Paradise Found: A High School Football Team's Rise From the Ashes
By Bill Plaschke
William Morrow; hardcover; $28.99; available today, Tuesday, November 2nd
Bill Plaschke, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a panelist on ESPN's Around the Horn, has written one of the most inspiring sports books, really most inspiring book on resilience and the human spirit, Paradise Found: A High School Football Team's Rise From the Ashes.
Paradise, California, is a tight-knit, working-class community about two hours from Sacramento, a town of 25,000 that took immense pride in their Paradise High School football team, the Bobcats, led by their head coach, Rick Prinz.
That all was threatened on the morning of November 8, 2018, when a wildfire - the deadliest, most destructive blaze in California history - tore through Paradise, leaving 86 people dead, its residents fleeing, and reducing it's population down to just 2,000 people.
Plaschke documents how Coach Prinz held the program together in this trying time, caring for his players, most of whom were left homeless, and how the goal of being able to compete for a championship in 2019 sustained them through endless adversity.
Coach Prinz was supposed to retire after the 2018 season, one in which Paradise was on the brink of a championship, but decided to come back for one more season, with the full support of the athletic director and his coaching staff, with one assistant coach, Nino Pinocchio, coming out of retirement to help build the program.
It is a story that will captivate and inspire you, as Plaschke, who followed Coach Prinz and the Paradise Bobcats for an entire year, brings you right into the town, the school, the fields, and the homes of these dedicated people, showing how high school football is more than just about X's and O's, that it can be the fabric of the community.
I recently had the honor of chatting with Bill Plaschke by phone and here is our conversation:
Jason Schott: Please tell me about the creation of this inspiring book.
Bill Plaschke: I heard about this town in Paradise, California, that was completely obliterated by fire back in 2018 - November 8, 2018 - and the town went from 28 thousand people to two thousand people. The whole town was wiped out, everything burned, and a couple months after the fire, somebody called me, a friend of mine called me and saidm, 'I got someone I want you to meet,' said who's that, 'the football coach at Paradise,' I said, 'how can there be a football coach at Paradise, there's not even a Paradise,' he said, 'well, they're going to try and have a football team next year that's going to try and bring the town back,' and I say, 'that's crazy.' So, I met with this football coach, Rick Prinz, and I flew up there for the Los Angeles Times to do a story about it and it was amazing. I stumbled in there in March, the fire was in November, so it's three months later, they're in a makeshift school in an airplane hangar in Chico, California. The kids have no classroom; they're working out of a big concrete space, and outside the space, there's a huge field full of rocks and bricks and dirt and trash, and Coach said, 'I'm glad you're here because we're going to have football practice. I said, 'how are you going to have football practice?' and he goes, 'well, we're gonna go out and run on this field,' and I learned before the practice that nearly all - 102 of the 105 kids - in the program lost their houses. Every coach, all but one coach, lost their house. They lost everything they had, they had nothing, and the school lost all of its equipment, everything, pads, shoes, pants, jerseys, everything burned down, so they had nothing. Coach quickly says, 'we'll practice,' so in order to practice, the first thing he has to do is find a football. They realize they don't even have a football, and I was really taken aback, like, 'so you're going to try to have a football team this year when you don't even have a damn football?' and they're like, 'yeah, we're going for it. It's the only thing that brings normalcy to these kids' lives. These kids are all living in floors, cars and trailers, and everything that's two hours away from the town, because there is no town. So, I was hooked in, then I realized one thing they had going for it was that the only thing in town that didn't burn down was the football field at the high school, so I fiugred there's still a kind of sacredness to that, and that maybe they could make it work, so then I followed them through the year as they played football with nothing, without even a football, and they came back and had this incredible season and brought the town together, and brought people back to Paradise, and back to the football field, and back to their hopes and dreams, so it was an amazing ride.
JS: Where do you begin on Coach Prinz? I could not get over his story, how he survived that day, saving his father's truck, and his persistence in rebuilding the program. In my mind, I could see it being like a movie.
