The San Diego Chargers have had more than their share of woes. They have not been a winner since the 1960s, they suffered through a pill-popping scandal, and their attendance has been among the worst in the NFL. But, lo and behold, the Chargers have now put together such a big-play attack that the new ticket-sales pitch is "Watch Lightning Strike." Indeed, of all the teams in pro football, none has such dramatic possibilities for sudden and exciting improvement as the Chargers.
For the 27,620 in San Diego Stadium last Saturday night, lightning struck with 33 seconds left in the first half of an exhibition with the 49ers. At that point San Diego trailed 10-7. Joe Washington, in single safety, took a punt on his 11, skirted two tacklers on the left sideline, then broke into the clear. Angling all the way across the field, he outran the remaining 49er defenders for an 89-yard score. San Diego, although badly outplayed in the first half, thus took a 13-10 lead into the locker room.
After the intermission, Quarterback James Harris, making his San Diego debut, finally began making the acquaintance of his new receivers. He connected on 10 of 14 second-half passes for 125 yards as the Chargers added three more touchdowns to win 32-13. They would have had three more points, but Ray Wersching flubbed three of his five extra-point attempts. Still, Coach Tommy Prothro was elated. "Big plays will win most games for you," he said. "That punt return sure picked us up."
Washington's lightning bolt was the Chargers' second touchdown in two games that was scored on a punt return. The previous week, in the team's opening exhibition in Dallas, Johnny Rodgers scampered 68 yards with a punt for a score in a 34-14 loss to the Cowboys. The Chargers' locker room was quiet that night. Last Saturday it was jumping. "We're a young team," said Rodgers, "and when a young team gets on top it thinks it's king of the world."
The Charger optimism centers around this big-play lineup:
•Johnny Rodgers. The 1972 Heisman Trophy winner and the Chargers' No. 1 draft pick in 1973, Rodgers chose to sign with Montreal of the Canadian Football League, who made him the highest-paid player in CFL history. In four years with the Alouettes, he gained almost 8,000 yards rushing, receiving and returning kicks. He has just turned 26. "People think I'm older," he says, "because I've been in the news so long." Rodgers sports an unusual sartorial touch; he wears a specially tailored golf glove on his left hand. "James Harris throws the ball hard enough to break your fingers, and I can stop a brick with this glove," Rodgers says. "I wet it, and it's just like putting stickum on your hand."
•James Harris. Acquired in a trade for draft choices on June 14, Harris led the NFC in passing last season with the Rams, even though he eventually lost his job to rookie Pat Haden. The Rams won 20 of the 26 games Harris started for them. He is 6'4", weighs 210 pounds and has a long-ball arm. "James says he can throw it 89," says Rodgers. "I told him to hold up a few steps, make it 86, and I'd be there to catch it."
•Joe Washington. The Chargers' first pick in the 1976 draft, Washington averaged more than six yards a carry in four years at Oklahoma. Last season he never touched the ball for San Diego, following two cartilage operations on his right knee. Now fully recovered, Washington says he is a little faster than before—"My speed and acceleration have increased because I worked so hard to get my knee back in shape."
•Charlie Joiner. Acquired in a trade with the Bengals for Defensive End Coy Bacon after the 1975 season, Joiner was a teammate of Harris' at Grambling. Last year he caught 50 passes for 1,056 yards, a tape-measure average of 21.1 yards a reception. Only two other receivers, Oakland's Cliff Branch and Baltimore's Fred Carr, gained more yards.
•Don Woods. Picked up on waivers from Green Bay in 1974, Woods set an NFL record for a rookie that season by gaining 1,162 yards. Knee surgery and a nagging ankle injury cut his playing time the last two years, but he is now showing his old form.
•Rickey Young. A 1975 seventh-round draft choice from Jackson State, where he mostly blocked for Walter Payton, Young is considered the Chargers' best all-round performer. He was one of only three players last year to rank in the top 10 in his conference in both rushing and receiving. The other two were Chuck Foreman and Lydell Mitchell. "With this many big-play types on the field at one time it takes the pressure off the individual," says Young. "And it makes you play a better game. You can say to yourself, 'If I just make this block, we could go all the way on this play.' "
If the Chargers, in fact, go all the way over the .500 mark for the first time since 1969, it may allow owner Gene Klein a brief respite from the slings and arrows of San Diego fans, who blame him for the team's downfall. Klein purchased the club shortly before the 1966 season. At that point the Chargers had won five AFL West titles in their six years of existence, including the last three in a row. Since then the team has never been better than third and during one stretch finished last four straight years. The nadir was reached in 1973, a year made infamous in The Nightmare Season, a book by psychiatrist Arnold J. Mandell. Many of Mandell's assertions about the usage of amphetamines by the Chargers have been challenged, but no one has ever argued about the title.
