Goodbye, San Diego Chargers
I spent Friday, January 13th, curled up in the fetal position on my couch, tears streaming down my face.
It was not where I expected myself to be.
Just 24 hours before, the San Diego Chargers had dropped a bomb: They were leaving their home of 56 years and relocating to Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Chargers. It feels sacrilegious writing it.
Having covered this story for the last few years, I always knew it was a possibility they would leave, but emotions and reason had been toyed with for so long in this mess that it was best to tune out the talk and opinions of others. Even those whom I considered sources seemed tangled in the uncertainty of an outcome. So I just waited.
I was at Chargers Park, the team’s practice facility on Murphy Canyon Road, when the announcement hit. A handful of fans were scattered in front of the building. News trucks lined the street. At 8 a.m., the Chargers posted a letter to their website, declaring their move.
A letter. After 56 years. A. Letter.
From that second on, it was work mode. I stayed at Chargers Park until the sun went down, talking to crying fans, shouting fans, shocked fans. I watched as people unloaded their gear in front of the building, a symbol of their detachment to the team they had been loyal to for so long, that was now leaving them for another city. Nothing meant more to me on January 12th than being able to connect with fans and document their stories on such a historic day in San Diego sports.
Friday brought tears.
Perhaps it was the fatigue; maybe it was the uncertainty of not knowing what’s next (I’m a sports reporter in a city lacking sports in an industry dying by the second); maybe it was my 11-year-old nephew calling, asking questions I couldn’t answer. Maybe it was this video montage I watched, the one with Lance Alworth and Dan Fouts and Don Coryell and LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates sharing common ground in Mission Valley, all running across the same field, and knowing that this dysfunctional stadium — the one we love to hate — holds so much history and so many memories and now, she is empty.
I was surprised at my reaction. I’m a reporter. I’m a grown woman, crying over football, a sport riddled with greed and capitalism and concussions and physical violence. But football has always been part of my identity, part of my family, part of my relationship with my dad, and over my years of reporting, I’ve met so many fans who have tailgated at The Q for decades. Rain or shine, in good times or bad, with friends and family members.
All of it gone.
The NFL is making it easier for fans to disengage. The greed and manipulation that for so long was hidden behind the scenes is now front and center, flashing across our social media feeds. This move shouldn’t have happened. We know it. The NFL knows it. Fans know it. But it did, and a price will be paid.
The Chargers have an uphill battle in the City of Dreams. They are overwhelmingly not wanted, first of all, and second of all, they are displaced. They are between two homes. They must learn the city, make connections, build foundations, history and traditions that don’t exist. They must win — not flash-in-the-pan winning, not winning sometimes, but Championship or near-Championship winning, and consistently. So far, partly because of team blunders, and partly because it’s simply a terrible move, it’s not going well. In less than a week, it has become cool to hate the Los Angeles Chargers, and if LA is good at anything, it’s having a mob mentality and adopting a “you can’t sit with us” attitude. Can it change? Absolutely. But whether mild apathy is that much better than major apathy remains to be seen.
San Diego fans are faced with a dilemma: Are you supposed to care about this team or not? Do you drive 150 miles to the sterile Stubhub Center — with no history and no ties, except of the futbol sort — to watch your ex-team play next season, or do you show Dean Spanos what you think with your dollar by not buying tickets? What about the players? Do you stay in it for them? I won’t tell you what’s right or wrong. No one can. What you feel now might not be what you feel six months from now. It’s uncharted territory for us all. Even us newspaper folks are wrestling with decisions of how, if at all, to cover this team going forward.
One more thing: I’ve been covering the Chargers since 2009. I’ve built relationships with the team’s front office employees in that time, lasting relationships with some excellent people. These are hard-working folks who have dedicated decades of their lives to work for the San Diego Chargers, often for wages that fall far short of industry standards. They have put roots in San Diego. They have kids in our schools and spouses in our workforce. They have toiled tirelessly for this team through birthdays, deaths, divorces. Yes, that is their choice, and they won’t ask you to feel sorry for them. But imagine devoting most of your adult life to Dean Spanos and the Chargers and then getting this thrown on you, while possibly losing your job or facing unemployment or being asked to move. It’s not easy, and these guys are exhausted, sad and scared too.
