After devastating fire, Cardinal Newman found solace on the field

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- It had been a good weekend for Brian Kitchen. Well, more than good, actually. On Friday, he watched his son, Nikko -- a receiver for Cardinal Newman high school -- have his usual excellent game in a 56-14 win over Maria Carrillo. Saturday was the homecoming dance, and by the time he went to bed Sunday, it was buoyed with an undeniable feeling of satisfaction.

Brian Kitchen had grown up in another part of the city -- in a tougher, less affluent neighborhood. Cardinal Newman represented a kind of promised land. "It's one of the best schools in Sonoma County," he says. "It just happens they have an awesome football team."

Nikko wanted to attend the University of Oregon. Maybe even play there. That wasn't the point, though. He was going to college. Brian Kitchen was sending his son into the world -- happy, educated, prepared and, above all, safe. He'd done his job. Going to bed that night, he recalls telling himself, "I feel successful."

He woke at 2:08 a.m. A ping-pong table was banging against a wall. He'd never felt a wind so fierce. There was a fire a block and a half down the street. Wow, he thought to himself, it's going to be on the news. He woke Nikko and his brother, Tarreyl, and told them to be ready, just in case the smoke got bad.

"Fire department's going to be here," he reassured them. "Gonna be OK. Don't worry."

Then he walked to the back of the house, pulled the curtain overlooking their backyard.

A wall of flame.

The Tubbs Fire, spread by apocalyptic winds of up to 60 mph, swept through the affluent, vineyard-laden counties of Sonoma and Napa beginning the night of Oct. 8. It left at least 22 dead and, as gauged by property damage, stands as the most destructive wildfire in California history.

This city was especially hard hit. There, brick chimneys still stand like tombstones, row after row, block after block. More than 2,800 structures were incinerated here alone, including most of Cardinal Newman -- the library, admissions and counseling offices, soccer and baseball fields, 19 classrooms.

If Newman had been the pride of a community, it would now become the community in microcosm. About 90 students lost their homes, five of them varsity football players, including seniors Nikko Kitchen, fellow receiver Kyle Carinalli and quarterback Beau Barrington. Their world was brimming with promise -- football (undefeated in league play) and girls and SATs and college. Then, a single hellish night transformed everything. It would bind them forever -- not just for the trauma they suffered, but for the example they'd set. The night wasn't merely a disaster, but a threshold, separating the boys they were from the men they'd become.

Barrington, the star quarterback, lived in a stunning four-bedroom home -- swimming pool, basketball court, batting cage. His parents hosted a team dinner before the homecoming dance. There was a lot of food and a chocolate fountain.

"I was living the life, for sure," he says.

Then, next thing he knows, he's speeding from the oncoming orange glow, destination unknown. It sounds like a war movie, propane tanks from the neighbors' barbecues exploding all around him. People always wonder what you'd take with you in a fire. For Beau, it was the game ball from homecoming.

For Nikko, it was a trophy commemorating his participation in a local youth football league. The Kitchens drove away in a caravan: Nikko, his brother and their father, each in his own car. But then, about two blocks away, Brian abruptly stopped to turned back.

"Just to see if his house was really gone," recalls Nikko, "if everything he worked on for so long was really on fire ..." It was a new level of terror. "If my dad didn't make it back, that would've crushed me."

He waited. It must've been five minutes, but it felt like five hours. Burning embers fell around him, like molten snowflakes. The concussive sound of exploding propane tanks. "I'm just staring back at the fire," says Nikko, "waiting for my dad ..."

In the meantime, on his way back, Brian Kitchen had seen his neighbor, Riz Gross. From The Mercury News: "Gross, who was born without legs, crawled on the molten-hot pavement because her wheelchair already had burned." Her father was trying to shield her from falling debris as Brian managed to get her in the passenger seat.

"When I saw his car coming back through the flames, I was joyful," recalls Nikko. "Then I saw he had two people ... people that were in pain ..."

Riz would survive. But so would the memory.

Kyle Carinalli couldn't sleep that night, what with the winds. His father was on a hunting trip, so he watched the news with his mom. Then his mom got a text. Forget the TV, she was told, look outside.

"The entire sky was lit up," says Kyle. "I threw on a pair of basketball shorts and a sweatshirt ... hopped on a tractor and started trying to make a fire cut out along our property."

He was 17 and considered himself an adult. "I've always been a man, are you kidding? ... Since I was like 12."

It was a grownup's sense of reason that convinced him, finally, to abandon the tractor. The wind had shifted. A confetti of ash and embers made it difficult to breathe. The distant glow had reconstituted itself as a pillar of fire. "Maybe 60 feet tall," says Kyle. "The sky was basically just bright orange."

