Even after driving 200 miles to the south, Paradise High School’s football team couldn’t escape the reminders. They had made the journey at the invitation of the San Francisco 49ers, who were to play the New York Giants on “Monday Night Football,” yet the Air Quality Index was at 161 at kickoff, a level that’s considered unhealthy. The Camp Fire that has ravaged Northern California and devastated most of their lives was to blame.
Yet for a few hours, the Bobcats tried not to think about that, or the destruction they momentarily left behind. They were on the field with real NFL players during a real NFL game, and that was good enough.
“It’s fantastic. First-class treatment,” Paradise Coach Rick Prinz told the Mercury News. “These guys are going to remember it forever. It’s just a great show of humanity and support.”
49ers General Manager John Lynch welcomed the Bobcats and gave them the news that they would be on the field for the national anthem (while also jokingly chiding one of the players for wearing a Raiders hat).
“First of all, you need to take off that Raiders hat,” he told one player with a laugh. “You guys help us out and stand with our guys during the national anthem. Our guys are fired up for it. Stand with our team right out there. And, most of all have a good time tonight, all right?”
As told by the Mercury News’s Daniel Brown, the Bobcats finished 8-2 in the regular season and were all set to face 2-8 Red Bluff High at home in the first round of the Division II Northern Section playoffs when the Camp Fire began last week, giving Paradise no choice but to forfeit the rest of the season because, one player estimated, 90 percent of the team had lost their homes.
"One of my players put it best,” Prinz said. “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.’ "
Butte County Superintendent Tim Taylor then reached out to an old friend named Jesse Lovejoy, the director of the 49ers Academy — an outreach program that seeks to help troubled kids — and the team museum to see if he could pull any strings to get Paradise players to Monday’s game. Not only did the 49ers send tickets, but they also sent buses and sideline passes. Thirty five players, 16 cheerleaders and eight coaches made the trip, Brown reports.
“I think it’s just a show of solidarity from our community,” Lynch said after his pep talk with the players. “Hey, we can all stand together and reach out and help each other during a time like this. .. I think we all just think about our families. I think about my kids. When you see the videos of people leaving, and driving through it, it’s tough.
“You think about the firemen and firewomen out there continuing to fight this … These are tough times and it takes everyone pulling together to help. These people are going to need support for a long time and I think we’ll do whatever we can and I would encourage everyone to do what they can to help these people out.”
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