed on the devastating fire and offered condolences to their teammates who lost homes. Then, they were given a surprise gift.
The 35 players, all wearing their home football jerseys, 13 cheerleaders and 10 staff members, were presented with tickets to the San Francisco 49er’s Monday Night Football game against the New York Giants, and they immediately boarded buses to the event.
— KPIX 5 (@KPIXtv) November 13, 2018
After arriving at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, they were given VIP treatment. They were greeted by the Niner’s General Manager John Lynch at the outset, who offered some condolences and encouraging words. The football team stood with the Niners during the National Anthem and had front row seats on the sideline throughout the game. The cheerleaders also got to meet the 49ers Gold Rush cheer squad. And players from both teams showed their appreciation to the teens:
— Daniel Brown (@mercbrownie) November 13, 2018
The @49ers are hosting the Paradise Valley HS football team tonight. Many players lost homes in the #CampFire. The team also had to forfeit their playoff game last week because of the fire. 49ers bussed them all down and gave them tickets. And this:
— Ian Cull (@NBCian) November 13, 2018
Paradise High School students and almost all of their football team that was forced to forfeit its season during the playoffs because their homes burned down in the Camp Fire gets a front seat to watch NY Giants head to the locker room. Odell Beckham draws the biggest reaction. pic.twitter.com/otZnUJhDwe
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) November 13, 2018
Shane Wallen, a 49er strength and conditioning coach, grew up in Paradise and his father lost his Magalia home during the fire. He has since started a GoFundMe fundraiser for the victims, which has since raised $20,000. He took to social media to welcome the team to the big leagues:
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GAME DAY!! My heart is heavy for the people of Paradise and Butte County. But I am so excited to see every Paradise High School Varsity Football player and cheerleader at tonight’s Monday Night Game Vs. the NY Giants! Let’s get this W @49ers 🏈❤️💛🙏🏼🔥 #goniners #sf49ers #ninerfaithful #ninergang #niners #ninerempire #49ers #paradisestrong #buttecounty #prayforparadise #campfire #californiawildfires #chico #fitness #fit #fitnessmotivation #strengthandconditioning #strengthcoach #strengthtraining #crossfit #bodybuilding #fitlife #fitfam #fitnesslife #fitnessaddict #family #love
He also offered some insightful words to the kids who have been upended by the disaster:
“These kids have a bigger job, in my opinion,” Taylor said to the Enterprise Record. “It’s ‘go have some fun,’ but I think they’re going to realize … the whole nation is looking at this little town. They’re going to come back and be able share that love to (other) kids tomorrow night. I think that’s going to be a powerful moment.”
Although the Niners lost in heartbreaking fashion on Monday, they were able to offer a welcomed distraction to the teenagers of Paradise. And as the Paradise Bobcats returned home, they have bigger fish to fry. Rebuilding the town of Paradise will be a long and arduous process. Healing the wounds will be even more difficult.
But on Monday night, compassion transcended sports, and for many, the healing process started.