There are people in this world fighting wars, fighting cancer, fighting hunger and pain. Losing an NFL team does not compare to any of those things. Not even close. But the loss is an emotional one, and for many, it cuts to the core. Losing a football team is losing the opportunity to carry on traditions and history that families have upheld for generations. It’s like losing a friend — a really fun friend, a friend that drove you nuts sometimes but that could always be counted on to pull you away from the problems in your life for a few hours. It’s a friend that’s happy to see you and scream with you and do ridiculous superstitious dances with you. Every Sunday, you could connect with that friend. That’s what football is — it’s connection. It’s a thread that links people together.
Now, that thread is tainted with shared contempt for the ones who took it away. The anger and hurt will pass, eventually. Football Sundays will be tough at first; perhaps with time, they will get easier.
But the friendship …
Well, that will just never be the same.
Whatever you do, enjoy the final Chargers home game of the season.
When I was eleven, my father started taking me to Qualcomm Stadium to watch the Chargers. He loves football – he’s the type to jump off his couch and yell at the television during football season – and I was the lucky recipient of his passion for the game. I distinctly remember sitting in the stands, absorbing the energy of the cheering fans and feeling like I was part of something bigger than myself, something special. I remember high-fiving strangers after touchdowns and wrapping my arms around seatmates as I chanted “De-Fense! De-Fense!” over and over until my throat was raspy.
We all have these stories, tales of how and why we became football fans, that are passed from parents to kids, from uncles to nephews, from friends to neighbors. They weave through us, bonding strangers into a brotherhood that knows little about race or social class. When your team scores a touchdown to win the game as the clock expires and you cheer with the person next to you, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or how much money you make or where you grew up … All that matters, in that second, is that your team won.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, YOUR story is one that is close to your heart.
And that is why I urge you to enjoy Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins.
Yes, it may-well-very-could-be-possibly-is-but-not-yet-100-percent-sure the very last Chargers game EVER in San Diego. We don’t know yet, but signs point north to Los Angeles, to the green pastures of money, corporate suites and signage.
Still, I’m asking you to enjoy it.
Enjoy Philip Rivers and Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates and Eric Weddle and Mike Scifres, the remaining players on the roster who have been with this organization their entire career and have each played at least nine seasons in Qualcomm Stadium. They deserve your enjoyment. They’ve given you a lot over the years, even if the past few haven’t been so pretty.
Enjoy that one dude who sits a few rows in front of you and screeches too loudly when the offense is on the field. He is part of your story. Enjoy the tailgater who’s been parking next to you for 40-plus seasons, through divorce, illness, deaths in his family and inclement weather. Enjoy the ladies in tight tank tops with lightning bolts across their chests – (hey, San Diego weather allows for that year round) – and the fellas who break out their custom blue-and-yellow kicks just for home games. Give a knowing nod to the man who paints his chest and face every week in support of the Bolts … he, too, deserves a place in your chapter on the Chargers.
I get it. You’re angry. You have every right to be. I’m just asking you to consider pushing aside the anger, for one sweet San Diego afternoon, to enjoy the moment. Cuz it’s all you have, at this point. Don’t let this mess take it away from you, should this be it.
Perhaps it is because I’m getting older, perhaps it is because of lessons learned the hard way the past few years, but there is a peace that comes with reality. And in this situation, the reality is that the Chargers may not play in our backyard next season.
If that is the case, you can’t stop it. I appreciate that you want to — it’s a mark of your loyalty and love for your team – but you can’t. It’s done. It’s not going to matter what you do at this point. It’s not your fault they’re leaving – don’t listen to any of the hype from mouthpieces that say it is, because it’s Not. Your. Fault. It’s business. It’s always business, and sometimes business is impersonal, cold and unfair.
The thing is, this might NOT be the last game the Chargers ever play at Qualcomm Stadium. I know that’s a long shot, but it’s still accurate. They could be back. If they’re not, you’ll remember this game as the final one, and you’ll tell your kids and your grand-kids about it, and you’ll imitate Rivers’ hand gestures and say “golly gosh darn dagnabbit” and they will, in you, feel your love for football.
Your love for the players, who didn’t ask for this move, should it happen.
