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.)
The zone is also where you’ll find sportscaster Jim Laslavic sitting on a raised stage under the tent for Rock 105.3 (San Diego’s Chargers Station/ This is why we ROCK!), gazing off into the middle distance and talking intently into his headset. Later, during the game, the JumboTron will show ads for Chargers Gameday (every Sunday morning on KFMB-TV) and Football Night in San Diego on NBC 7/39, as well as the Chargers Power Hour (Thursday nights from 5:00 to 7:00 on XTRA sports radio 1360 AM). The setup seems happily symbiotic: the Chargers need the local coverage to help sell tickets (the team narrowly avoided blacking out the game against the Raiders on September 14), and the local media gets to hitch its cart to a celebrated corporate enterprise that garners national attention.
Hopping on the Brandwagon
Besides the Bud Light Power Party zone, a trip to a Chargers game will acquaint you with Jerome’s Furniture (Jerome’s Best Seat in the House), Pepsi Max (Punt-Pass-Kick Challenge), San Diego County Credit Union (Field Goal Challenge), Union Bank (free Chargers’ checks!), and the Brigantine (Greatest Chargers/Chargers moments poll), plus Gatorade, Amtrak, and Carl’s Jr. (replay sponsors). That’s not a comprehensive list; that’s just what sticks in memory. Who woulda thunk that an event held in Qualcomm Stadium could feel so corporatized? Attending a football game is better than watching it on TV in all sorts of ways. (Watching Philip Rivers heave a pass 43 yards downfield to Vince Jackson, for example, you get a sense of the strength and precision involved that just doesn’t come through when the little figures are performing on the screen.) But on TV, you don’t notice the commercials so much.
Outside the Power Party zone, the masses are having an unbranded blast. A couple sits on beach chairs behind their truck; perched on the cooler between them are two buckets of chicken wings, a tub of Red Vines, a couple of Bud Lights, and a radio. That’s all it takes for a party, but, of course, many people go in for a bit more. Rod Prida meets a bunch of his friends — all club-level season-ticket holders — at pretty much the same spot every home game, next to a strip of sidewalk between the stadium and the Porta Pottis behind the scoreboard. “We normally get here about three hours before game time, so that we can get our spot and have a couple of beers before the game. The menu changes every week. That guy over there owns the Barbecue Pit, so he’ll bring food from there. Or we’ll do brats. This week, it’s carne asada” — heaps of it, cooked on a tabletop grill, chopped with a jumbo cleaver, and stuffed into burritos with canned beans, homemade guacamole, and maybe some habañero salsa. It’s far more meat than the group can eat; as game time approaches, they start offering it to fortunate strangers as they pass by. “Want a burrito?”
Sometimes, if the traffic leaving the stadium is heavy, they’ll have a follow-up session after the game, “just to socialize and scream at Norv” — Turner, the Chargers’ coach. Last week, the Chargers mounted a comeback against the Baltimore Ravens that was squelched when running back Darren Sproles got dropped behind the line of scrimmage on a fourth-and-two by linebacker Ray Lewis. “I think that was Norv’s crappy coaching more than anything. With ten seconds left in the half, he went for the field goal on third down instead of running another play. And then, on the last play of the game, he tried to run the ball. We were throwing the ball all day; why change?”
Especially considering the team’s running game this year. “I think we’re favored by four today,” says Prida. “It was at six, but now it’s down to four — LT is out again, and that probably lowered the point spread.” The game-day magazine lists LaDainian Tomlinson as the starting running back for the day, but the ankle he twisted two weeks back against the Oakland Raiders is proving more troublesome than anticipated. And Sproles hasn’t been able to pick up the slack. “I think we’re 30th out of 32 teams with the run this year. That’s not good — without the threat of the run, the defense can tee off on Rivers. And running increases time of possession; when you run the ball, you can run the clock down.”
Part of the reason Prida knows these stats is because he’s a fan. Another part is because he participates in the Pacific Seafood football pool. Every Friday, he and 41 others pick a winner for each of that weekend’s 13 games. Then he assigns a point value to each game: 13 points for the most certain victory, 12 for the next most certain, and so on, all the way down to 1. If your team wins, you get those points. Every member contributes $80 per season; first place for a given week takes home $130, second gets $65, and third gets $21.
