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  • While sports played on in the areas near the Woolsey fire, the Thousand Oaks shooting and beyond, the California community turned to help in an attempt to heal.
By Michael McKnight
November 12, 2018

On Saturday night, the marquee outside Oaks Christian School asked for “thoughts and prayers for our Thousand Oaks community,” without making clear which of the two local disasters it was referencing. Maybe it was both of them.

On Wednesday night, a gunman murdered twelve people at the nearby Borderline Bar and Grill, and some sixteen hours later, the first flames of what would become known as the Woolsey Fire began licking a suburban hillside. On Saturday, the residents of these undulating, tree-shrouded neighborhoods had yet to fully process the mass shooting, if such a thing can be processed, before thousands of them were forced to grab whatever they could and abandon their homes while flames, which had rapidly charred more than 75,000 acres, closed in on their homes.

Already the community had begun fighting back against the fate it had been handed, in ways big and small, connected and disjointed, organized and not. Within those efforts, the area’s sports community had offered some of the strongest resistance.

Oaks Christian School’s undefeated and nationally ranked football team was on a southbound bus on Saturday afternoon, headed to its state quarterfinal game against another local power, J. Serra Catholic. The game had been postponed by one day due to the fires, a delay that allowed roughly half of Oaks Christian’s players to help their families evacuate their homes. The pregame bus ride was quieter than usual, the team’s kicker, Garth White, told the Orange County Register on a night in which he would end up the hero. “It was lot different vibe. Our minds were off of the game. Our minds were back at home ... We took a hard hit.”

The team buses rumbled on the 101 Freeway, past a youth soccer field in Encino, where elementary-age kids played the other kind of football on fields made mostly of dirt. American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) games had been cancelled throughout L.A. County, in communities as far away as Manhattan Beach, 35 miles south of the Woolsey Fire, due to poor air quality—but not here, despite the fires raging just down the road. As seven-year-olds, almost all of them Latino, sprinted, dribbled, and joyfully violated the rule against headers, Jose Torres, director of the Project 2000 soccer program, explained that playing these games was important to kids and families alike. “AYSO is recreation but this is competition.” The latter, he added, distracts as it uplifts.

Courtesy of Michael McKnight

And the air wasn’t so bad, he said as the last of the day’s sunshine illuminated the final U8 soccer match. The air that fueled the kids’ lungs was pristine compared to the haze that permeated the Woodland Hills campus of Pierce College, where the Red Cross had moved in and set up three different evacuation shelters. The men’s volleyball coach at Pierce College, Lance Walker, had arrived on campus that morning ready to drive his team to an offseason tournament in San Diego. When he saw that his gym was filled with cots, blankets, and frightened locals, his plans changed. Walker and his players canceled their San Diego trip and spent most of the next two days lugging bottled water, bananas, and snack bars across campus, and giving rides to anyone who asked for one, to wherever they needed to go. “Some things are more important than us playing volleyball,” he said Sunday in a voice that dried by dust and shouting.

Walker’s teammate at Pierce in the late 1990s, Casey Rosdail, was in the most precarious spot of all. Rosdail was on the front lines of the battle against the red-orange enemy, hosing down homes and evacuating residents as a captain in the Ventura County Fire Department. And Pepperdine University, in Malibu, where Walker had finished his college volleyball career, sat sandwiched between the flames and the Pacific Ocean, as Rosdail’s peers from L.A. County FD waged a heroic battle to save the picturesque campus.                

Malibu is home to dozens of famous athletes, active and retired—MLB All Star Ryan Braun, NBA legend Kevin Garnett, and surfing icon Laird Hamilton among them. Clay Matthews of the Packers owns a house in nearby Calabasas that he felt sure would be touched by flames. Former Team USA soccer star Eric Wynalda, now a Fox Soccer analyst, had watched on TV as his Westlake Village home burned, he said. The same fate had reportedly befallen the home of former shortstop Royce Clayton, veteran of 17 MLB seasons and the current head baseball coach at Oaks Christian.

The families of Oaks Christian’s football team had arrived for the playoff game in Orange County, far away from the fire and smoke, and were given a tailgate dinner by the parents of their opponents as a show of hospitality and support. A titanic struggle then unfolded between Oaks Christian and J. Serra Catholic, whose programs will send several players each to FBS football programs. The teams seized the lead from each other for four quarters before White kicked a field goal with 18 seconds left to give Oaks Christian a 35-34 victory, ending J. Serra’s season. White and his family were among those who had obeyed evacuation orders. He told a reporter after the game that he didn’t know if his home was still standing.

That was also the situation for approximately 50 employees of the Los Angeles Rams, a total that included players and coaches. The NFL team practices just five miles from the site of Wednesday night’s mass shooting, and only slightly more removed from the Woolsey Fire’s still advancing edge. Rams owner Stan Kroenke reportedly vowed to cover any expenses incurred by staffers as a result of the evacuation order.

Southern California wasn’t the only part of the state affected. The Camp Fire in Butte County, north of Sacramento, had gained just the ignominy of becoming the most destructive blaze the state has ever seen. Traces of smoke wafted into the Golden 1 Center prior to Saturday night’s NBA game between the Lakers and Kings, creating a faint gray cloud that hovered near the ceiling, like algae atop a fishbowl. The NFL’s Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, were ordering white pollution masks to give to fans prior to Sunday’s home game against the Chargers.

Down south, fans at the Rams-Seahawks game at the Los Angeles Coliseum observed a moment of silence in honor of the twelve people slain Wednesday night. Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth would play this game without compensation. The 36-year-old Whitworth, who lives with his wife and four children near the site of the violence, donated his weekly paycheck to the Ventura County Community Foundation (VCCF.org), which was providing financial relief and other support to the families of the deceased.

Courtesy of Michael McKnight

VCCF president Vanessa Bechtel had overseen a meeting that morning of the families and friends of those twelve victims. Respectful yet realistic, Bechtel said that the shooting had created “a deep wound that unfortunately will only get deeper.” Witnesses to the shooting who had escaped the Borderline Bar & Grill alive, she added, had lost basic necessities like purses, wallets, IDs, and cell phones in the chaos, in part because the site of the murders, carried out with neither motive nor mercy, had been secured as a crime scene. Those survivors, their psyches forever fractured, needed to get their lives in some kind of order, and needed to be in touch with their loved ones—and the only way to do that was by replacing their phones, arranging for new IDs and bank cards, and handing them enough money to provide for basic expenses in the interim. That’s why Bechtel took the unusual step of arranging for pre-paid debit cards, paid for in part by Whitworth’s donation, to be handed to these survivors over the weekend.

In a week full of well-meaning but insufficient sound bytes as to the losses that no monetary contribution can ever set right again, Lance Walker, the Pierce College volleyball coach, offered a summation of the community outreach he had both witnessed and led with his own soot-blackened hands. He attributed it to his former coach at Pierce, Ken Stanley, for whom community service, according to Walker, was a requirement, not an option. “One of things Coach Stanley told us when I was just a kid,” said Walker, now a 39-year-old husband and father, “is that the rarest thing a person can do is to do his best all the time.

“This week, in this community, that has not been rare at all.”

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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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