Middletown unites for first home football game since Valley fire

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MIDDLETOWN — Community. That’s what Friday night lights was about in Middletown on Friday, according to Neal Karp.

Not the opportunity to beat key league rival Fort Bragg, but community.

And Karp is a football guy.

Friday night marked the first time the Middletown High School Mustangs played a home football game since the deadly Valley fire killed four people, destroyed more than 1,200 homes, including entire blocks in Middletown.

To the casual observer, the game between the Mustangs and the Timberwolves might have appeared like any other. But it wasn’t.

Karp, a Middletown grad who played football for the Mustangs, is staying in a travel trailer in Cobb with his wife and three young boys. Their house burned to the ground. Erika Galvan, the high school counselor, took tickets at the gate. Her house burned. The homes of seven cheerleaders — the ones urging those in the stands to get behind the Mustangs — were destroyed.

But Friday night they gathered to wear purple and gold, to cheer on their team and to be with their community. It was a night of familiar faces, checking in and cheering on. And in some ways, moving on.

“It’s nice to see people in a different light after the last couple of weeks,” said Ginny Kniffen, secretary at Middletown High School.

As focused as some were on keeping it normal, there were still signs of special.

The Middletown High athletic boosters gave out more than 600 free meals. There was a bigger crowd, there were more hugs and there were certainly more T-shirts reading “Adversity Makes You Stronger.”

“We’ve got a big crowd here,” longtime head football coach Bill Foltmer said before the game, calling the event “huge.”

“It’s big for the school, it’s big for the team, it’s big for our community,” he said. “It’s a packed house, probably one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen in Middletown High School history. So Friday night lights here is alive and well.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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