After week six, Charger Rod was running 24th with 508 total points; poolmate Mike Fleming was three spots ahead with 513. Fleming has been in the Pacific pool for the past ten years, minus a two-year break when he couldn’t seem to put together a winning week. Just before the action got started on week seven, I sat down with him to hear how he made his picks. “I look at the standings on NFL.com, and that’s pretty much it,” he began. “Some people will check the injury reports and the stats, but they don’t necessarily win because of it.
“Usually, if it’s a close game” — with no clear favorite — “then I’ll go with home field advantage. I give home field a high priority — some places, you just don’t win there. You don’t win in Denver or Pittsburgh. And you go with the hot teams — though you take a risk picking these 5–0 teams, because eventually they’re going to lose. Denver is going to be going to Baltimore pretty soon, and they’ll be due to lose.” (As it happened, he was right — on November 1, Baltimore handed Denver their first loss of the season.) “And Detroit, at 0–6? They’re due to win.” (Right again: September 27 saw the Lions defeat the Washington Redskins for their first win of the season.)
But unless you’re a coldhearted gambling machine, love tends to muck up even the most levelheaded process. “Last year, the Chargers went 8–8, so that means I lost eight of my games” — Fleming won’t bet against his boys. “They were high-point-value losses too, because they had all that talent” — they should have won! “They just didn’t put it together. And I like Chicago, but they cost me a lot of points last year. Right now, I have emotional attachments to New Orleans — I like Brees — and Minnesota, because I think Brett Favre’s coming out of retirement is a great story. And I like Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. I can’t stand his brother Eli, because I’m a Charger fan,” and Eli slipped away from San Diego to New York, where he led the Giants to the championship. “But I did pick him to win this Sunday, even though I’ll be rooting for Arizona.”
Sometimes, however, antipathy is enough to govern the bet. “Washington is due to lose again,” observed Fleming, “but I picked Washington over Philadelphia this week, because Philadelphia gave a win to the Oakland Raiders. So I don’t like them right now: ‘You can’t beat the team I hate? Then I hate you.’ How’s that for emotional involvement? It’s different from baseball — there, you’re looking at 162 games. In football, you’ve got 16 games, and you can be done for the season if you lose 5, the way New England did last year. They went 11–5 and didn’t make the play-offs. Your game is on Sunday or Monday, and you have five or six days until the next game. You read the paper, and you listen to the radio, and each day the anticipation gets bigger. Then your game is played, and it’s either tragic or phenomenal, and then it builds toward the next week.”
At least, if you’re a fan. Like Prida, Fleming is frustrated with Coach Turner, and emotion is a big part of the problem. “He’s a monotone, flatline emotionality coach. Football’s an emotional game; you’ve got to fire those guys up. The Chargers haven’t scored a touchdown in their opening drive in something like 20 games. That’s the coach. Always coming from behind defeats the troops.”
Back to the parking lot, pre-Miami. “Do you want a taco?” asks Jadette Lowery as I admire the array of food spread out across the tailgate of her pickup truck. “These are dolphin tacos,” she says with a smile, gesturing at the pile of battered fish warming in tinfoil atop a nearby kettle grill. “Last week, for the Ravens, we had Cornish game hens.” She’s kidding about the dolphin, and she’s quick to note that “for the Broncos, we’ll just have chicken — no horsemeat.” Together with her friend Mary Kingsley, she has been up since 4:00 a.m. preparing the spread: Mexican rice with cactus, homemade pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, sliced lime, refried beans, shredded cheese, and all that battered fish. Come to think of it, I do want a taco.
A few minutes later, Lowery and Kingsley carry plates full of food to their crowd, gathered under a couple of shade tents. I wander down the gentle slope of the lot toward the row of limousines in the section cordoned off by blue plastic flags. Six fans gather under a tent set up next to a Chrysler 300 stretch job. (One local service offers you eight hours of such service — including drinks! — for $749.) Past the limos is section H2, surrounded by a chain-link fence — the broad uniformity of Qualcomm gets properly carved up come game day (location, etc.) — and just inside the fence is where the Silvas have set up camp. When Dad first nailed down his season tickets, the Silvas did their tailgating in the lot’s RV section, but for the past two seasons, they’ve been here.