Don’t let the organization, and Dean Spanos, take that away from you. They’ll be taking enough if they leave.
I understand that’s asking a lot. It’s like asking you to be happy while your parents get a divorce. But we’re older now. We’ve gone through stuff, and we know that we can’t change the outcome. We might as well enjoy the ride.
I’m not saying it won’t suck if they go. I understand, believe me. If they move, I won’t get to walk around the Qualcomm parking lot and exchange witty banter with you fans for “Out & About,” which I’ve been doing since my years as a reporter with the Union-Tribune. I won’t sit in the open-air press box and feel the energy shift with the game, or close my eyes as the National Anthem plays on the too-loud sound system – (always one of my favorite moments) – or watch the outdated Jumbo-Tron stutter to churn out a replay.
That’s why I’m going to appreciate it even more on Sunday.
I’ve always enjoyed how grateful Rivers is for every game. It’s like he’s six years old again every Sunday, and he just can’t BELIEVE he gets to play quarterback in the NFL. He just can’t believe it! What a life.
On Wednesday — five days before what could be the final home game at Qualcomm Stadium — Rivers said that he will soak in the experience, like he soaks in every game, because nothing is guaranteed. (And he’s right. Even if the Chargers stay in San Diego, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow and never make it to another kickoff.)
Rivers is going to soak it in … The fans, the media, the rust and grime at Qualcomm Stadium, the cheers and the boos … it’s all part of his story. It all deserves its place, and he knows it.
I urge you to soak it in too. You owe it to yourself, and to your story.
PADRES: Goodbye, Buddy Black.
Buddy Black was fired today.
Canned. Let go. Adios.
Yesterday he was managing a ballclub, today he is (hopefully) throwing back whiskey shots on a tropical island.
WATCH: Preller on Black firing & inconsistency; Dave Roberts on managing #Padres; plus what I saw/heard in clubhouse: http://t.co/VUWxA9mCzA
— Annie Heilbrunn (@annieheilbrunn) June 16, 2015
I’ve always respected Buddy. He’s authentic, genuine. He cares about people. He cares deeply about his players. He is smart, funny and easily likable. I know those last two traits don’t necessarily make a great manager, but I’ll follow that up by saying players respected Buddy. He was a player’s manager. They didn’t give up on him. They played hard for him every night.
Whereas football is super secretive and access keeps getting more and more restricted, baseball is a place where you chat with the manager twice a day — and rather than being at a podium, you just sit with him. The conversation goes many directions … Sometimes you’ll be talking about a player, the next thing you know you’ll be hearing a (not for public consumption) story from when Buddy was pitching or when he shared a clubhouse with the opposing manager or what not. It’s just great. Buddy was the best at it. He also made it a point to learn all the names of the reporters who covered the team — (okay, you might not care, but that says a lot about a person) — and to try and explain things in a way that was sincere and helpful. Those dugout chats with Buddy are easily some of my favorites moments about baseball.
Ultimately, I think Buddy was just the sacrificial lamb. This move was made to make the players feel accountable, responsible; to feel that they had just gotten their manager fired, so they better step up their game. They better win.
Black isn’t Preller’s guy. He was here when Preller got here. This season wasn’t going to work for Black unless the Padres were first place in the division. Never mind that he was having to get creative with the infield because of holes in the roster or the logjam at certain positions; never mind that general manager A.J. Preller signed players in the offseason that, while “stars,” may be on a downward slope (perhaps there is a reason the Dodgers are paying Matt Kemp to play for the Padres?!); never mind that a team that has a mostly new roster may need more time to gel; never mind that expectations were perhaps impossible to meet; and never mind that the Padres were only, um, four games back in the Wild Card and six back in the division.
I’m not paid enough to know if this was the “right” move. I’m not a general manager. I know these things happen in the world of professional sports. They happen every day. Perhaps the Padres will turn it around and go on a 10-game winning tear to lead the division, and this will be the reason why. Perhaps.
Pressure is now on Preller to find the manager he thinks will get this team to the Promised Land (i.e., the playoffs).
Mom, Craig Mager, football, and life … (And oh yeah — I’m back)
Man, it’s been a long time.
