Did I hear cheers? Or was the wind playing tricks with my ears? Perhaps it was my melancholy reflection of times past? I heard something that night I stopped at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium. Or Qualcomm. Or whatever you want to call it. It’s been empty for a full season now. The San Diego Chargers bolted for greener NFL turf in Los Angeles and ripped a piece of my childhood memories away.
The Chargers began as one of eight member teams in the now-deceased American Football League in 1959. Los Angeles was their first home, but after not being able to compete for attendance with the NFL’s Rams, they moved to San Diego in 1961. Coincidentally, that was the year I was born. Some of the greatest — and worst — moments in Chargers’ history were part of my life.
They won the 1963 AFL championship. Sorry. I don’t remember that season. They were a perennial winner during the decade. Then, the AFL and NFL merged in 1970. That’s when their losing began. They lost more games — and in more ways — than I can remember.
As a teenager, I worked at the stadium as a vendor. Popcorn. Peanuts. Soda. I sold everything but beer. On one particular Sunday in 1978, I witnessed NFL history. The Chargers vs. the Oakland Raiders.
It was late in the game and, instead of turning in my gear to prepare for closing, I was trying to squeeze another sale or two… and perhaps more tip money. Then came the play. The infamous “Holy Roller”. The Chargers were leading the Raiders with seconds to go as a patron wanted to buy a soda. He handed me a $20 bill and I handed him his soda. Then, came that play!
Quarterback Ken Stabler went back to pass. He was hit by linebacker Woody Lowe and fumbled the ball forward. Running back Pete Banaszak moved it forward until it reached tight end Dave Casper, who kicked and shoved it forward until it landed in the end zone. Casper fell on it and scored. After the Raiders kicked the extra point, they led 21-20, eventually winning by that score.
I remember that patron and I screaming obscenities after that play. I do not remember returning his change. Sorry, pal.
It was such a devastating loss, the team never recovered and it eventually ended the Chargers’ playoff hopes that season.
Because of that play, the NFL changed the rule for recovering a fumble within the last two minutes of the half and of the game. Today, the only offensive player allowed to advance a fumble in that situation is the player who fumbled it.
In 1979, the glory years of second-year coach Don Coryell began. For the next few years, quarterback Dan Fouts set records flying Air Coryell to victory in the NFL, losing twice in the AFC Championship game. I remembered screaming like a mad man listening to the Chargers-Miami Dolphins divisional playoff game on armed forces radio. I was in the U.S. Air Force in Germany, so it was quite late. Or early, depending on your point of view.
The neighbors weren’t happy with this crazy Ami. The next week, I was able to see the AFC Championship game on armed forces tv. They lost in Cincinnati in -59-degree weather. Yuck!
Coupled with them losing the previous year in the championship game to the hated Raiders, who went on to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super XV, I never believed my Chargers would ever play in a Super Bowl.
Eventually, the losing began again.
But 1994 was our year. I finally got to see them in the Big Show… only to lose to the Steve Young-led San Francisco 49ers. The score was 49-26, but it didn’t even seem that close.
Once again, the losing began.
Along came Marty Schottenheimer and for a few years, we won again. But not in the playoffs. We always made a quick exit. After a 14-2 season — the greatest in team history — Schottenheimer was canned. The team had had its fill of playoff futility.
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The Chargers were regular losers, with a few victorious season sprinkled in to break up the lean years. But they were our Chargers. We cried when they lost. And we cheered until we were hoarse when they won. We never knew when the winning would end, so we had to enjoy it while it lasted.
During the 2017 season, I sat in front of the television set, mostly with indifference. I didn’t know whether to cheer or to boo. I mean, I watched the Los Angeles Chargers play. Oh God, that name! Will I ever get used to it?
I haven’t permanently lived in San Diego for decades, but “America’s Finest City” was always a part of my identity. And the Chargers were part of the city’s identity. And no matter where I lived, I rocked my Bolts gear. Whether enjoying the retiring sun at Sunset Cliffs or sipping Riesling wine on the banks of the Moselle river, I was proud to wear the blue and gold. Win or lose, I was there for them. They’ll always be my San Diego Chargers, even if it’s only in my dreams.