A long black beach chair emblazoned with the Chargers’ logo sits empty in the shade, a tribute to the man who bought the tickets and found the spot before he passed. More chairs line the left side of the tent; tables with warming trays line the right. Today’s feast includes tri-tip slathered in a sweet sauce, intensely yellow egg salad, beans, and chicken grilled on-site, skewered between chunks of tomatoes and onions. Armando takes a bite, and a tomato explodes all over his shorts. “No more tomatoes!” he exclaims. “But at least the jersey is clean, so I’m still good.”
Armando packed the truck at home and unloaded it upon arrival; his mother Shelia got everything ready beforehand. “Put in something about how they always fight in the morning before the game,” pleaded Troy. “Him telling her to hurry up; her telling him to shut up.”
“They always lie to us about when they’re leaving,” complains Shelia. “They’ll say they’re leaving an hour before they are, just so we’re ready.”
“And she’s still half an hour late!” marvels Armando.
Shelia wears a girl-cut powder blue #21 jersey — Tomlinson’s number. But these days, she’s thinking about #83, Vince Jackson. “I love LT, but there’s somebody new I’m checking out,” she says. “I saw him on a video clip, where they were doing a fund-raiser for kids. The Chargers giving back; that caught my attention. And then when I looked at him, I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ I just need to find the right female jersey.”
Troy is wearing Antonio Gates’s #85, also in powder blue, while his brother Matt wears Merriman’s #56 in navy. “If I bought a new one,” he says, “it’d be Antonio Cromartie [cornerback, #31] — because he’s the best, the fuckin’ best. But I can’t see spending the money. Maybe when this one starts tearing up. I’d love to get it autographed, then hang it up and never wear it again.”
Shawne Merriman was recently arrested for allegedly assaulting reality television personality Tila Tequila. However, no charges were ever filed, and the case is now closed — and the episode doesn’t seem to have hurt his popularity. Besides Matt’s, I see a host of Merriman jerseys at the game, many of them on women. Still, says Armando, fanhood goes only so far. “Say Vincent Jackson got traded away. I think he’s a talent, but at the same time, the guy’s got some DUIs and off-the-field issues he needs to resolve. When I was a kid, I idolized all these guys. Those are the guys I looked up to. I’ve got a nephew — he’s only six years old, but I’m shaping him toward being a Charger fan, and I don’t want him looking up to people that way. ‘Oh, it’s cool that he excels on the field, so don’t worry about off the field. He can drive drunk when he wants.’ ” Not that he imagines there was ever a time when things were terribly different. “I think it gets publicized more now, that it was swept under the rug back in the day. And I think people know that. It’s probably why people are closer to these guys today — both the good and the bad is more publicized. They feel like they know them a little bit more.”
The Chargers are Armando’s team, but his loyalties to this or that player once he leaves the squad depend on circumstance. He still likes Drew Brees, who got shipped out because general manager A.J. Smith wanted Philip Rivers. “I think he handled being traded correctly and that we didn’t do as well as we could have. But I root against the Giants because they have Eli Manning,” who famously stated that he wouldn’t play for San Diego if they drafted him. “Can’t stand the guy.”
And if the Chargers pulled up stakes and moved out of town? “It’d break my heart. I’d almost root for people to beat them.”
The Silvas count themselves among the surprising number of tailgaters who watch football on TV while they prepare to watch football in the stadium. A Honda generator thrums away in one corner of their setup, pumping electricity to a flat-screen Polaroid TV, a Pioneer receiver, and a DirecTV box borrowed from one of the attendees. Armando’s cousin Troy points the satellite dish between two particular houses on the southern ridge above Mission Valley, searching for the signal. “You have to aim it there,” says Armando. “We learned this from all the people we studied.”
The day grooves toward its midpoint. There is beer, and there is football, and there is family. There is also Jackie from Sycuan, clad in Alyssa Milano jeans with Charger bolts on the back pockets. “We have a Sycuan skybox,” she explains, “but Shelia’s brother was married to my sister, and so we’ve been in the same family for years. When her husband passed away, I stepped up and bought his ticket and started coming here” for the pregame warm-up. “This is better; it’s more family-oriented. They introduce me to people as Auntie Jackie.”