(This is the point in the blog post where I’m supposed to explain my absence, but honestly, what fun would that be?! Don’t groan. It’ll all unravel itself in future posts anyways.)
Today is about mom, and football, and growing up.
My mom had a stroke about a month ago. She’s okay (relatively) but it scared the living daylights out of me when it happened. It was the first time I came face-to-face with my parents’ mortality, and let. me. tell. you. … That is not a fun meeting.
I’m not old, but I’m not young. Relatively speaking, anyways. Many of my close friends have parents who have passed away, and I know it happens, and The Lion King and the Circle of Life and all that, but it’s still a somber thought and it ain’t ever easy. It’s one thing to have a parent pass away when you’re an adult, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to lose a parent as a teenager.
And this is where Craig Mager comes in.
Ah, yes. Cornerback Craig Mager, the player the Chargers selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Mager has one of those stories that sticks with you. His mom — (a single mother of four, Mager and three younger sisters) — passed away when he was just 15 years old; a hospital-administered overdose responsible for her death.
Mager: “It was like a nightmare. I had a little party the night before because my birthday was actually June ll and she passed away June 15, so I was hanging around with a couple friends and when I came home, I heard she was sick and that she went to the hospital. She thought she had meningitis because she had a stiff neck. So I came back that night … The next morning my youngest sister comes running into the room, talking about how my mom was unresponsive. I rolled out of bed and ran down there to see what was up. I called 911, and we found out after that.”
He had to grow up fast. Though his grandma lived nearby, she was older, and the responsibility fell on Mager to parent his siblings and run the household. While his friends were carefree teens, Mager was doing his best impression of being an adult. He drove his sisters around, made them dinner, helped with homework, did chores, and — oh yeah — played football, well enough to get a scholarship to Texas State. Though he didn’t know it at the time, football would become his sanctuary; the field, a safe place to release his emotions.
One of Mager’s last memories of his mom came during a freshman game, when Mager — (then a running back) — was tackled after a play. As he got up, a player on the opposing team grabbed his facemask and some shoving ensued. Mager’s mom, who was sitting in the stands, jumped over the fence and onto the track to try and protect her first-born — an embarrassing moment for the teenager, but one he would give anything to have back.
What he would do to look up in the stands and see his mom jumping the fence to try and help him…
What he would do, indeed.
Players come and go. Teams come and go. Jobs come and go. Some stuff, though, just goes. And when it goes, it can’t come back.
Mager is a thoughtful, well-spoken young man. He focuses on being respectful and disciplined as a man before all else. He may or may not make it in the NFL, but if he does, the intangible of his mental toughness, his ability to fight adversity and step up when needed, will thread his success story.
It’s easy to get lost in your job, or your problems, or the business of everyday life. Believe me, I know. It’s easy to get lost and forget what’s important. Today, my heart goes out to all those who don’t have someone to say “Happy Mother’s Day” to, who have no phone call to make or no present to buy or no annoying brunch plans.
To all the rest of us, who still have parents we can hug and love and roll our eyes at, savor the time. Savor it while it’s here.
When Sports and Social Issues Collide …
I’ve been fascinated with the Donald Sterling issue since it hit the news.
Racism sickens me, yes. Any kind of bigotry sickens me. And I believe in “stand for something or fall for anything” … Change really only comes about if people stand up for it. I understand what NBA commissioner Adam Silver did today and I am glad he stood for something.
I am a closet wanna-be professor who loves anthropological and social issues. Yes, I’m a nerd.
So, that said, here’s what fascinates me about the Sterling case:
- Privacy and the Slippery Slope: Sterling said something in the privacy of his own home. He has that right. Racism sucks, but anyone has the right to be a racist or a bigot and everyone has the right to voice their opinion. We all have First Amendment rights. As a friend of mine (who is African-American and a professional athlete) said: “I don’t like people trying to regulate someone’s opinion.”
- Judge and jury: Basically, there was public outcry to be judge and jury on this issue. But could it be that instead of regulating his opinion, we could just choose to not be involved with him? That’s what a bunch of big-time sponsors did when they heard the Sterling comments and pulled their money from the organization. In a sense, I can see the argument that that’s what the NBA did. They are choosing to not engage with him. The NBA certainly has the right to regulate this since they are privately owned (and have a responsibility to protect their players from hate and disrespect), but it’s true that we all have a choice with who we want to allow in our lives and where we want to put our support. We can’t force every person to in the world to quiet their opinion — and I don’t know that we want to — but we can CHOOSE how we want to engage with that opinion.