BP: The book's been optioned for a movie. He's a former youth pastor who decided he could best serve the Lord by serving the kids, so he got into coaching, and he barely survived the fire. He pushed the truck down a hill - down 15 miles of hill - he pushed his father's old 1950 Chevy truck that his father, on his deathbed, said 'don't let anything happen to this truck,' so he pushed the truck down the hill through the fire, and he barely survived. He just held all these kids together with a tough, firm hand, and then a caring soul, he was like their father, their uncle, their teacher, he was everything to these kids, and he understood when practice would end, and he'd come out and be ready to go home, the parking lot was filled with kids - kids are still, hours after practice, kids are all hanging out on their cares, their flatbed trucks, music going, who knows what they were doing, and normally he would tell them to get out of there, but the kids had nowhere to go, and he accepted that, and he always made sure they did their schoolwork. He made them do their schoolwork on the sidelines during practices because the kids needed somewhere to study. He was very understanding, very saintly kind of guy.
JS: You show that, as strong as he had to be for the players, there were moments where it became too much for him, such as a scene where the players were staying at training camp and he had trouble cobbling together supplies, and he said, "the things these kids don't have..." I thought that was really telling.
BP: During summer football camp, they had kids staying in the gym for a night for bonding, and he had one kid laying on the gym floor with nothing, just laying on the floor; he didn't have a sleeping bag, that got burned up in the fire; didn't have a pillow, that got burned up in the fire; so he got a wrestling pad for the kid, and it showed him the depths of desperation these kids had fallen to, when they didn't even have the basic necessities of life, but yet they're still trying to play football, because it makes them feel normal, it makes them feel whole, it makes them feel human again.
JS: Some of the other coaches, their stories were incredible too, such as Nino Pinocchio, who came back to the program, and Andy Hopper. They were as important as anyone in restarting the program.
BP: One of the coaches came back to coaching just because he wanted to help out. He works at the juvenile hall in Butte County, and he would leave his job every day at six in the morning. He'd leave work at 6 AM, and then leave his job at 2 PM, and then go coach because he wanted to be there. You know, these coaches have been with them, most of them for all of Coach Prinz's 20 year career, and they all lost their houses, so they were all working out of apartment and faraway trailer parks and cars, and things like that, so it affected everyone.
JS: You illustrate how the parents are so involved as well.
BP: One parent, Greg Kiefer, his son, Spencer Kiefer, was stuck at the top of the hill during the fire. Two months after getting his driver's license, he had to drive his truck down through burning flames, and he was stuck up there, he couldn't get out, they thought he was dead, he called his parents, said he thought he was dead, he was dying, he loved them, he'll see them in heaven, he ended up surviving the fire, so his father, Greg, took on the role of taking care of these kids. They had five or six kids at their rental house every day, would make food for them, and the real compelling scene was, he would make the pregame meal of sandwiches, potato chips, cookies, that kind of stuff; the pregame meal before the biggest game of the year, they could't get in the cafeteria, nobody had the keys, the coaches had gone to the game, one of the coaches with the keys, there was no administration, it was chaos at the school the whole year, of course, so they had their last pregame meal, the biggest game of the year, was held outside in the rain and they're huddling under gray rain jackets truing to wallow their sandwiches and get ready to play a big game. It was so typical of the kind of Paradise stress they were under all the time, all the time, nothing came easy for this team, nothing.
JS: When they reached the end of the season, in which they were amidst the playoffs, the kids starting breaking down ahead of the championship game, after a year of incredible hardships. Was that something the coaches, and you as an observer of the team, could see was inevitable?
BP: You could tell as the season went on that the kids were more violent in the games, there would be more roughing penalties, there would be fights at practice, there would be kids who wouldn't show up to practice; kids who couldn't get to practice because their car broke down - they're living with their disabled grandmother in a one-bedroom apartment and their car brook down, and they couldn't get to practice; kids who were sick because they weren't eating, so it all frayed at the edges. They became really stressed out, a lot of PTSD in these kids from living hand-to-mouth, living without anything. These kids, a lot of them are great young athletes, and they lost every single one of their trophies, every one of their uniforms, every one of their souvenirs, every one of their memorabilia, every trace of who they were was lost. You could tell as the season went on, they got more and more tested, and there's a scene in the book where in the week before the final game, the day before the final game, a fight broke out in practice, and kids just couldn't take it anymore.
