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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.

“I’d rather read a book or look at pretty pictures.”

Colleen doesn’t care much for football. Her husband Philip says she’s the exception to his theory that married women learn to love the game through their husbands.

It’s the season’s first evening of Monday night football, and the Chargers are playing the Kansas City Chiefs. A big-screen television blasting the game takes center stage in the spacious, light-filled living room/kitchen of the Escondido home the couple shares with Colleen’s mother. Downstairs in the den, where it’s carpeted, cozy, and dim, another big-screen is also tuned to the game.

“September through January, football is always on,” Colleen says. “Constantly.”

It doesn’t bother her, though. Not because she’s a saint, but because Philip loves football, and “it would just be a problem to have a problem with it,” she says.

This evening, Colleen sits at the computer downstairs playing Bejeweled (a puzzle game) and shopping on Amazon while Philip does his homework in front of the television in the next room and feeds Cheez-Its to Artemis and Cocoa, the two dogs at his feet. Yesterday, while Philip spent the day watching football, she read three books and a story.

Yes, three full-length books and a short story. No Mercy, by Sherrilyn Kenyon, she bought for her Nook e-book reader. The other two books (Evermore by Alyson Noël and Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger) and the story (“The Girl on the Beach” by Charles Todd) she got for free — one of the perks of owning a Nook.

“I’m a voracious reader who tears through books,” she says. “To the point where other things get left undone.”

Reading is part of the reason Colleen doesn’t mind that football season keeps Philip occupied.

“I don’t mind having the time to myself,” she says. “It works out okay by giving us something we can do together — if I choose to.”

At the end of the first quarter, Philip pops his head into the office and says, “We’re tied.”

“Look at that smile,” Colleen says. “Only sports can give him that smile.”

Colleen has her own theories about football. Citing Mayan soccer, Roman chariot racing, and English jousting, she concludes that men’s need for competition is an “obvious” part of life and culture. “They not only need competition, but they need to talk about that competition with other males,” she says. “I think it’s probably biological.”

Men, she theorizes, are into the “game” of the game: the trades, the statistics, the tackles, and the plays. And for women who like football, Colleen suggests it’s probably more about socialization. “It’s something to talk about with other people, to think about, or to plan for. A place to go, something to do with their sweetheart.”

Although Colleen is the exception to Philip’s married-women-adapt-and-learn-to-like-football theory, she does occasionally live out the football-with-my-sweetheart socialization process of her own theory. “If we’re out somewhere where football is on TV, I’ll kind of watch it with him and ask questions,” she says, “like about Tomlinson and why we hate him.”

Colleen was a cheerleader in junior high and high school, and even back then, she preferred the social aspects of cheerleading over the rah-rah factor. Born and raised in San Diego, she claims that if she were to choose a team, it would have to be the Chargers.

At the same time, if it weren’t for Philip, she’d never watch football.

“I’d rather read a book, surf the internet and read the news, or look at pretty pictures,” she says.

A few minutes into the second quarter, Colleen abandons her Facebook page to join Philip and the dogs on the couch.

These days Philip doesn’t spend as much time watching football with the guys as he used to. He’s trying to avoid “getting drunk on Sundays,” he says. “It’s easy to drink a little extra when you’re watching the game with your friends.”

When they do host football parties, Colleen does not hang out in the kitchen, playing hostess. “For the football parties, it’s the guys’ thing,” she says. “They barbecue carne asada, and they have their beer and their chips. Everybody brings boy food.” Whatever wives or girlfriends are along might watch the game for a few minutes, but then they usually join Colleen for a jaunt to Starbucks or to play games on the computer.

Philip jokes that because Colleen isn’t enamored of football, and therefore glued to the television during games, she has no excuse for not serving cookies and Buffalo wings to his guests.

“I have plenty of excuses,” she says, giggling.

For the next few minutes, she sits, saying nothing and staring absently at the television until Philip informs her, “Our rookie just fumbled.”

To prove she understands the lingo, she says, “A rookie is a first-year player, and fumble means to drop the ball. Do I get a cookie?”

“Only if you name the rookie,” Philip says.

She can’t.

Lightning’s Girl

In the three-plus years since Lightning’s Girl joined the BoltTalk.com forum, she has posted 3385 times, for an average of 2.47 times per day. Her About Me page on the site reads, Interests: God and Family first, then CHARGERS football!

∗ ∗ ∗

Date: July 13, 2010
Time: 6:12 p.m.
Thread Title: SHIT, this place is dead!!! Offseason sucks!
Thread started by: Lightning’s Girl
Post # 1: Lightning’s Girl
Just so ya know…I HATE the OFFSEASON!!!!!!!

∗ ∗ ∗

For Lightning’s Girl’s family, the off-season might be the best part of the year.

