December 2, 2007: During his radio broadcast of the San Diego Chargers’ victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, announcer Hank Bauer gave a shout-out to Charger fan Alfred Silva, who was battling cancer. (Silva’s brother-in-law Jim Muse Jr. golfed with Bauer and had put in the request.)
By March of 2008, Silva had succumbed. But when he was laid to rest at Singing Hills, it was in a powder blue coffin trimmed with gold — Charger colors. His body was dressed in a jersey honoring his favorite player, Lance Alworth. (Not, however, the jersey that Alworth signed for Silva with his old Bambi nickname; that one still hangs, under glass, on the wall in the Silva home.) On his feet, his Charger shoes; on his head, his Charger hat. “It was awesome,” recalled his son Armando during a recent tailgate party in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot. “He was ready to go up and watch some more football.”
Armando, now 26 and living in Lemon Grove, also wore an Alworth jersey to the funeral. His was a $350 NFL authentic throwback from 1963; its royal blue darker, its weave tighter, and its fabric heftier than the current version. “These are supposedly the game-play jerseys,” he explained, “made to NFL specifications, all that good stuff.” He bought it for the occasion, along with a pair of Nike Air Jordans he found at Foot Locker. “They just matched too perfectly” — the blue and gold just a hair richer and deeper than the shades used today. “I saw them the week of Dad’s funeral, and I had to grab ’em.”
Fandom is a Silva tradition; Alfred had grown up being taken to Chargers games at Balboa Stadium by his father. “They were diehards,” said Armando, “and I was born into that and grew into that. There was no other way to be. It’s in the blood.” Armando and Alfred attended at least two games a season — “someone would have two tickets, and me and him would jump all over it, whatever it took.” Then, four years ago, Dad found he had the wherewithal to buy season tickets — a dream fulfilled before the end. These days, Armando comes to games — and the tailgates that precede them — with his mother Shelia and his cousins Troy and Matt. “Whoever else comes along, it’s always us.” And they all wear their jerseys.
It’s 10:30 on the morning of September 27, and it feels a mite early to be seeing a middle-aged woman in a lace-up Chargers-themed corset-shirt-thingy. But what are you going to do? Game time (against the Miami Dolphins) is 1:15, and the tailgates are already dropped in the parking lot surrounding Qualcomm, and so a gal’s gonna wear her party gear on the trolley ride in from La Mesa, even if it’s not the standard combination of short shorts and a jersey.
Jerseys: here at the Grossmont trolley stop there are 14, some fitted, some stretched by the belly beneath, but mostly baggy and big. Navy, white, and powder blue, full of minor variations that reflect both status and era (more on this later). Linebacker Shawne Merriman (#56) and tight end Antonio Gates (#85) get three apiece, two feature wide receiver Vincent Jackson’s #83, and only one honors quarterback Philip Rivers (#17). One woman wears quarterback Drew Brees’s #9, even though he’s currently playing for the New Orleans Saints.
After we board, a couple laments to the passenger across from them that they named their first child Ryan. “It was just Ryan,” insists the wife. “It had nothing to do with Ryan Leaf!” — the franchise quarterback who proved to be San Diego’s draft debacle of 1998. And lo and behold, they named their next child Andrew, right around the time Drew Brees came on the scene in 2001.
At the San Diego State stop, a bunch of Dolphins jerseys climb onboard; more than a few bear quarterback Dan Marino’s name and number. Marino retired in ’99. Sure, he was one of the greats, but the preponderance of #13s gives a nostalgic feel to the fandom: remember when?
A young man leans over toward his girlfriend. “You know why you see so many jerseys from other teams?” he asks. “Because who wants to live in Pittsburgh? Tennessee? New England? Nobody. Who wants to live in San Diego? Everybody” — even if it means coming here and then rooting for the boys from somewhere else. “Greatest city in the world,” finishes the young man. “Fuck, yeah,” affirms his girl, and they bump fists.
The trolley slopes down into Mission Valley, cuts over top of Interstate 8, and finally pulls into the Qualcomm station. Below, in the vast, pale gray parking lot, a city of shade tents sprawls out in every direction from the high walls of the stadium. The roofs are as uniform as any ancient Italian village, but where Assisi goes with red tile, Chargertown chooses blue nylon. Dozens of flagpoles poke up from the roofline: Old Glory and the California Republic, but mostly the San Diego Chargers. Out at the edge of the lot, rows of RVs form a sort of outer wall, a line of defense against the enemy fans as they drive in (or out).
The selling begins when you hit the bottom of the ramp leading from the trolley station into the lot: $5 for a game-day magazine, $10 for a team yearbook, and $17 for a Charger Girls calendar. A couple of the Girls, already suited up in their cheerfully fleshy uniforms, make their way past the rows of tailgaters — arms full of calendars as they head for the signing booth inside the Bud Light Power Party zone. Inside, just past the scaffolding supporting the 20-foot TV screens (What’s on? Football. Did you have to ask?), a cover band rasps its way through ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” Next to them, a mobile Carl’s Jr. sells burgers, etc.; a few tents down, you can get a 20-ounce Bud Select draft for $7. (You can get 16-ounce Bud Chelada for the same price: Budweiser and Clamato, premixed in the can.)