Matt Carroll is the life of Paso Robles High School football practices.
He’s the first one to crack jokes that leave players and coaches laughing. Usually it comes easily for the jovial defensive coordinator. This week, it has been more of a challenge.
“I’m down in the dumps emotionally, then I come (to practice), and we are laughing, the kids are hugging me,” Carroll, 29, said Tuesday.
Practice this week has been an escape from the tragic scene just a few miles away from the school. The house on a small plot of land on Creston Road where Carroll grew up and had returned to a year ago, a place where his family had called home for 19 years, is now gone.
Nothing but charred memories remain after an early Monday morning fire destroyed nearly everything the family owned.
‘A total loss’
Carroll’s mom, Mariellen Carroll, has never been the best sleeper. Suffering from insomnia, she regularly paced around her mobile home perched on a small hill near Paso Robles. Early Monday morning, just before 3 a.m., she heard something as she lay awake.
“I heard like a ‘pop pop.’ It was just different,” she said. “I got up, and that’s when I saw smoke. And when I opened the door, the flames and the smoke just billowed and the smoke alarm started going off.”
She woke up her husband, John, then woke up Matt, as well as her other son, Mitchell, who recently recently received a medical discharge from the Marines. The three men tried to douse the fire with water, but it was too late.
“As soon as we heard it was an electrical fire, we got the heck out of there,” Matt Carroll said.
Firefighters arrived quickly, the Carrolls said, but when they were unable to shut off the power, making it too dangerous to enter the house and fight the fire. All they could do was make sure it didn’t spread.
“(The firefighters) tried so hard. They were so disappointed they couldn't save more, but we were like, ‘Hey, we don’t want anyone to get hurt trying to save our place,’ ” Matt Carroll said.
The family, along with Rhett — a dog they had recently rescued from a shelter — stood and watched their home burn. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt. By 4 a.m., the fire was out but the damage was done.
“It was Fourth of July and Christmas. All the walls you could see lighting up,” Matt Carroll said. “It ended up being a total loss.”
At football practice this week, player after player walked up to Matt to hand him money and give him a hug.
“One kid was like, ‘This is all I have,’ and he gave me laundry soap. I was like, ‘No man, that’s huge for us right now!’ We are doing laundry at the school. We have nothing,” Matt Carroll said.
Paso Robles head coach Rich Schimke helped lead the charge to provide meals for the family for a month.
“We all got together and decided to give anything we could,” standout running back Christian Erickson said. “We had kids giving food, money, anything. It has actually brought us together closer as a team.”
A GoFundMe page set up by a cousin to help the family has raised more than $5,600 in four days. Matt Carroll said he has been contacted by coaches at Atascadero, Arroyo Grande and Templeton, all asking how they can help.
“The coaches are feeding us every day for a month,” said the former Paso Robles football player and graduate. “It has been tragic. The bright spot, the people of the community, man, they are really pulling together for us right now. We are blessed to have the friends we do.”
After staying in a hotel with money from the Red Cross the first few nights after the fire, John and Mariellen Carroll are now sleeping in a trailer on the property loaned to them by a friend. Matt Carroll is staying with his oldest brother, Mike Carroll, in Atascadero, while Mitchell is staying with friends.
The Paso Robles community is also still dealing with the destruction of the Chimney Fire, which has burned approximately 12,000 acres and destroyed more than 30 homes northwest of Paso Robles. It’s a fact not lost on the Carrolls.
“People are problem solving for us, and that’s the biggest thing,” Matt Carroll said. “Because we are trying to salvage things, trying to figure out finances, insurance, Red Cross, other people are going out saying, ‘Whether or not you are asking for help, we are going to give it to you.’ ”
Picking up the pieces
On Thursday, the Carroll family was still digging through the ashes and on the look out for Vegas, their orange tabby cat who ran away when the fire broke out.
Not much remains — a photo here or there, a pair of sewing scissors — but one important piece of the Carrolls’ life together somehow survived. A hope chest that was inside the family’s closet fell through the floor of the burning home and survived relatively unscathed.
Inside was the wedding dress Mariellen wore when she married John 34 years ago.
“I thought it was gone. It was a little dirty on the back, but this pure white, lace dress is in almost perfect condition. In that,” she said pointing to the rubble, “just unbelievable.”
After a trip to the cleaners, Mariellen is sure the dress will have new life.