“I’ve got two sons and two daughters, and not one of them is a football fan,” says the 51-year-old nurse and grandmother of four. “It’s probably because of me. I do get emotional during the games. I stomp around. I jump up and down. I cuss. And, oh my gosh, when I smoked? I’d go through a pack a game.”

Her voice is deep and throaty. When she laughs, which she does often, it’s easy to imagine a puff of smoke escaping along with the sound.

∗ ∗ ∗

Date: September 1, 2010
Time: 5:01 p.m.
Thread Title: San Diego Chargers Near Bottom of Most Valuable NFL Teams List
Thread started by: CoronaDoug
Post # 3: Lightning’s Girl
Bite your tongue!!! The Bolts must stay in San Diego…moving them to LA would be sacrilege of the worst order.

∗ ∗ ∗

Lightning’s Girl grew up in Ramona and has “essentially lived and died with this team every year for over four decades.” This, even though she lives in western Oregon and hasn’t been to San Diego in at least ten years.

“Shoot, I remember seeing Lance Alworth play in the late ’60s,” she says. “I remember watching the fans pour beer on Harland Svare when he was coaching. Oh, those were some really hairy years.”

Although she doesn’t recall her very first game, there is one in particular that she says she’ll remember for the rest of her life. It was October 1970, and “the whole end of the state was on fire.” The temperature was at least 105. Lightning’s Girl and her mother went to the stadium to watch the game while her father stayed home to hose down their chicken ranch and protect it from the flames.

“It was so weird because the sun was shining through the smoke,” she recalls, “and it looked like a huge copper penny.”

These were the days before cell phones, and Lightning’s Girl remembers that although the stands held 40,000 or so people that day, they kept getting called out of the stands over the PA so that by the time the day was over, there were only 25,000 people left.

“Ashes were falling all over everything,” she says, “and here these guys were still playing football in the middle of all this. It was kind of surreal, and I’ve never forgotten it.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Date: September 2, 2010
Time: 10:06 p.m.
Thread Title: Official Game Day Thread: Chargers @ 49ers – 9/2.
Thread started by: LightEmUp
Post #49: Lightning’s Girl
Shit. 1–3 in preseason. Hope things go better when it counts.

∗ ∗ ∗

During games, Lightning’s Girl wears an old Junior Seau jersey. Western Oregon, she says, doesn’t have much in the way of Chargers gear.

“Everything around here is 49ers, Broncos, Seahawks. And Raiders!” she exclaims. “I mean, who in the heck wants Raiders gear?”

Again, the throaty laughter.

Speaking of the Raiders, she jokes that Raider-hating is a “congenital” affliction. “As far back as I can remember, that’s just the way it was.”

Oakland, she says, “is a dirty town. I’ll never forget when my mother and I were on an airplane. We were going to San Francisco, and the stewardess — excuse me, ‘flight attendant,’ this was the ’70s — the stewardess was going on about how she could always tell when people from Oakland had been on the plane because they trashed it. She said she had to pick up crap and cigarette butts off the floor — you could still smoke on the airplane back then. My mother and I just sat there and laughed.”

She cackles, then says, in all seriousness, “I’ve been to Oakland. It’s not pretty there.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Date: September 14, 2010
Time: 7:01 p.m.
Thread Title: Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes the bug.
Thread Started by: Concudan
Post #4: Lightning’s Girl
I’ve said this for years, but I’m going to repeat it since the coaching staff doesn’t get it: they HAVE to start mixing up the play-calling better! Even my 5-year-old grandson knows that they’re gonna run on first down…

∗ ∗ ∗

Lightning’s Girl is disappointed at the team’s performance in the preseason and opening game of the season, but no matter what happens this year or in coming years, Lightning’s Girl is in it for life.

“San Diego tends to have a lot of fair-weather friends, unfortunately, and bandwagon jumpers,” she says. “But then there are some of us that are just hard-core Charger believers and have been for 40 years.”

This year, as every other, she has her fingers crossed. Her hopes are set on Ryan Mathews and Antonio Gates. “And of course Philip Rivers is fabulous,” she says. “I love him to pieces.”

“She’s hot and she watches football?”

Lisa’s Carlsbad home bears the mark of young children. A giant helium-filled number “five,” left over from her daughter’s fifth birthday party, floats in front of the fireplace mantle. Two guinea-pig-sized Zhu Zhu pets lie on their sides on a coffee table cluttered with tiny plastic cakes and coconut drinks, a miniature thatched-roof bar, and other accoutrements from a Barbie Hawaiian Vacation play set.

The children themselves sit on a pint-sized love seat and easy chair stationed on the floor in front of the coffee table. Eight-year-old Zane sports cowboy pajamas, and Talia wears the footed kind with red and pink hearts. The two play games on a Wii while they wait for their mother to come home from an early-evening run and crank up the Tivo. The Chargers–49ers game is probably almost into halftime.