After a sandwich, a skewer, and some more wandering, it’s time to head inside — past the guy selling Filet o’ Fish signs, past the cutout of the Simpsons sea captain holding a dolphin and roaring, “Arrrr — they blow.” (In his other hand, he grips a dead cat by the neck; the caption reads, “This cat ain’t so wild,” a reference to Miami’s option-heavy Wildcat offense.) Through security, listening to the recorded warning that privately taken pictures and video had better not show up on the internet. Up, up, up the circular ramp to the bargain-priced (I paid $67) family section, where your behavior is supposed to be kid-friendly. And it is; the rudest thing I hear is a fan shouting, “Where you at, Merriman? You need to stay away from the Tequila!” a reference to the linebacker’s arrest. The ban on alcohol, however, is ignored.
Beer and Football!
Inside the stadium, a Coors will cost you $8.75; a Gordon Biersch, $9.75. But even if the price doesn’t hold you back, there are controls on the flow of amber goodness. “All alcohol sales will stop at the conclusion of the third quarter,” reads the sign by the concession stand. “Service limit: two alcoholic drinks per transaction per person until the end of halftime. Third quarter: one alcoholic drink per transaction per person.” Registered designated drivers are entered into a drawing for Anheuser-Busch merchandise. And throughout the game, there are reminders from both players and fans to keep things under control. “You’re responsible for your language, actions, and behavior. It’s about being responsible. If you’re going to drink, have a designated driver. Most of all, it’s about the game. This is America’s Finest City; let’s be America’s Finest Fans.… The Fan Code of Conduct: refrain from abusive language. Don’t throw objects on the field.” Violators face “ejection, prosecution, and the loss of season-ticket privileges.” Harshest of all, violators may be reported via text message — you never know who might be tapping away and sealing your fate.
September is Hispanic Heritage Month, and so the pregame show features Mariachi Real de San Diego playing while Ballet Xochitl twirls its bright skirts across the field. “For more than 20 years,” beams the announcer, “Señora Martha Sanchez has been teaching area youngsters, educating them in Hispanic history, culture, and dance.” The cameras zoom in on happy children as they spin, and up it goes on the JumboTron. I can’t believe the sweetness — is this a pro football game?
Yes it is. The kids and the mariachis depart the field, and here come the Charger Girls, lining up to form a corridor leading out from the mouth of an inflatable Chargerdome. “And here come your AFC West San Diego Chargers,” cries the announcer, and boom go the cannons and whoosh go the rockets up above even where I’m sitting. As each starter hears his name, he trots out through the corridor, and a great cheer goes up, and two more rockets burst in the heavens. Darren Sproles gets the biggest shout of the bunch, but the fans are happy to see everyone, happy to shout and whoop, happy to revel in the spectacle. When the Coast Guard sends two Jayhawk helicopters buzzing over the stadium after the national anthem, it seems only right that they should be here. When Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” starts up before the kickoff, it seems perfectly natural (though it does get a bit old after the fifth or sixth go-round).
The game? The game is a parade of thrills, jolts, and disappointments, followed by more thrills, jolts, and disappointments. The cheering swells, inexhaustible, behind play after play. When Miami fumbles on the goal line after carving through our defense, I get my first taste of bedlam. It’s great. Even though the crowd up here seems as if it’s half Miami fans, the shouting is almost tangible. I get it again when the Chargers finally punch in a touchdown with 2:02 left in the third quarter, the cannons firing. A dolphin’s chirp sounds over the PA. “Hear that?” a father asks his son. “That’s Flipper, caught in the net.”
Of course, there’s a fair amount of standing around between plays and even more between quarters. Time for a distraction. “Now, we call your attention to the west end zone,” booms the announcer. “California Girls!” And there they are, golden pom-poms glittering in the sun so that you can follow ’em even from way up here: the Charger Girls, our very own professional cheerleaders, twirling, kicking, bending, thrusting, shaking, swiveling, stretching, jumping, throwing their hair from hither to yon and back again, and collapsing into an artful arrangement as the song comes to a close. (Here, the reader may be tempted to think that I just dipped into my Big Book of Gerunds and picked a dozen or so at random. But I didn’t.) An older dude a few rows below me, his tanned torso uncomplicated by any sort of shirt, dances along; no one seems to mind. The announcer comes back on, beaming. “The hottest dance team in the NFL: your Charger Girls!” and the fans applaud.
