Ten minutes into the second quarter of the Chargers’ second preseason game, a crowd in the end-zone View section of Qualcomm Stadium stands up to shout, “Raiders suck! Raiders suck!” But the Chargers are playing the Cowboys, not the Raiders. And the chanting crowd isn’t looking at the field. Instead, they stand with their necks craned to watch a fight that has broken out behind them, in the very top rows. They’re amped. It’s only the second time the Chargers have played in the stadium in seven months, and these fans are ready for the season — and the glory of all that Raider-hating — to begin.
Eventually, a gang of red-shirted Elite security employees and a couple of bona fide police officers come running up the steep aisles to break up the fight. When they escort two smiling Raider fans and a bloody Charger fan back down the steps to the exit, the chant intensifies.
One aisle away, oblivious to the commotion, an eight-year-old girl named Rachel watches the action on the field with a pair of binoculars as big as her head. Her dad, Sam, sits beside her.
“Ever since she was a little baby girl, she would sit on my lap and watch football,” Sam says. “She’d read the sports page with me and look at the pictures. I’d turn the page, and she’d go, ‘No, stop,’ and she’d want to look at the pictures some more.”
Finally, tonight, he’s brought her to her first live football game. On this late August evening, as the last rays of sun disappear over the western edge of the stadium, they share nachos and pass the binoculars back and forth.
“She watches the games with me at home, too,” Sam says. “Every time LT would score a touchdown, we’d do a high five, and we have our own little hand slap going.”
Rachel is too excited to sit still. Every few minutes, she heads down the steps and leans over the railing to get a better overhead look at the crowd, the cheerleaders, the goalposts, and the players. She wears a baby-blue Philip Rivers jersey, shorts, and pink, silver, and black Airwalks. A blonde braid swings from the back of her head.
A few years ago, a “pink jersey” trend began among NFL teams. Presumably in an attempt to attract female fans, each team offered versions of their most popular jerseys in pink. This evening, the View section is, aside from one pink Cowboys jersey, fairly pink-free. The ladies and girls in this crowd wear everything but. Some wear sneakers, some wear short shorts and heels. There are backless shirts, sandals, boots, and everything between. But “the pink jersey fad seems to have come and gone,” says one spectator.
Rachel’s mother Kathy didn’t know this when she went to buy Rachel’s jersey.
“Last year, we got her a sweatshirt that was pink and white and said ‘Chargers’ across the front,” Kathy says over the phone, two days after the game. “This year, we told her we were sorry we couldn’t get her a pink-and-white jersey because they were all out. She said, ‘That’s okay. The Chargers don’t wear pink and white.’”
Sam and Kathy agree that Rachel is a girlie girl. During the game, she watches the cheerleaders through the binoculars as much as she does the football players. Still, Kathy believes that if it weren’t for a kidney problem that limits the amount of sun and physical contact Rachel can have, or for the fact that there aren’t any leagues that would take her, “Rachel would probably play football.”
Kathy finds Rachel’s love for football amusing and likes that it’s something Rachel and Sam can rally around for their father/daughter time. Every so often, Kathy will sit down with them, but only when she’s “totally obligation-free” and “can just kick back and have a good time and watch the game.” But it’s not a priority to her, not the way it is with Sam, whom she calls a “die-hard fan.”
He’s such a fan that he “even watches the NFL channel where they’ll repeat three-hour football games from ten years ago. So, it’s on all the time on our 52-inch big-screen.” The announcers, Kathy says, get on her nerves after a while. But the hardest thing about football season is that Sam’s priorities shift.
“For example, we’re supposed to go to church every Sunday, but he’s, like, ‘It depends on the game schedule,’” Kathy says. “And he’ll say, ‘I belong to the Church of the NFL.’ He literally says that.”
Kathy grew up with four brothers in a football-loving family, so she understands Sam’s point of view. She doesn’t want to force him to go to church, and she doesn’t want to be forced to watch football. But the understanding grew more complicated once Rachel was involved. “Rachel will say, ‘Can I stay home and watch the game with Daddy?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, no. We’re going to church, and you can watch the rest of it when you get home.’ That kind of thing is a bit of an issue. I don’t want [football] to take priority over family things.”
Even while imposing limits, Kathy supports Rachel’s love of the game. After Rachel and Sam return to their La Mesa home following the Chargers’ disappointing, but ultimately irrelevant, preseason loss to the Cowboys, Kathy listens happily as Rachel recounts the trolley ride, things she remembered about the crowd, and the number of times she got to see the cheerleaders.
Sam, Kathy says, is a big part of why Rachel loves football. He taught her everything she knows. Kathy warns other football-crazed fathers that their daughters will either grow up to love the game or they’ll “be resentful of it, like, ‘Oh, Daddy cares more about [football] than me.’” But she also believes that if these fathers engage their daughters and make it fun, the way Sam did for Rachel, they might end up with girls who love football, too.