On my desk is a book that contains the name of every man who ever played for the San Diego Chargers. Hundreds of names. Under each name are three lines of text, the historical remains of one player’s career. I see the position he played, the years he played for the Chargers, and years played with other teams. I see where and when he was born, what high school and college he attended, how much he weighed and how tall he was. I’ve come to believe, although I hope this is not true, that those few years in the NFL were the most important years of his life, a life now etched in eight-point font, buried inside a three-inch-thick reference volume few people will read.
Here’s Volney Peters. He was a defensive tackle on the 1960 Chargers team. Peters was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on January 1, 1928. He’d be 73 years old now. Is he alive? Is he strapped to an oxygen tank, confined in the indigent ward of a South Florida retirement home? Or is he living large in San Francisco, happily two-timing his 32-year-old girlfriend? Here’s Danny Colbert. He was a defensive back on the 1975 Chargers team. Did he marry and have kids? Maybe his oldest son went to prison, or, maybe, he became a psychoanalyst. What did Danny do after football and was it fun? Here’s Todd Spencer. He was a running back, played three games with the 1987 Chargers. How did it end for him, was he released or injured? Almost no one, no one at all, ever leaves the NFL on his own terms.
Sit in front of this list long enough and you notice little things, like how frequently, in this fractured age, people return to their hometowns after they’re done with football, and especially, how brutally short a typical NFL career is. Going in I thought the average career was four, four and a half years. Now, I see two, two and a half years is about average. Going in, I thought regarding a professional football team as a reflection of a city, as anything other than a business, was delusional. Turns out, teams are less connected to the town they play in than I imagined. Nobody stays with a team for long, not players, coaches, or general managers. Very few people on this list stayed with the Chargers for more than two seasons. For every Dan Fouts you have 30 Danny Colberts.
After a while you understand there are no San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, or New York Giants. There is only the Republic of Football; its citizens go from one franchise to the next to the next and repeat. Loyalties are to the republic, not some slammed-together football team in a strange town where you live in a furnished apartment for six months out of the year, for a year or two, on the way to another apartment in another strange town.
Going in I thought a lot of players would, 10, 20, 30 years after retirement, have a limp or a stiff shoulder or a bad knee. I didn’t know that most of the men I’d contact would still suffer from serious football-related injuries. I thought an NFL Players Association pension would be enormous. I remember reading about O. J. Simpson’s $25,000-a-month pension check. Turns out, O. J.’s pension is approximately $25,000 a year, and he, like all retired players, receives a check but no medical insurance.
What else? Every NFL alumnus I talked to was smart. I’d put them up against a random selection of doctors. Every player said he would do it again and meant it. And, every player knew, very early on, he would play in the NFL one day.
Finally, you may notice I did not contact anyone who played for the Chargers during the last ten years. I wanted to talk to men who had been out of the game long enough to become whatever it is you become after the lights go off and the big money ends.
- Position: punter, placekicker
- Played for Chargers: 1989
- San Diego Chargers’ Record: 1989 (6–10)
- Current Residence: Boalsburgh, Pennsylvania
- Born February 3, 1953, in State College,
- High School: Neshaminy High School (Langhorne, PA)
- College: Penn State
- Height: 5' 10"
- Weight: 170
- Drafted Round 2 by Cincinnati in 1978
- NFL Career
- Cincinnati Bengals: 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979
- Oakland Raiders: 1980, 1981
- Los Angeles (Raiders): 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988
- San Diego Chargers: 1989
“I’m doing a story about former Chargers players: what they’re doing now, where they’re living, and whatever else I can get.”
Bahr laughs. “Well, I’m here.”
“Let’s see, you did four years with Cincinnati, nine years with the Raiders, and finished with the Chargers in ’89. Did you think, at the time, San Diego was going to be your last stop?”
“It was coming towards the end. We had a fairly decent team in San Diego, but we let a number of games slip. I’m still pretty good friends with Jim McMahon and Dave Archer [quarterbacks on the 1989 Chargers team]. We were 6 and 10. Of the 10 losses, we led or were tied in 8 of those games with under four minutes to play. Then they brought in Bobby Beathard as GM, and he decided to rebuild. He went youth everywhere.
“I thought I might be able to catch on somewhere, but it didn’t happen. Towards the end, you get the feeling you don’t have too many games left in you; you’re just not sure when it’s going to happen.”
I wonder how that works for a kicker. “How does that work for a kicker? Does accuracy go first or legs or what?”
“Used to be, a coach would think a guy was at the end if he was losing some leg strength. He’d say, ‘Okay, it’s time to go with somebody younger.’ I think coaches are starting to learn you keep a kicker as long as he’s productive. Look around the league today, there are guys kicking who are in their early 40s.