Surreal hiccup: Somewhere around the third quarter, the PA fires up Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” and the crowd shouts along. “Just a small-town girl/ Living in a lonely world…” There are 67,320 fans here today; even if only a third of them are singing, it’s an amazing sound. I’m half-tempted to look around for some sign that we’re in a music video.
By the fourth quarter, the score is 16–6 San Diego, and the fans start trickling out to beat the traffic. A comeback seems unlikely; Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington has been gone since the second quarter with a shoulder injury, and backup Chad Henne seems overwhelmed. Final score: Chargers 23, Dolphins 13.
A few weeks later, I head back down to the Q for a follow-up session with the Silvas, this time for a Monday-night game against the Denver Broncos. They get there around noon; kickoff is at 5:30 p.m. Shelia had to go to work this morning instead of prepping the food, so Troy picks up pollo asada from Tortilleria Salsa Market in El Cajon. “It’s a tortilla place, but they also do all this. Everything is made fresh today,” he assures me — the salsa, the guacamole, etc. The marinated thighs await the portable grill. Armando made the rice and picked up beans.
Once things are set up, Shelia breaks out a plastic water bottle filled with Patrón, pours a round, and raises a toast to the Chargers. After that, the group switches to Coors Light, Fat Tire, and blue Captain Morgan coconut rum Jell-O shots stored in individual salsa containers.
The team is coming off a tough loss in Pittsburgh that left them 2–2, and the Broncos are undefeated. Hopes are high, but it’s tough to hear the trio of Denver fans chanting, “Five and oh! Five and oh!” as they walk past. “How’d last season work out for you?” calls Armando, reminding them of the team’s spectacular collapse. (Denver was the first team in NFL history to be up three games in their division with three weeks left in the season, only to lose all three games and surrender the division title to San Diego.) Even so, the swagger belongs to Denver.
“We’re an elite team this year,” says Armando. “We’re Super Bowl contenders.” Or at least, we were supposed to be. “That’s what this city wants and has been waiting for, and that’s why we’re bellyaching now. We’re dissatisfied. We have these high expectations, maybe because we’ve been a bottom-of-the-barrel kind of team for so long — my whole life.” We did go to the Super Bowl in ’94, of course, but once there, they got stomped by San Francisco, 49–26. “My mom and dad lucked out; they got to go to the Super Bowl and everything. But we got taken out; it was not a proud place to be wearing your jersey.”
Laurie, a Sycuan server and card girl who has joined the Silvas today, has an even sadder story. “My dad is an original season-ticket holder for Oakland…”
“Don’t put that in there,” jokes Armando. “Raiders fans don’t get invited to the tailgate. You see how she had to dress” — blue Charger jacket, yellow shorts.
“I’m all spirited!” says Laurie. Anyway: “My poor brothers and dad. When the Raiders had their Super Bowl in San Diego in 2003, they didn’t win tickets in the raffle. They flew down here and stood outside with a sign. They got one offer that my dad almost took, but in the end, he didn’t.”
“My dad went out and bought a Tampa Bay Buccaneers hat, just because of that game,” comments Armando. “He’s never owned anything but Chargers and Padres hats. I was, like, ‘What the hell?’ He said, ‘They beat the Raiders!’ ”
Laurie says she hasn’t gotten any family static over her attendance in Charger blue. “I told my dad. He hates the Broncos. I think he’d rather see the Chargers win.”
“It’s complicated,” agrees Armando.
Talk turns to the players and what’s gone wrong. Armando says he keeps track with “Chargers.com, ESPN, whatever I can get my hands on. ESPN kind of stays on the TV all day. I think Norv’s kind of got to get it in gear. I understand that everyone coaches in their own way, but I’d like to see some more passion out of him. I think LT is back from his injuries; it’s just that our offensive line can’t open any holes. Yes, he’s older, and he seems to go out of bounds more, but you can’t blame the guy. He’s been getting beat up for 11-plus years. And for the first 5 or 6 years of his career, we were horrible, and we rode him. We ran him 40 times a game, and he was a superstar for us. So I think he deserves respect.”
