Benefield: Cardinal Newman hoping football's return helps healing process

Cardinal Newman defenders tackle Dumaurier Cotton of St. Mary’s during a Sept. 1 game. The Cardinals will play Rancho Cotate on Monday in a specially scheduled "nonleague" game. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)



Who: Cardinal Newman v. Rancho Cotate

What: Non-league contest

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Rancho Cotate High School, 5450 Snyder Ln. Rohnert Park

Cardinal Newman High School lost 19 classrooms, its library, main office, counseling offices, and its baseball and soccer fields in the deadly wildfires that have scorched tens of thousands of acres in Sonoma County and killed 23 people since erupting less than two weeks ago.

Approximately 90 of the school’s 620 students lost their homes, according to Principal Graham Rutherford. But that number could go higher. Not all families have been reached.

Still, football coach Paul Cronin had his team out on a practice field Monday. Still barred from accessing the campus, Cronin accepted the offer of El Molino High in Forestville and has been using their facilities for meetings and practices.

While other schools and districts have been canceling practice, Cronin has been calling his kids in.

“I’ve been through tragedy in my life and what people want is they want to get back started. What is the next thing?” he said. “At least when you say, ‘What do you do next?’ you are moving forward.”

Cronin’s philosophy comes from a place of experience. His brother David died in 2008, in the teeth of the playoff schedule. Through that time, Cronin showed up, coached and kept moving forward.

“Everybody can look at it how they want to look at it, but I’ve chosen to look at these situations in my life like, ‘This happened, it’s out of our control, what can we control?’ ” he said.

So, on Oct. 9, just hours after fire blew through campus, Cronin gained access to the school and started his march forward.

He opened every player’s locker, tagged and bagged the contents, packed up practice gear and equipment, and started looking for a place to practice. A place away from the smoke and away from the smoldering campus.

Santa Rosa High offered; so did Piner and local rival Rancho Cotate. St. Mary’s of Stockton, another rival, offered not only field space, but spots in classrooms so Cardinal Newman’s students wouldn’t miss so much class.

“We’ve had an amazing amount of community support,” he said. “We’ve had offers that have been incredible.”

While some schools have reported not knowing if they can field a team so soon, what with school canceled, evacuations just now being lifted and players scattered throughout the state, Cronin said he never had any doubt his team would be ready.

Cardinal Newman is a football school. People asked to come back, he said.

One of those guys was Beau Barrington, the Cardinals’ quarterback. Barrington, a senior, lost his home on Quietwater Ridge.

“It’s the one thing that I have that’s still normal,” he said of football. “People say, ‘Do what you want,’ and it helps me. And it makes my parents somewhat happy to see me doing something that makes me happy.”

Barrington is not alone. Five players on the varsity squad lost both their homes and a good portion of their school.

“This hit our community hard,” Cronin said.

And what makes it harder still is the school can no longer be the gathering place. Even the portions of the campus that were spared are still not accessible. At midweek, school officials still needed a police escort to get on campus.

But Principal Rutherford, a Newman grad, didn’t need to see the ashes to know what he lost. His office was razed and with it a lifetime of Cardinal Newman memories. Old football helmets, his father’s veteran’s flag, his grandfather’s college diploma.

“It was my museum,” he said.

But he, too, remained philosophical.

“It gives me a better sense of what that loss must feel like, somewhat, to someone who lost everything in their house,” he said.

And Rutherford said he’s remaining positive.

“A friend said, ‘You sound optimistic.’ Well yeah, the other option is not very good,” he said.

“It’s the story of life right now,” he said. “Our story is certainly echoed by thousands of others. We are part of the Sonoma County story.”

Both Cronin and Rutherford said getting kids back together is also a way to check on them.

“You don’t know what you need,” Cronin said. “But you figure it out. You ask questions, you really figure out what each kid needs. Everybody is different. All our kids don’t look at it the same way. Each day you touch base: ‘What are you feeling? How is mom or dad feeling?’ ”

It’s about being together, it’s about routine and it’s about team, he said.

So suiting up for practice on Monday was not really optional; it was necessary.

“Monday might not be great, but us being there Monday is going to make Tuesday better,” Rutherford said.

And next Monday might actually be great.

After a series of twists, turns and changes, Cardinal Newman will travel to North Bay League rival Rancho Cotate in an unprecedented Monday night game.

After last-minute scheduling adjustments, Santa Rosa City Schools officials decided to keep their school teams from participating in practices or games until next week, so Rancho Cotate was left without an opponent for its rescheduled game. Then Windsor High pulled out of its Monday night contest with Newman.

So the two schools reached out to each other.

“It was, ‘Heck yeah, we’ll play you,’ ” Cronin said. “It will be awesome … We are just grateful to have a game; it’s what you want as an athlete more than anything. We need a game, our kids need a game, our community needs a game.”

By agreement, Monday night’s contest will not count in the league standings because so many other league schools are unable to schedule a game. But the contest will play into how both North Coast Section Division 3 teams are seeded in the playoffs.

Both teams are undefeated in league. Cardinal Newman is 5-1 overall and 3-0 in league and Rancho is 6-0 and 3-0.

But analysis of which team has more to gain or lose with this unprecedented contest is missing the point, Cronin said.

“You take the most exciting game in your non-playoff (season) and you get to do it twice? It’s like you get two Christmases,” Cronin said.

They will meet again in their regularly scheduled contest on Nov. 4, a game that will count toward league standings and by most accounts will decide who is league champion.

But that seems almost a world away at this point.

“In a sense, it almost feels to me like we are playing a community game, for people in Sonoma County to come and enjoy something else rather than worrying about the fire and your house,” Rutherford said.

Agreed, Cronin said.

“The win is that the ball is going to be kicked off Monday night,” he said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”