JS: You described that fight as involving one player sitting on top of another player.
BP: Yes, just out of nowhere they started screaming at each other and going at it, and Coach had to break it up, and some of the other players were laying on the ground, didn't want to practice. This was before the championship game, they were just mentally and emotionally exhausted.
JS: You also did an excellent job of illustrating how weary they were at all the attention and events they had to go to, a different perspective than what is commonly presented in these types of situations. There were also tough moments, such as when one of the players, Trevor Curtis wore his Raiders cap to a 49ers game the team was invited to, and was asked why he was wearing it.
BP: About a week after the fire, when they were invited to the 49er game, and they realized that everyone was cheering for them, but everyone was also staring a them because they were a bunch of kids in mismatched, they had all hand-me-down, clothes. They 49ers sponsored another get-together for them to watch the final game of the season at a watch party in Chico and they go there, to the watch party, but it also was attended by the big high school in Chico, Pleasant Valley High School, and that was the big high school that on the championship the previous year, so they had to share this watch party with this big high school that had everything, and the kids were so distraught at being compared to a school that had everything that some of the kids wouldn't get out of their cars, they wouldn't even go into the party, they wouldn't even go into this gathering planned for them because they couldn't take it. They felt like people just looked at them like orphans and poor kids. They fought all year for their respect, for their integrity, they fought to get their name back, they fought to make Paradise strong again, and what was really compelling to me was their first game back, you could just tell, 5,000 people crammed - the town was 2,000 people, and 5,000 people - twice the size of the town, all came back to the town, crying and hugging and cheering and laughing, and reminiscing, it was like a family reunion. They brought everybody back together, it was a really special night, and they won the game and went on to have a tremendous season.
JS: They nearly went undefeated in their 2019 season, which spoke to the resiliency of the program, and it was typical of the team that they built. Tell me about the reputation of the Paradise Bobcats before the fire.
BP: They were one of the winningest teams in that area, the Sierra Mountain foothills, north of Sacramento. They were always the winningest team, they were always the toughest team. When they were tying to get their schedule, they wouldn't let them play teams that used to be their size because the school was cut in half, so they had to play smaller teams, but nobody wanted to play them, so they had to bribe teams with money, with sponsorship money, to play them, and when they did play them, they beat the hell out of them. They ended up going, I think it was 12-0, they won the first 12 games and they got to the last game of the season, and that's how the book ends, it ended in a cold rain on a distant field with the kids just exhausted, so they ended like three to four minutes from a championship. Everybody wants the Disney ending for the book; I think this was the real ending for the book, this is how it had to end. When they lost the final game, they're straggling off the field, and they wanted to give them the second place trophy because they finished second in the Sectional Championship - you get a big trophy for that - none of the kids wanted to go out for the trophy. They're all trying to get back in the rain, they're all wiped out, they're beaten, they're crying, and the coach screams at them and says, 'no, we're a team, we're a town, we're one team, one heartbeat, get your butt out here,' and they all went out there in the end very symbolically to accept the trophy together, and the stands are full of people, all huddled up, cuddling, wet, soggy, crying, cheering for their guys one more last time, as they together accepted the second place trophy. They went down together, united, just as what they did for the town they did for themselves.
JS: Coach Prinz viewed it as something they earned, that they all should be proud of it.
BP: What they thought was a season that ended in failure actually was a season that ended in glorious triumph, and they saw that. The coach saw that, he wanted the kids to know that, that they changed the town, they changed themselves, they changed the narrative, they started the resurrection of Paradise. That's why it's called Paradise Found, based on, it's a play on words of Paradise Lost, which is a long poem by John Milton, and this is the opposite of that. They found themselves, they found their town, they found their will, they found Paradise again.