By the time Lisa returns and changes into jeans and a navy blue T-shirt with a glittery yellow lightning bolt, her husband Mark has already started the game.

“We haven’t scored yet, have we?” Lisa asks, approaching a pile of freshly washed and not-yet-folded clothes piled to the right of the couch.

The question might be innocuous in other circumstances. In this case, it’s almost a warning, as in: You were supposed to wait. I’d better not have missed anything.

Just then, San Francisco’s Anthony Dixon breaks free and sprints for the end zone. Zane, who has recently decided that he will one day play for the 49ers, is clearly torn.

“No, no, no, no!” he shouts. And then, “Well, actually kind of yes.”

Both Lisa and Mark groan, and Lisa says, “It’s a little worrying that we won the first preseason game, but we can’t win any others.”

Then, it’s time to pause the game so she can get the kids’ teeth brushed and their little butts in bed.

“Go, Chargers!” shouts Talia as a final good-bye.

Once the kids are in bed, Mark and Lisa resume the game, sitting side-by-side on the couch. To hell with the laundry, Lisa has apparently decided.

“Volek is already in, in the first quarter?” Lisa asks, surprised to see the second-string quarterback on the field.

Mark explains that in final preseason games like this one, some coaches choose not to risk injury to their starting players.

Lisa’s love for football didn’t start with the Chargers. It began in Virginia, where she grew up watching the Redskins with friends and the youth group from her church. “It was definitely a fun, social event,” she says.

She all but abandoned the Redskins years ago when she and Mark moved to San Francisco. After a brief love affair with the 49ers, they moved to San Diego in 2000, and now it’s Chargers all the way. Some people, she says, can watch any football game, anytime, but her interest usually centers around her one chosen team.

“If it’s another team that has some sort of impact on the Chargers, then I might be interested,” she says.

She can’t promise that if she moves away from San Diego, another team won’t grow on her. But she has already proven that she’s no fair-weather fan. She and Mark bought their first mini-season pass shortly after their arrival to America’s Finest City, even though the team was “in the dumps.” Eight or nine subsequent years’ of season tickets have bolstered the relationship.

Kids, late babysitters, and the drive to the stadium from Carlsbad mean they often have to listen to the first quarter on the radio. And, yes, occasionally they do duck out early to avoid heavy traffic. But they also prove their fan status by attending open training-camp practices at least once a year. Plus, Lisa wears one of her two Charger T-shirts and her pretty gold lightning-bolt earrings to every game.

All conversations stop as the 49ers score. Lisa hits the rewind button several times, talks at the game officials as they review the play, and cheers when the touchdown is overturned.

Despite Lisa’s disclaimer that she’s not a fanatic face-painter, Mark calls her “a pretty devoted fan.” If he’s flipping through the channels and something about the Chargers is on ESPN, she’ll ask him to pause. This year, during the off-season, it was she who kept him updated about holdouts Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeal, who had not yet signed contracts even as the season began.

And, yet, there is a limit.

There are times when “enough is enough,” she says of Mark’s obsession with fantasy football. “When he’s on the phone long distance, on a conference call to Virginia for five hours doing his draft, I’m, like, ‘Okay, it’s time to eat dinner.’”

Mark has co-owned a team with his best friend from Virginia for seven or eight years and for the past two or three was even commissioner of a fantasy-football league. While Lisa thinks it’s great that he has this hobby, sometimes it gets in the way.

“When he’s rooting for his fantasy team, he’s watching whatever random game and asking the kids to be quiet. And I’m, like, ‘Come on, the poor kids have already sat through both of us watching the Chargers game. I think three hours is plenty.” She also says that as much as she loves her team, she’s “not going to put important life things on hold for football.”

Mark admits that he feels lucky to have landed a woman who likes football, especially since they’re both rooting for the same team. Despite her voiced opinions now, Lisa doesn’t complain to him much. Not these days.

“I’ve gotten used to it, I guess. There definitely were times where I thought, This is just ridiculous, because for me, it still is just a game.”

Lisa confesses that she thinks Mark’s lucky to have landed her, too. She doesn’t give him a hard time when he chooses football over kiddie birthday parties or other social functions. She remembers long ago overhearing one of Mark’s friends say something along the lines of “She’s hot and she watches football?”

There may have been an affectionate-but-manly shoulder punch involved, but who remembers these details?

“So, uh, is this a Chargers game?”

At 5:30 p.m. on the last Friday in August, a small crowd of Chargers fans gathers at Seau’s in Mission Valley to watch the team’s third preseason game. Aside from one little boy dressed — hat and holster — as Woody from Toy Story and running around the dining room on an imaginary horse, the rest of the diners and drinkers watch the restaurant’s 12-by-14-foot projection screen. About half have come dressed for the occasion in Chargers gear — jerseys, T-shirts, hats. Even a handful of the young female servers sport their baby blues and #17 jerseys. One breaks the mold in a tight-fitting referee shirt and red lipstick. The scent of pizza, beer, and french fries fills the air.

