The Darkest, Saddest Place in Sports: A Los Angeles Chargers Home Game
We ventured into the StubHub Center for the Chargers home opener in Los Angeles this weekend. It was not for the fainthearted. Or really for anybody.
Photo by Michael Hafford
The Chargers are the saddest franchise in the history of sports. We don't give them enough credit. Maybe because San Diego was too sunny, or maybe because they never quite sink to the depths of the Cleveland Browns or the Philadelphia 76ers, but if you ask any Chargers fan they will immediately rattle off a litany of heartbreak that I would challenge anyone outside Buffalo to adequately match.
Last Sunday, the Chargers played their first regular season game in a city that doesn't want them to a tiny stadium half-full of opposing fans. Even in the parking lot at StubHub Center, the 27,000 seat home of Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, the gap was obvious. Visiting Miami Dolphins jerseys dominated.
StubHub, by the way, is an excellent place to see a football game. Since the venue is about a third the capacity of a typical NFL stadium, there's no upper deck and therefore no bad seats. It's like seeing football in a nightclub. Not that any Chargers fans noticed; hardly anyone came. I walked up to the box office about a half hour before kickoff and was moderately shocked to learn that I could still buy seats for $160. I say shocked, but I wasn't surprised; the stands were at about 60% capacity until the end of the first quarter.
The Chargers fans who did show up were nearly universally dejected. Before the game, a plane flew over Carson's StubHub Center carrying a banner reading "WORST OWNER IN SPORTS? DEAN SPANOS, PAY YOUR RENT!" The banner wasn't alone. I heard numerous calls for Spanos to sell the team and saw at least one shirt—in the Chargers' font no less—calling for the sale of the franchise.
Tim Finley, who could well be a member of the Fraternal Order of Real Beard Santas, was decked from head to toe in Chargers-branded apparel. He's been a season ticket holder for 32 years but sold all his games but this one.
"It's like having been married and having the woman walk out on you," he said of the team's move up to Los Angeles.
He attributes the move to greed on the part of the Spanos family, claiming the franchise increased in value from $800 million to $1.5 billion. He's wrong, but he's on the low end: the value went from $1.5 billion to $3 billion.
Another fan, Jonathan Giuliano, understood the move. He's 32 years old and has been a fan since birth. Uncharacteristically for the fans I spoke with, he was sanguine about the team's prospects.
"The city of San Diego didn't support the team like other NFL teams," he said. "There are lots of fans from [Los Angeles]. We have a QB, we're not starting from scratch. Nobody wants to be a Rams fan."
Dolphins fans, not notorious for traveling well, or even attending their team's home games, filled at least half the stadium. "Let's go Dolphins" chants broke out more often than their Chargers' equivalents. One came during the walk through the opening gates. I sat next to Marc Caress, a very friendly 43-year-old county attorney and Dolphins fan with a salt-and-pepper beard who said the sparse attendance was about the same as a typical Galaxy regular season game—he's a season ticket holder.
The Chargers managed to mess things up for the Galaxy, too, as the NFL-mandated that they replace metal bleachers with folding seats at StubHub, resulting in higher ticket prices for soccer fans—in some cases as much as $100 higher. The beer got more expensive, too, in the space of a day, from $13 at Galaxy games to $14 for Chargers games.
"I get the nickle-and-diming stuff," Caress said, "but it's ridiculous."
Even the refs didn't want the Chargers to move. Late in the fourth quarter, one of them announced a timeout for San Diego before correcting himself.
"The Los Angeles Chargers of San Diego," a Dolphins fan ahead of me howled. I couldn't argue with him.
The Chargers are, in fact, in Los Angeles, not that anyone wants them here—USC outdrew the Chargers and Rams combined last weekend—and losing football games in even more spectacular fashion than usual. Even Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti thinks the team should have stayed put. Maybe that's a rational response, to keep the most cursed football franchise as far away from your city as humanly possible. I can't say I blame anyone. The Chargers' history is a sordid one.
Perhaps the perfect early encapsulation of the early heartbreak was the 1982 playoffs, when the Chargers won an impossible game in Miami on the back of two (two!) blocked field goals, Kellen Winslow sacrificing his body so completely that it took two teammates to carry him off the field. Next, they played the Bengals at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. That game, the Freezer Bowl, was the coldest in terms of wind chill in NFL history. The effective temperature difference between the two games—from a humid 88 in Miami to a frigid -37 in Cincinnati—was 125 degrees. They lost by 20.