- Stand up: Racism and bigotry is wrong. That’s my opinion and I’m allowed to have it. I believe we need to stand up for racism and bigotry in our everyday lives. It shouldn’t take a monumental event, or a TMZ report, to make people aware that racism is an issue. There is a quiet war going on daily in all of our lives. It’s an important one and it requires vigilance.
- Sports, social change and social media: Sports, in itself, is an anthropological dream. Locker rooms are too. People of all races, ethnicity, genders, classes and financial backgrounds coming together in all sort of crazy ways. Every day, social issues manifest themselves through sports. The Sterling situation was a monumental example of that, and it drives conversation, and that’s pretty rad. To put it in layman’s terms: That’s why sports can be so cool.
I think the important point here is that the NBA, again, is privately owned and has the right to regulate and enforce rules. It has the responsibility to protect its players. Silver made a big statement today, not just for the NBA but for all professional sports. Donald Sterling has a history of lawsuits stemming from racist actions toward employees and tenants in his buildings and a track record of bigotry. There’s no way he can just show his face around the organization and have everything be hunky-dory. The team would implode and explode all at once.
I’m bothered by the privacy issue but I don’t have an answer. What, really, is private anymore? Can you be an owner and a supposed leader and still retain privacy? Where is that line if you’re in the public eye? Where is your responsibility? What I think we need to take away from this is, simply, AWARENESS. Be aware of all the sides and social issues that pervade this story, because when we lose awareness, we just become single-minded sheep.
As Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said: “It’s a slippery slope.”
Crashing Shareece Wright’s house
Cornerback Shareece Wright is one of those players who is always smiling.
He gets it.
He knows how tough it is to make it out of Compton, where he grew up. He knows how tough it is to make it to the NFL and what a blessing it is for his family, especially his mom, that he found success.
When you watch this video, you’ll see how he never takes a second of it for granted. He knows the struggle, and he knows all the good fortune can be gone in a second. Going over to his house, I didn’t know what to expect. A lot of high-ticket items? Expensive jewelry and knick-knacks that mean nothing but look pretty?
The things that mean the most to Shareece revolve around friends and family. He plays pool with his friends. His jerseys represent the journey. His dogs are his love. His mom is his heart. And he bakes, because that was one of the ways he contributed to his household when he was a kid.
Hope you enjoy. Warning: You might need some tissues when he talks about his mother.
LaDainian Tomlinson on TangoTab, feeding hungry families, Chargers and more.
When LaDainian Tomlinson was young, his family would take in kids who needed help. His mother would feed them and give them shelter.
Though Tomlinson didn’t recognize the magnitude of that as a child, he realized it when he got older. Now a parent of two, Tomlinson says the generosity of his family has fueled him to give back as a player and adult.
In San Diego, though now retired, he continues to make an impact — just as he has for more than a decade.
Tomlinson was at a local restaurant Wednesday to introduce a new program he’s part of to help feed hungry families. The concept is simple: Download TangoTab, a free phone app that finds deals at restaurants near you, and every time you claim a deal, a portion of the proceeds are used to feed people in need.
Genius, if you ask me. First of all, the app is pretty cool. It eradicates the need for those annoying Groupon e-mails. Nothing to print out, nothing to buy. You just click to claim and go out and eat.
Second of all, YOU’RE JUST EATING! You eat out anyways. Might as well let your money feed the hungry while you pay the bill.
It’s always good to chat with LT and always nice to see his mega-watt smile in San Diego. Watch the video to hear more about his involvement with TangoTab, his assessment on Ryan Mathews and what position he thinks the Chargers might take with their first pick of the draft.
The Chargers and The End.
And so it ends.
I never get used to the season ending. It’s just weird. You’re rolling, you’re riding, there’s never been more talk of bolo ties and beards in your life, everything is exciting and fun and hopeful and then…
The door shuts.
In the NFL, it shuts quickly and coldly.
