By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On nearly a three-and-a-half hour bus ride en route to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, students of Paradise High School were afforded a luxury that their community has been deprived of for the last five days: Sleep.
In the wake of Northern California’s Camp fire — which began in Paradise’s own Butte County — the San Francisco 49ers invited 35 members of the Paradise Bobcats football team, 16 cheerleaders and eight coaches to watch a Monday Night Football game against the visiting New York Giants.
While the Giants walked away with a 27-23 win over the 49ers, the outcome didn’t matter much for the Bobcats. It came as a much-needed break from the harsh realities of the devastating disaster that ravaged their town.
“It’s a great diversion for the kids,” said the Bobcats’ head coach Rick Prinz. “They’re exhausted and all displaced… They’re going to remember this forever. It’s just a great show of humanity and support.”
Since being sparked on Thursday, Nov. 9, the Camp fire has become one of the most destructive wildfires in the history of the state, killing 42 people, destroying 100,000 acres and leveling over 6,700 structures.
Of the buildings that were left in ruins, many belonged to the families of Paradise High. According to Prinz, over 90 percent of his players’ homes were completely destroyed.
“It’s just chaotic,” said Bobcats senior middle linebacker Henry Becker. “It’s super sad to see the town that you’re born in to go to rubble.”
Some players were ordered to evacuate with just 10 minutes’ warning — used to gather their personal and prized belongings. The status of their homes is still unknown, as they have not yet been able to re-enter the city.
“You had to prioritize some things,” said Bobcats junior running back Jacob Weldon. “Like pictures and things that you just couldn’t replace.”
On top of all that, the Bobcats had football taken away from them: The team was forced to forfeit a home playoff game last week.
After going 8-2 in the regular season, Paradise had secured the No. 2 seed in the Northern Section Division II playoff bracket, and was set to host Red Bluff High School last Friday with a semifinals bid at stake.
“It was really hard but it was a team decision,” said Bobcats junior running back Jacob Weldon. “We all made it and it was the best for our community, we felt.”
After learning about the hardships that the community of Paradise and their football team were facing, the 49ers responded by offering an evening of relief.
“We mobilized to get them 68 tickets to the game,” said 49ers Director of Corporate Communications, Roger Hacker via email. “[We] arranged a bus to carry their district superintendent, school athletics director, and team members to tonight’s game.”
Arriving two hours before kickoff, the Paradise party — 59 members strong — was greeted by 49ers general manager John Lynch, who posed with the students and coaches for photos, including SnapChat and Instagram posts by the kids.
“I’m sorry for what’s happened to your town, guys,” Lynch said. “That’s rough. But hopefully being here tonight can make it a little better.”
Paradise was also given a tour of the field while Giants and 49ers players warmed up during pre-game. Jumping, screaming and climbing on their friends’ shoulders to get a better view, the students of Paradise High School finally had a reason to smile.
“This is the best day of my life,” one Paradise football player was heard shouting.
Minutes before kickoff, as fans were asked to stand and remove their hats ahead of the singing of the National Anthem, Levi’s Stadium held a moment of silence for Paradise and the thousands of others who have been affected by the wildfires in Northern California.
The show of appreciation and solidarity brought some of the students to tears, as they wiped their eyes on the sidelines.
“It’s amazing to see the support from complete strangers,” Prinz said. “For the 49ers organization to do this and show their support is a great act of kindness, that I’m never going to forget.”
After the pregame recognition, the members of the group were each given tickets in sections scattered around the stadium. Ideally, the 49ers would have liked to sit the group together, but considering that the game was scheduled for prime time, and the short-notice nature of the accommodations, seating smaller groups in several sections was the best plan of action.
As the players and cheerleaders raced up the stadium steps to find their seats, it wasn’t tough to see their joy at being in a place far from the horrors currently plaguing their hometown. In a much-needed night of relief, the kids could be kids once more; something they hadn’t felt in nearly a week.
“I’ve kind of just been in shock the last couple of day,” said Cline. “We just got a chance to take out minds off of things and be with each other.”