The couple in the next space wanders over and joins in the conversation: Rob and Jennifer Hyk from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They’re here to see our team win. “We came to San Diego on our honeymoon eight years ago,” explains Jennifer, “and while we were here, we came to a Chargers game and a Padres game. He’s been a Chargers fan ever since. We have a nine-month-old son, and I really liked the name Dane. He didn’t want the name; he said, ‘People will say you named him after LT.’ But after labor, he said, ‘If you want to name him Apple Turnover, I would be down with it.’ So we named him Dane, and when he went to work, people gave him crap. It turns out he was born on the 21st,” LT’s number. “We didn’t do it on purpose. But, yeah, we’ve got Chargers onesies and all that kind of stuff. My mom’s staying with him right now — we didn’t bring him to get his forehead signed or anything.”
It’s a good story, but the whole time, I’m thinking: “Wow. A Chargers game on your honeymoon. Are you that rare creature, the Happy Football Wife?” “At our house, you either absorb it or you’re miserable. I enjoy it. What I didn’t realize was that DirecTV was a gateway drug. You get your NFL Sunday Ticket, and you can get all the games. But there’s another package you can get called SuperFan, and that includes something called the Red Zone Channel. You know how you flip around from game to game, looking for the best action? This eliminates the need for flipping; every time a team gets into the red zone” — inside the opponent’s 20-yard line — “they cut to that game. It’s kind of awful, because it’s relentless. But it’s 17 weeks of the year. It could be worse — he could be a baseball nut.”
Her only concern: “We’ve got another day and a half before we go home. I made him promise me — I said, ‘I will go with you, but you have to swear to me that if we lose, you will not be grumpy and ruin the rest of the vacation.’ He said, ‘No, no, no — I won’t. But we’re going to win.’ I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ ” But she’s smiling as she says it.
A little later, she sidles up to me and offers, almost in a hush, “When you see all the merchandise, all the passion that people invest in the team, and then you hear about owners moving teams, blacking it out if they don’t get their money from luxury boxes…it makes me want to vomit. If you added up what people here have spent…they want to get every last penny out of the fans.”
Husband Rob is wearing a dark blue LT jersey. “I got this on eBay,” he says. “It was a ‘best offer’ jersey.” He’s hesitant to discuss the price in front of his wife, but, he says, “It was under $100. I’ve got a Rivers and a Cromartie and a Tomlinson — that one cost me the most. They’re all sewn.” He’s also got two “San Diego Chargers scrub caps — a buddy of mine who’s a Browns fan found them for me. I’m a nurse anesthetist, and I get to put a lot of Broncos fans to sleep. I like to give them a little jab right before they get knocked out. ‘They’re 5–0, but how great would they be if they had Jay Cutler?’ ” — the quarterback Denver sent to Chicago before the start of the season. “ ‘The Broncos are one player away from the Super Bowl, and he’s in Chicago. Nighty-night!’ ” It’s hard to tell if he’s entirely serious, though it does make a good story.
There’s a reason Rob has the SuperFan package. “The NFL has become something of a monster for me,” he admits. “I’ve found a way to make the NFL season last for 12 months out of the year. There aren’t 24 hours that go by when I’m not on the Union-Tribune website, reading everything from Nick Canepa, Tim Sullivan, Kevin Acee. Acee probably thinks I’m some kind of stalker; I like to air my dirty laundry over the internet, and I’ve emailed him. He’s replied a couple of times.”
If the NFL is a monster for Rob, then it’s a monster with lightning bolts coming out of its ears. “Everyone in South Dakota thinks I’m crazy for traveling out of state on the opening weekend of pheasant season — we may be the only state that gets to shoot its state bird. I said, ‘No — I’m going to a football game.’ Next weekend, I’ll be shooting our state bird, and on my way back home, I’ll be listening to Josh Lewin and Hank Bauer call the game on Sirius satellite radio. I’m a pretty rabid fan. Satellite radio is on a three-second delay, and so I’ll pause my live television and restart it so that I can watch it with the San Diego radio call.”
Eventually, the group gets itself fed and then settles down to a few hands of poker. They even bring out a proper table for the occasion. Everyone’s feeling pretty cheerful by this point, but the fates are against us: Denver wins 34–23.
After the game, Armando was so low that he couldn’t bring himself to talk to the Hyks. “I just kind of sat there,” he recalls, “and waited for everybody to get ready and drove home. Even the next day, people were coming over, and I was saying, ‘You don’t want to talk to me right now.’ But if we win, I’m on top of the world.”