By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Coaches like to espouse the concept of teamwork, of family, of the bonds that suiting up for the same squad can often bring. But sometimes it can be hard to drive that lesson home, to show teammates what it really means to step up for each other.
The Middletown Mustangs football team didn’t need to look far for lessons in teamwork and family in these recent weeks, as the Rocky fire scorched 70,000 acres over two weeks and the newly-ignited Jerusalem blaze burned at least 12,000 more by Tuesday, prompting evacuations and keeping Lake County residents on high alert.
“It’s been super crazy,” said Middletown’s backup quarterback, junior Robbie Carey.
Carey hasn’t been at home for more than two nights in nearly two weeks. His family was evacuated from the Rocky fire, returned home for about two days and then saw a new crop of flames from the Jerusalem blaze.
When firefighters told them they had to evacuate, they called the Webbs. Henry Webb, also a junior, has been a friend and teammate of Carey’s for years. Their older brothers were friends and teammates too.
“They called . . . about, shoot, one o’clock in the morning and asked if we could help them out,” Webb said. “We said that they could come over and park their cars and stay the night.”
Then the Webbs let the Careys make a temporary home in their RV. It’s been Carey’s home for approaching two weeks.
“We have a really good friendship,” Webb said.
And amid it all, football season started.
The 2015-16 season officially launched Monday, so even Carey, who has been without a home, had to rustle up his gear and report for practice.
It’s been a good thing, he said.
He’s not alone in turning to sports to keep his thoughts of drifting to the fire.
“It’s good to keep your mind off it,” sophomore Colton Hall said of practice. “I’m able to focus until the wind changes, then I get worried.”
The Halls lost a horse in the chaos of finding a place to shelter animals as the fire approached.
But still, the Halls are staying put until the voluntary evacuation order becomes mandatory.
“We are staying until we can see flames,” he said.
It’s hard to keep one’s mind completely off the fire, what with the high school gym and nearby middle school gym now home to evacuees and Red Cross workers. At Monday’s afternoon practice, an air tanker laden with fire retardant flew just beyond the ridge and a mushroom cloud of white, then gray then white again smoke continuously billowed into the sky.
School was supposed to start yesterday but was postponed a week because people are still taking shelter on campus.
Longtime coach Bill Foltmer had to check the air quality index before he was allowed to hold practice.
And more than one player has his bags packed, in case the evacuation order becomes mandatory. That includes the Webb family.
“We are all kind of going about life. We still have all of our stuff ready to go,” Webb said. “Football kind of helps me take my mind off it. You are there, in the moment, playing the game. It helps, it definitely helps.”
So on Monday, despite a fire looming over the nearest ridge, plays were run, drills were conducted and players were both praised and scolded. Foltmer is not backing off — his team is a perennial league North Central I league contender.
When I asked a player if the coaches were going easy, in light of everything, he laughed.
He recalled a coach asking if his house had burned down. He answered in the negative. “Then you’re good,” came the coach’s reply.
But I didn’t hear players complaining. Football has been a welcome relief from a summer that has taken a turn for the scary in recent weeks.
And football — and the fire — provided an opportunity for at least some players to see the true meaning of team and teammates.
The Carey and Webb boys have played football together for years, have been classmates for longer and friends longer still.
When a call comes at 1 a.m. and a friend needs help, you deliver.
That’s what teammates do.
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or email@example.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.