The 1973 Chargers attracted the biggest season-ticket sale in club history—40,341. The team, a group of aged veterans, many of them misfits—a sort of over-the-hill, over-the-wall gang—responded by finishing last with a 2-11-1 record. After the season the NFL fined eight players amounts ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 for drug abuse. General Manager and former Head Coach Harland Svare was fined $10,000 for allowing the situation to develop, and the club (i.e., Klein) was assessed $20,000. No less dour an observer than Cincinnati's Paul Brown called the team "the sinkhole of the NFL." The local citizenry raised an outcry against the Chargers. Gene Klein raised ticket prices.
Needless to say, season-ticket sales fell and fell. Last year they dipped to an embarrassing 20,467, which was by far the lowest figure in the league. This year Klein is raising ticket prices again. The best seats in San Diego Stadium will sell for $15. However, for the first time in four years, season-ticket sales are up, albeit modestly.
The architect of the rejuvenated Chargers is Prothro. He inherited the Charger mess in early 1974 after two years with the Rams and a year's involuntary sabbatical from coaching. During that year Prothro toured Europe and played in a lot of bridge tournaments. "I don't know when I've enjoyed a year more but I knew it would get old," he says. "I really never thought I'd get back into football except with an expansion team. I think if I have an ability in coaching, it's teaching, not strategy, and veterans aren't too interested in learning. When Gene called me about this job, I told him I thought San Diego was just about the same thing as an expansion team."
Prothro has rebuilt through the draft. Only two Chargers have stayed with the club since he arrived—Guard Doug Wilkerson and Tackle Russ Washington. San Diego may well be the youngest team in the NFL. Its starting eleven on defense for the final game last year averaged 24.5 years of age and only 1.7 years of previous NFL experience. The question now is whether Prothro can lead his team as well as he built it. Talk persists that the players are unmoved by Prothro. "It's a shame," says one ex-Charger. "There's a stick of dynamite there, but no one's lighting the fuse."
Prothro himself seems confident that his team is on the brink of better days. He admits that there is now enough talent on the squad for him to trade a draft choice or two for a quality defensive back, where lightning all too often strikes the Chargers. He has already promised draft choices for Harris. "I just feel James is worth a lot more than we are going to pay for him," Prothro says. "What we eventually give the Rams depends on how he does and on how we do. It was almost a nothing-to-lose deal."
Harris and Rodgers are the kind of players the club might have shied away from in 1974. Harris, through no fault of his own, was the center of controversy in Los Angeles last season, where his every demotion and promotion became a racial issue with the fans and the press if not with the players. Rodgers, in turn, created so much controversy in Montreal last year, repeatedly missing or showing up late for practices and team meetings, that the Alouettes terminated his contract and waived him out of the league.
Before signing Rodgers, Prothro met with him for 12 nonstop hours in order to discuss, as the coach put it, "what we expect of a football player in attitude and deportment." "I told the coach not to go on hearsay but to judge me for himself," says Rodgers. "I also told him what I could do for the Chargers. I can catch the ball deep. On punt returns I can keep us in good field positions, where we can at least get three. And after the other team scores, I can get us right back in the game with a long kickoff return. I can do the work of three people. I'm not cocky, I'm just confident. I do what I can do. I don't just sit around and talk about it. I can't live off press clippings."
Not with his taste in automobiles, he can't. Rodgers has been a model athlete in the Charger camp but he had been back in this country only 10 days before he fell afoul of the Feds. Emerging from San Diego Stadium after a workout last May, he discovered two customs officials baby-sitting his $38,000 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. They asked if Rodgers had forgotten the $1,140 duty on the car? Rodgers said he hadn't, that he was just visiting the States and hadn't yet moved from Montreal. The customs officials said they would just confiscate the car and then look into that. They are still looking into it. They still have the car. This shouldn't have annoyed Rodgers unduly. After all, he also had an $18,000 Mercedes Benz 450 SEL with him. But there were a lot of people at his house and he felt he needed a second car. So he bought a $16,000 Jensen. "Why not just a Volkswagen?" he was asked. "I already have one of those," he said, "but it's in Canada."
The presence of Rodgers and the rest of the Chargers' big-play bunch in training camp has caused Charlie Joiner to have a recurring dream. In it, San Diego is in the Super Bowl. His own role in the game isn't important. James Harris always wins the MVP award. For Joiner, the key moment comes at the end of the dream. It is months later and he is at home. The postman delivers a small box that arrives by registered mail. Opening it, Joiner finds the player's ultimate dream—a Super Bowl ring. Then he wakes up.
For now it is just a pleasant dream. But for a Charger even that is a sign of progress. In San Diego, football used to be a nightmare.
Zipping past defenders, the bolting Washington scores on the punt return that broke the 49ers.
Rodgers says that he can do the work of three.
James Harris showed spark in his quarterback debut for the Chargers, while versatile Rickey Young may be the team's best all-round player.