He went for his old dirt bike and kid brother's, too. Then he got some papers from his father's office and his little sister's crossbow, the one she'd just gotten for her birthday. He thought about staying in the pool; he'd be safe there. But his mom wouldn't hear of it. This was the only house he'd ever known, and he remembers thinking he'd never come back. He could hear the propane tanks explode. And just as the family truck crossed the front gate, the 17-year-old man began to cry.

The worst was still to come.

The night of the fire, as the Barringtons were driving to their relatives, Beau's mother asked what he'd rather have survive: their house or Cardinal Newman.

"The school," he said.

"It's just definitely a sacred place," says Nikko. "Cardinal Newman is like a home to me."

"With our homes taken," says Kyle, "we expected to come back."

The news that they could not was an additional devastation.

Each grade went to a separate parish -- the seniors to St. Joseph in Cotati, where classes were held in a hastily divided gymnasium. As for football, says Beau, "I just hoped it wasn't going to be over."

Cancelling the season was discussed. After all, Santa Rosa had bigger problems than a high school football team. It was a ghost town: shuttered restaurants, long lines for gas, lost souls milling about with particle masks. But the parents made themselves heard. As did their sons. Then again, they were already speaking to the converted. With so much already lost, the football team seemed to matter more.

"Many of them lost homes, or had been displaced," says the principal at Cardinal Newman, Graham Rutherford. "Now the school was knocked out, and there was a sense of, Well, is there anything I control in my life? Football was really a first step."

They'd practice where and when they could -- local rec centers and gyms -- and play home games at Santa Rosa Junior College. Some kids changed numbers, as their original uniforms burned in the fire. They played their first game back against Rancho Cotate on Oct. 23, a Monday night, two weeks after the fire.

"I remember when Coach Cronin told us," says Beau. "The room lit up. Rancho's our rival."

And on that night, at least, their better. If the Newman kids had been displaced and undertrained, well, that's how they played. Amid great hope and expectation, the Cardinals suffered their worst defeat of the season, 41-28. Underneath all that teenage brio, there was a little rust and a lot of damage, what with all the kids had seen. But there was also, soon to be discovered, a kind of resilience they never knew they had.

Even Paul Cronin, the hard-ass coach who never took solace in a loss, began to see things differently, using the helmet as a metaphor. "You have a mask on," he said. "We all have masks on. This is taking the mask off. If you wanna tell someone that you love them, you do it and you hug them and your move on. You're not scared to verbalize your feelings to the young man, and they're not scared to verbalize their feelings to themselves."

As his wife instructed him, "You gotta hug those guys."

Even in this age of highly evolved men, sounds a little too touchy-feely, no? Then again, maybe not.

"It feels like I have a whole separate family than the one I have," says Nikko. "We laugh. We fight and argue together. And I think that's what a brother is. We love one another."

Five days after the first Cotate game -- acknowledging their wounds and their love, all in the spirit of kumbaya -- they went out and kicked the hell out of Santa Rosa, 35-6. Then they beat Rancho in a rematch to win their league. It was Senior Night. Nikko caught the winning TD from Beau.

It wasn't a rhythm they had found; it was a meaning. "Coach Cronin told us," Beau recalls, " 'You guys have a chance to do something no other team will ever have a chance to do, [and] that's bringing the community together.' "

Lot of pressure, no?

"Yeah, but we did it."

The playoffs began with a 49-7 win over Kennedy. Kyle scored his first TD since the fire. Felt like the first time he played with Beau, back in ninth grade, when he fell in love with the game. "I got to go hit people and then I got to go run," he says. "There's nothing like it."

Then they beat Encinal by 17 -- "They were much more athletic than we were; we just played super physical and tough," says Beau -- and Rancho, once again, by a point.

By now, the people in the stands understood what was happening. The gift wasn't what the community had given the kids in allowing them to play. The gift was what the kids gave Santa Rosa. As it began, Nikko would recall his father saving Riz Gross. "When I look in my father's eyes, I see that he was strong enough to go back into fire and danger and come out with hope for somebody else."

And now, without his home or possessions and with little hope of rebuilding, Brian Kitchen drew similar solace from his son: "Them going back and playing football -- it put a smile on everybody's face. It brought everybody who was in their own little realities back together as a unit. And everybody got to share their pain, and see that it wasn't just them. That's what I felt. I came back and everybody was happy that we were safe."

The parents and the kids laud football for providing "normalcy" in a trying, abnormal time. It was more than that, though. And simpler. The game gave them joy, though not always the kind you might imagine.

The season finale saw Newman lose 59-56 to Marin Catholic, a perennial power and the division's top seed. Beau threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns. But he missed on his last pass. As it ended, the boys began to weep. They'd gone through fire to get here. It hurt. But damn if it didn't feel good to be crying about a football game.

Follow Mark Kriegel on Twitter @MarkKriegel.

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