The Chargers' lone Super Bowl appearance, in 1995—a game they reached after overcoming second half deficits in their previous two playoff games—featured a quarterback matchup between Steve Young and someone named Stan "the Man" Humphries, a former Redskins backup and I-AA quarterback (who may sadly be third-best passer in Chargers history). The 49ers were favored by 18 ½. They won by 23.
Two years after their Super Bowl loss, the Chargers were in a no-lose situation at the top of the 1998 draft. Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf headlined the prospects that year. Manning was considered the more polished of the two quarterbacks, with a striking maturity and an NFL pedigree. Leaf, by contrast, had more physical tools and a much higher ceiling. But he didn't want to go to Indianapolis. So the Colts settled for Manning at first overall, and the Chargers got Leaf, who bounced out of the NFL by 2002 and was in and out of jail on drug-related offenses until 2014. His journey to sobriety is an inspirational story—he's now an ambassador for a chain of recovery communities called Transcend—but let's ask Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison about that 1998 season:
He told Sports Illustrated that it was "a nightmare you can't even imagine." "If I had to go through another year like that," he continued, "I'd probably quit playing." He didn't, winning his release from the Chargers after the 2002 season, and winning the Super Bowl with the Patriots the next year. He's just one of many Bolts that saw their fortunes turn more or less the second they departed the team.
Of course, nothing stays terrible forever. The team finished 1-15 in 2000, which gave them the top pick in the draft. They traded down and drafted LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees in the first and second rounds, hired Marty Schottenheimer before the 2002 season, and rattled off a series of successful seasons the franchise hadn't seen since the early 1980s. In 2004, the Chargers took Eli Manning with the first overall pick, but in a situation eerily reminiscent of Ryan Leaf six years earlier, Manning refused to play in San Diego. So they dealt him to the New York Giants for a series of draft picks, one of which was Philip Rivers, whom the Chargers drafted over Ben Roethlisberger. Manning and Rivers, two iconic morons (and, in Roethlisberger's case, alleged sex criminal) have both won two Super Bowls each.* Rivers sat on the bench until the end of 2005, when Brees suffered a torn labrum. Brees walked to the New Orleans Saints and promptly revitalized the city of New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, set passing records, and won the Super Bowl.
But the Chargers weren't slowed! In 2006, the team finished 14-2. They didn't make the Super Bowl. That would be because of their divisional round game against the New England Patriots, better known to Chargers fans as the Marlon McCree Game. Despite a typically poor series of decisions and bad plays—a muffed punt and the bizarre choice to go for it on 4th-and-11—the Chargers looked to seal a 21-13 victory when safety Marlon McCree picked off Tom Brady late in the 4th quarter. Of course, he tried to return the ball, fumbled, and had it scooped up by ex-Charger Reche Caldwell. Five snaps later, Caldwell then hauled in the winning touchdown pass. Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer would never coach in the NFL again and Caldwell would later Google his way to prison.
Oh, and things do not stop there. The Chargers have won 5 of their last 24 games decided by one score or less. Philip Rivers, renowned for his accuracy, has led the league in interceptions two of the past three years, beaten out only by the legendary Blake Bortles. Their losses have come in inconceivable ways. Last year, the Chargers were leading the Saints by 13 with less than seven minutes left. First round pick Melvin Gordon fumbled on first down to allow the Saints to drive 13 yards and bring the game within a score. On the Chargers' next drive, an untouched Travis Benjamin threw the ball on the ground to allow the Saints to drive for the winning score.
An article from last year headlined "Once again, Chargers find new way to fail," detailed holder Drew Kaser dropping the snap for the potential game-winning field goal against the hated Raiders. Last year, they lost to the Browns on Christmas Eve. Just last week, their undrafted but much-heralded kicker Yonghoe Koo—he hadn't missed inside 50 yards in his last college season, and was replacing the least accurate kicker in the league—made a game-tying kick. Of course, the Broncos had called time out. Of course, the Broncos blocked the next kick.
