The Super Bowl Story
The Chargers’ first—and so far only—appearance at the NFL’s big dance wasn’t exactly the art of terpsichore. But they weren’t wallflowers, either.
Following his 1996 retirement from the National Football League, a premature exit made advisable by a series of concussions, Stan Humphries returned to his native Louisiana and a lifestyle far removed from the glitter and spectacle of professional sports’ most prominent stage. Currently, he is employed as athletic director at a small high school, coaching the girls’ basketball team and assisting the football program. It is conceivable, even probable, that some members of the student body are unaware that walking among them is the quarterback to have led the San Diego Chargers to a Super Bowl appearance.
One could make a case for the word “appearance” being used advisedly, for the record book suggests the Chargers did little more than show up that Sunday in January 1995. In the city where their most dramatic victory—the 41-38 playoff win over the Miami Dolphins—had been recorded 12 years earlier, Humphries’ edition was flogged, 49-26, by the ultra-smooth San Francisco 49ers. And the final score is misleading. It was 42-10 as the third quarter closed.
If the game had its goats—and it did—Humphries was not among them. “I thought Stan played well,” coach Bobby Ross said afterward. Indeed, his field leader completed 24 of 49 pass attempts for 275 yards and one touchdown. Humphries’ numbers, however, tarnish when matched with those of San Francisco’s Steve Young, the 49ers’ good—no, great—left arm. Young’s 24-of-36 produced 325 yards and an astonishing six TDs.
Humphries, it should be noted, had no one in his stable of receivers comparable to Young’s frequent target, the mercurial Jerry Rice. No one else in the NFL has, then or since. Rice grabbed 10 of Young’s tosses, covering 149 yards, and on three occasions handed the ball to an official in the end zone.
“We were a team based on ball control, which we desperately needed that day,” Humphries recalled recently. Instead—against an opponent so skilled several Chargers had said a near-perfect game would be necessary to win—this is how it began:
Returning the opening kickoff to his own 26-yard line, the Niners’ Dexter Carter was the victim of a flagrant face-mask penalty charged to San Diego’s Doug Miller, an assessment that advanced the ball to the 41. Awarding Steve Young field position of that quality is to invite precisely what happened, and with the usual precision. Three plays later, Jerry Rice was making his first end-zone handoff to an official. A total of one minute, 24 seconds had been erased from the clock. With 4:55 elapsed, it was 14-0. And so on.
As for ball control, the Chargers’ running game would produce a total of 67 yards that evening. Quarterback Young ran for 49.
So what happened during the two weeks between the Chargers’ stunning 17-13 upset at Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship contest and the debacle amid south Florida’s tradewinds? Humphries was special that afternoon in Pennsylvania, completing a third-quarter pass to tight end Alfred Pupunu for a 43-yard touchdown that erased most of a 13-3 deficit. He then led wide receiver Tony Martin, who was fleeing down the sidelines, with a perfect fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a 43-yard game-winner.
“We had a young team, and I tried to explain to the guys what they would be experiencing during Super Bowl week,” Humphries says. “I’d been there before [with the Washington Redskins], and there’s definitely a different type of atmosphere. It’s easy to get caught up in what’s going on around you and lose some focus.
“To an extent, I think that happened. We were in against a remarkable team, one clicking on all cylinders. We didn’t play very well, had some drops, missed some blocks, did some dumb things. And the bottom line is, they were better than we were at the time.
“I’m still pleased we were able to give the city a Super Bowl team. Our fans were very excited, still very supportive after we returned from Miami. It seemed like everyone, including many of our players, was saying, ‘We’re a young team, and now that we’ve done it once, we’ll be back.’”
He adds, “What people and many players don’t understand is how hard it is to get to a Super Bowl. I’d tried to explain that to our guys. You have some injuries, lose a few games the next year, and personnel changes begin. Coaches change. You need to win when you’re there. It’s very difficult to get back.”Fifteen years after the Chargers’ lone appearance, that message resonates.