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In the Beginning

Photo by Terry Leahy

In the beginning
A Veteran Sportswriter, who covered the Chargers from their first days in San Diego, reminisces about how the team came here—and came home

San Diego had the blahs. They set in following World War II, after which pretty much anything would have been an anticlimax for a community whose involvement in the war had been as pronounced as this one. The city slept.

What was needed was a catalyst, something to bind the citizens together, to lift up the place, to lend it a sense of well-being. While I could not have been aware of it at a time in my life when I had a decision to make, the Chargers would become such a catalyst.

My situation was this: Bob Williams, executive sports editor of The San Diego Union, had offered me the opportunity to pick up the Chargers beat. The team had committed to moving here from Los Angeles for the American Football League’s 1961 season. I told Williams I wanted to think about it. I thought about it for about five minutes.

Of course, I chose to “tag around” after what I would characterize in the public prints, likely more frequently than I should have, as “my little team.” The AFL did not possess much of a portfolio in 1961. But perhaps it would be able to establish itself as major league. Sportswriters want to be in the bigs.

I would hang around the Chargers for 25 years and put in an additional 10 years chronicling the NFL, which the newspaper defined as everything pertaining to the league not associated with the Chargers.

I did have at least one misgiving concerning shifting my journalistic shingle to the Chargers. Prior to the team’s pledge to show up here, I had been doing the preps and the Padres of the Pacific Coast League, then quartered at Westgate Park, a pleasant venue in Mission Valley. At this time, newspapers had no prohibition concerning their delegates serving as the official scorers of baseball games. The fee from the PCL was $30 a game. I didn’t get it all, but I got half of it; Earl Keller, the baseball writer for the Evening Tribune, received the other half.

When I chose to make the Chargers my assignment, I couldn’t help but think, “There goes the scoring money.” Lest you view this as crass, I should note that my salary was $98 a week.

The thesis that San Diego achieved a major-league identity through the Chargers’ arrival is entirely mine. Some scholars hold it was the establishment of the University of California, San Diego that had the greatest bearing on the city shedding its image of a sleepy border village lazing in the sun. I disagree. UCSD would not receive its first class of undergraduates until 1964. The university has, without question, had an influence on the area’s current technological bent, but the school had the Chargers out in front, clearing the way, in the same way a fullback does for a halfback.

The thing that is most striking to me as I look back (was it so long ago, so long?) is how, without reservation, the Chargers were received here. A town not known for welcoming change embraced the team immediately and with enthusiasm from the moment it showed up for its first preseason game in a Balboa Stadium on which an upper tier was being affixed. The site looked like a war zone. Construction spars stabbed the sky. Seating was on cement slabs. No matter. The fellows with the lightning bolts zigzagging across their headgear were exciting.

For how the Chargers were received, one man must be credited—Jack Murphy, sports editor of The San Diego Union. Murphy had a way with dogs, women readers and communities. He had the ability, possessed by few in his line of work, to shape an area’s thinking. After persuading Barron Hilton, the club’s owner, to shift the franchise to San Diego, Murphy championed the club’s presence here.

Later, his voice was the strongest in persuading the city-county electorate to approve the creation of the $27 million San Diego Stadium, with the Chargers taking up residence in 1967. The stadium was renamed for Murphy in 1981.

The place to begin here, however, would be Balboa Stadium, where I first encountered coach Sid Gillman in 1961. His mission was to inspect a facility created in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition. On the field, Gillman gathered up a hunk of turf and let it trickle through his fingers. Trodden by many feet, the turf had become hardly more than dust. Gillman was disgusted. He was a football purist. To him, it was an affront that a professional football team might have to perform on such a surface.

Balboa Stadium, of course, would be resodded. The Chargers quickly ingratiated themselves there, sweeping their first 11 games while instrumenting Gillman’s schemes. “Sir Sidney”—my term for a man I thought had some nobility about him—understood some things. One was that in order to have a forward pass, there had to be a passing lane. The passing game fascinated him. No one mastered it more fully, then or now.

After Gillman died at 91 in 2003, I told one of his daughters, Bobby Korbin, that Gillman was the most unforgettable person I had known. Just being around him was challenging. For 15 years, I saw as much of him as I did of my wife. I saw him in all of his moods, and he had some. He was a volatile individual who on some days did not wish to confer with the press. Knowing this, I still had to seek him out. Our association was not always the most amicable, but in the end, we had a perfect rapport. I like to think he understood what I was trying to do, and I know I understood what he was trying to do.

There have been others who have marked the club with their expertise. Don Coryell, certainly. Tommy Prothro, who lifted the team out of a moral malaise that in the 1970s had resulted in the franchise being disciplined for violations of the NFL’s drug policies. Eugene V. Klein, who knew how to live. Alex G. Spanos, Klein’s successor as the club’s ranking officer.

To me, however, more than anyone else, Gillman was the franchise’s defining personality. Football teams have personalities, and the Chargers took theirs from Sir Sidney and his preoccupation with offense. There was only so much you could do on defense, he would say. He wanted to deal with the football.

L.T. is fine, and Philip Rivers does nice things, but the players lodged in my mind are those from what could be classified as the early years. I would show up at Balboa Stadium well before the kickoffs to watch Paul Lowe warm up in that beautiful, hurdler’s stride of his. As Gillman would say of Keith Lincoln: “He kicks ’em aside.” John Hadl could compete, and he could aim a 50-yard pass as accurately as a 10-yarder. He had an exquisite rapport with Lance Alworth, “Bambi,” the most graceful creature in the forest. Any forest.

Big-league stuff, which the community would recognize. In doing this, the community itself became big league.

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