Into this scene walks Tina, a 37-year-old handbag designer and D.C. native who has come to join her friend Liz (a Saints fan) for dinner.

“So, uh, is this a Chargers game?” she asks as she sits down. “I guess the season has started.”

Liz laughs and claims to be unsurprised that last year’s attempt to convert Tina into a football lover didn’t take. “I thought if I could just teach her a little bit about the game, she’d get involved and then get addicted. That’s how it happened for me. But when we sat down to watch a game together, she fell asleep.”

Although this game, like the one against the Cowboys last week, won’t count for or against the Chargers’ season record, the crowd is animated, involved, and, clearly eager for football season to begin. They stand up from their burgers and brews, either to yell at the on-screen refs or to clap their neighbors on the back. At a table behind Tina and Liz, a woman eating onion rings calls out, “Jesus Christ!” and “Come ON!” every minute or so.

Less than ten minutes into the first quarter, the highly touted rookie running back Ryan Mathews sets up the Chargers’ first touchdown with two key rushes for nine yards. A table of four celebrates along with the rest of the crowd. A blonde woman who looks as if she’s already had a few drinks kisses the man next to her. A man with a handlebar mustache and a #24 jersey raises his arms touchdown-style, shouts, “Matthews, baby!” and then high-fives his wife.

Tina wants to love football, but she doesn’t understand it. The rules baffle her.

“I know the teams are trying to get the ball to the opposite sides,” she says. “But beyond that, I just start tuning out. I’ve had lots of people try to turn me on to it. I just can’t get turned on.”

But she keeps trying.

Last year, she joined a group of friends on ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ’Em, where she bet on every NFL game every week. Each person put $20 into a pot that would go to whoever had the most correct picks at the end of the season. Tina thought betting would give her a reason to pay attention to the scores, at least. She logged on to ESPN faithfully for the first three or four weeks. Her picks, she says, were “stabs in the dark.”

“I was, like, ‘Oh, I’ve been to New Orleans. I loved it. Let’s go with New Orleans,’” she says. “I also had a hometown affinity for the Redskins since I grew up outside of D.C.”

The funny thing is, even choosing randomly, Tina held the high score for the first two weeks of the season. “The betting did help keep me interested in the beginning,” she says, “but it didn’t make me watch it enough to get into it.” She thought maybe live action would help, too, so she joined her sister at a Chargers game last season.

“I think it was halfway through the game, and I was, like, ‘You mean the Chargers are wearing the dark blue and white? I thought they wore light blue and yellow,’” she says. “I’m telling you, my mind is not built for this. When I try to watch a game, I start thinking about what I need to buy at the grocery store.”

A few tables over, a young woman in large hoop earrings and false eyelashes snuggles up to her Matthews-jersey-wearing guy, giving the impression that she’s here as a favor to him. But, then, when wide receiver Malcom Floyd scores the Chargers’ second touchdown, she puts down her fruity drink and engages in a complex, private handshake with her man.

Liz asks if Tina can tell who’s winning the game. Tina looks up at the screen for a good, long time without saying anything. Liz laughs.

“I was looking for the words ‘Chargers’ and ‘Saints’ and trying to figure out what the SD and the NO stand for,” Tina says. “That’s a good example of why I can’t follow.”

So why does she keep trying? For one, it’s social, and she doesn’t like being the only one who doesn’t seem to get it. And, maybe more importantly, she’s single. “It would be good for developing a rapport with guys who like football,” she confesses.

Last year, the guy she was dating was a big football fan, and although she didn’t mind hanging out with him on Sundays and watching the games, she felt as if it was his world rather than something they shared.

These days, she’s got a new guy. It’s too new (and too early in the season) to know whether or not he’s into football. “I kinda hope he’s not,” she says. But if he is, she’ll keep trying.

In the final 23 seconds of the Saints–Chargers game, when the score is 29–21 Saints, Liz attempts to explain why it’s likely the Chargers won’t win this one.

“Do you know how many points a touchdown is worth?” she asks.

“Um, seven?” Tina says.

“Well, not exactly. It’s really six, and then they get a chance to score an extra point — ” Suddenly, Saints cornerback Leigh Torrence intercepts a pass intended for Shawnbrey McNeal. Liz stops talking, jumps up, and shouts, “Go, go!” The rest of the crowd screams, “No! No!!”

Eighty-seven yards and one Saints touchdown later, Liz claps and hoots with joy. She asks Tina, “Do you know what just happened?”

“They scored a touchdown?” Tina guesses.

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