AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A year after flames broke out, Paradise, Calif., is still trying to come back from a devastating wildfire that killed 85. Just 3,000 people have returned to a town that was once home to 27,000. Many are commuting to school from other cities and towns, and that includes almost all of the Paradise High School football team, the Bobcats. The team is undefeated. And as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the Bobcats have given the fire-scarred town a much-needed shot of hope.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Paradise is pledging to return to normal, but with normal still years away, the town has gladly embraced the Bobcats' extraordinary season.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Get it done.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Get there. Get there. Get there.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Break down. Get him.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Wrap up. Hang on.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, baby. Great job.
WESTERVELT: At practice, defensive players face off in a tackle competition. Burnt tree stumps dot the edge of the football field. At stake in this drill - pride and push-ups.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come on, baby. Come on.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, push-up positions. Let's go.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: One, two, three.
WESTERVELT: After the fire, the team vowed to make a championship run, and they've delivered. The Bobcats are 10-0 and likely heading to the playoffs. They've done it behind a juggernaut running game. They average more than 400 rushing yards a game. That ranks them third in the state and ninth nationally. Senior running back Lucas Hartley has almost 1,200 yards. Six-foot-two sophomore Tyler Harrison leads the team with an astonishing - well, let him tell you.
TYLER HARRISON: One thousand eight hundred and thirty-seven.
WESTERVELT: One thousand eight hundred and thirty-seven yards.
WESTERVELT: Are you buying the O-line a bunch of burgers or what?
HARRISON: Yeah. At the end of the season, we're buying them everything - anything they want.
WESTERVELT: Be careful. I got that on tape.
HARRISON: (Laughter) I know.
WESTERVELT: The team's season - this run - almost didn't happen.
RICK PRINZ: All of us were out of our homes. We weren't sure we were going to have school. We weren't sure I was going to have a job. There was just so many questions.
WESTERVELT: Head coach Rick Prinz, in his 21st season here, says just 22 students showed up for summer training in a donated warehouse in nearby Chico. They were all distressed, displaced. Coach Prinz gathered them in a patch of gravel behind that warehouse.
PRINZ: We didn't even have a football. So we said - oh, I think Danny, our quarterback, has one. So he went and got it out of his trunk and started running plays with the kids and had no idea where we were going from there. But we were also kind of distraught and kind of still in shock and just wanted to move forward and do something for the kids.
WESTERVELT: Maybe it'd be easy now to write that feel-good screenplay - football saves town, details at 11. Of course, it's not that simple. Parents are struggling with whether and how to rebuild. Some students, coach Prinz says, have struggled in school and with attendance. Today, they're scattered across these Sierra Foothills. Only three on the varsity team now live in Paradise; the rest commute, some up to 90 minutes. But Prinz says when practices started in earnest, he saw something - a change.
PRINZ: You could just see it in their demeanor, in their faces that - finally, something normal, something they could focus on that was not so devastating from what they went through. And kids started coming back.
WESTERVELT: Eventually enough came back to field full JV and varsity teams. Of the nearly 300 boys at Paradise High School today, nearly 100 of them play football.
KASTEN ORTIZ: The field itself is the most thing that's felt like home since the fire.
WESTERVELT: Senior Kasten Ortiz plays right tackle on the offense. Everywhere every day, he says, the players see and smell reminders of the deadly fire.
ORTIZ: The burnt stumps. You see still some of the buildings that haven't been cleaned up yet. You see just flat lots in town. But I think when we step foot on this field, when we see the green grass, when we see each other padded up, it feels right at home. And, you know, we feel like a family out here.
WESTERVELT: As the sun fades, key members of the field goal unit watch a 40-yarder sail straight through the uprights.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: That was a good one.
WESTERVELT: The team and community will have to wait for results of a game tonight and then a playoff seeding meeting tomorrow morning to find out if they make the postseason. They're confident they'll get in, as confident as they are in their running game - running with the community on their backs.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Paradise, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUERILLA TOSS' "SPIDER HEARD")
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