Players hugged each other tonight in the locker room, proud of one another, brothers in the fight. They may have lost to the Broncos in the divisional playoff game (and it stinks, and they will tell you it stinks, and nothing makes it not stink) but they also love one another and know they were in it, together, until the end.
“We got nothing to be ashamed of. And when we fight together, when we play hard, when we compete, the character of this team … you can hold your head high because you know you gave it your all. That doesn’t mean you’re happy, doesn’t mean it’s okay, but to bounce back from 5-7 and get to this position, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.” — Philip Rivers
“We got a lot to stand tall about. I tell them, don’t hang your heads long. We did a wonderful job being in this situation. Don’t take it the wrong way — we wanted to dance and have a chance to win the Super Bowl but from where we came from this last six, seven weeks, fighting and believing in one another, guys being banged up and still giving their all — it solidifies what we’re about and what this organization is about.” — Antonio Gates
“In one season we have turned around this organization and we are heading in the right direction. Guys have the right mindset about them; there is a lot of pride in this room, and a lot of tough guys in this room who fought through a lot of injuries this year and gave until they couldn’t give anymore. This locker room is headed in the right direction.” –Nick Hardwick
In the morning, players will head to Chargers Park and listen to head coach Mike McCoy one more time. Then they will clean out their lockers, and in bags and boxes, will take the memories of a season. The field will remain covered up and posters will be ripped down and hugs will be exchanged and pages will turn.
And so it goes.
So many players told me, tonight, that this was the best team they’ve ever played on. Danny Woodhead said it. King Dunlap said it. This was the best group of guys they’ve ever been around, the most fun they’ve ever had in a season. It’s a credit to the older guys — Weddle, Rivers, Johnson, Hardwick and the like — for the standard they set, the tone they bring to the organization. They aren’t about flash. They come in, they work hard, they want to win, they love one another and they don’t care what the outside thinks.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to experience this whole season with anyone else. It’s an unbelievable group of guys.” –Danny Woodhead
I don’t know where I’ll be at this time next year, so it could be that this particular “the end” resonated with me a little more than previous ones. I took a little longer to say goodbyes. I walked slowly through the hallways. I closed my eyes and let the sounds of the stadium sink in. I appreciated the tiny moments that come with following a team for five seasons that are lost on the outside world.
I took it in, like Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers and Jarret Johnson and Eric Weddle and guys who have been around awhile take it in. Because they know the team won’t look the same next year. You don’t know who will be back.
You don’t know if you will be back.
You just have this moment.
“As a young guy, you think you’ll get back to [the playoffs] all the time because you don’t know any different, and for the older guys like myself, going in three years and then being out three years and then being back in it, you just appreciate it and you try to never let it get away from you because this is what you live for. The older you get, you never take for granted the daily work, being with your teammates, the grind. You never know what the future holds. That’s why we love each other so much and we support each other and we give it all for each other. You never know what’s gonna happen and who’s gonna be here so let’s just live it up while we can. And hopefully, that will be good enough.” –Eric Weddle
Well said as always, Eric. Hopefully, it will be good enough.
Chargers win wild card … Like, holy wow.
The Chargers are headed to Denver.
For the first time since 2009, they made the playoffs. That was jaw-dropping enough after a rough start to the season.
Now, San Diego is advancing.
I watched a lot of TV this week and read many, many stories and I can tell you … NO ONE gave the Chargers a chance. National media counted them out time and time again. It’s understandable — the Chargers were inconsistent throughout the season, and although they won four straight to get to the playoffs, the final match-up against the Chiefs was NOT their best football.
The old adage is true, though — It’s not how you get to the playoffs, it’s what you do when you’re there. And the Chargers delivered against the Bengals, winning 27-10 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, silencing the critics who had said they didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs.
Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano told me last week that they were “playing with house money,” that players were loose and excited and happy for the opportunity. Young guys like Manti Te’o and Keenan Allen said they just had to settle in and not let the game get too big.
The “underdog” status is one the Chargers are familiar with, and one they step up to at critical times.
Honestly, it was fun at Chargers Park this week. It was like a whole new season had unfolded. The past was gone and with it, a huge sigh of relief. All that mattered now was moving forward.
The Chargers head to Denver next Sunday for what will be a great divisional match-up against the Broncos.