The fucked up thing is I actually enjoyed going through this litany, if only to remember seasons in which the team actually won games. The thing about truly sad teams is that they bring you within inches of the promised land and snatch it away from you. In the same way that bad smells have a hint of sweetness, which makes you keep sniffing and sniffing, trying to pick out that note, bad teams come within inches of glory before crushing your spirit.
Against this backdrop, I attended the first Los Angeles Chargers regular season home game in more than 55 years. (The team played one season in Los Angeles upon its founding in 1960). They opened the ceremonies in their new old hometown by inducting Tomlinson into whatever off-brand name the Chargers have for their ring of honor. The silence was deafening.
"Why don't you sit on the bench in a dark helmet again?!" one non-silent fan yelled, referring to the 2008 playoff game Tomlinson had to largely sit out due to an excruciating knee injury. The curse makes people do crazy things.
I wondered how the in-stadium director managed to find contiguous rows of Chargers fans to show on-screen during the game. I certainly couldn't spot more than a few blue jerseys in a row. The video board operator seemed to, at times, be throwing a bone to Dolphins fans. There was a strange segment in which Miami and Los Angeles were compared and contrasted. The Dolphins had Miami Vice, the Chargers had CHIPs. The Dolphins had sunrise, the Chargers had sunset. The Chargers had Shaq, the Dolphins had older Shaq.
A man representing himself as former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar was one of the Dolphins fans in attendance**. I caught up with fake Hagar—who is, by the way, pathologically friendly—on the concourse during the third quarter after he finished shaking hands with a half dozen fans. Earlier, I had walked by him and thought "that Dolphins fan looks a lot like a much older Sammy Hagar." It was not in fact, the actual Hagar. But I thought he was. He bemoaned the Charger's move.
"They should have worked something out like the Packers" he said of the city of Green Bay's ownership of their team. "I'm glad the Faders—I call them the Faders—are in Las Vegas but the Chargers should have stayed in San Diego."
More troubling than the Dolphins jerseys were the fans that came wearing jerseys from other teams entirely. In the parking lot, I began counting other teams' jerseys. A man named Memo wearing a Aaron Rodgers jersey described himself as "a die-hard fan." Of what? He shrugged; he just came as a carpool buddy. He was far from alone. The jerseys I saw: the Bears, Curtis Martin, a Seahawks 12th fan, Matthew Stafford, Mason Crosby, Terry Bradshaw, Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald, Jason Witten, Priest Holmes, Kevin Durant, a smattering of custom Broncos jerseys, Dak Prescott, Tim Couch, Bo Jackson, John Elway, Amari Cooper, matching A.J. Greens (on a father and daughter), Packers Charles Woodson, Brian Urlacher, two more Aaron Rodgers, Troy Polamalu, matching Packers Reggie Whites (on a husband and wife), Carson Wentz, and Anthony Barr. Of course, there were dozens more in team shirts and USC or UCLA jerseys. I gave those people a pass; at least they got the city right.
A moment of levity came in the second half as Antonio Gates, among the first to make the basketball-to-football transition that has since become cliche for pass-catching tight ends, set the record for all time tight end touchdown receptions. A nice video from Tony Gonzalez fell on deaf ears. So, too, did a highlight reel from a Raiders win.
"Why would they show Raiders highlights?" Caress asked me.
I shrugged. Nobody cared.
Oh, and a game was played. The game turned on a series of bizarre late decisions by both teams. The Chargers were driving late and trying to rush their kicking unit onto the field with ten seconds left. The Dolphins called time out, presumably to ensure they could get a last Hail Mary attempt after the kick was made. But all this did was give Chargers kicker Koo time to actually set up. The kick went up. It looked good. A roar went up. Had we won? Was my theory dead? Then I saw the Dolphins rushing the field. Wide right. But the refs were waving as if to review. No dice, it was just to get the Dolphins back onto their sideline so Jay Cutler could line up in the victory formation.
As I walked out into the parking lot in a daze, I saw a kid in an "All-In" Chargers shirt with tears streaming down his face. I wanted to go up to him and tell him to run far, far away. But he picked up his pace. He had to catch up to his dad. They both had a long way to go.
*An earlier version of this piece did not sufficiently detail the complicated machinations that led to the Chargers drafting of Philip Rivers.
**VICE Sports was duped by an apparently notorious Sammy Hagar impersonator. We regret the error, and pledge to investigate this matter further.