Here is some classified information on the San Diego Chargers: Last Saturday's edition of The San Diego Union-Tribune included 75 want-ad listings from people wanting to buy—or, in a few rare cases, sell—tickets to the loam's home game the next afternoon against the Kansas City Chiefs. Now, that's news. For most of the past decade, Charger tickets have been about as coveted in San Diego as mittens. A matchup of these two teams only two years ago in San Diego, for the season opener, no less, left 15,641 seats unsold.
Ah, but San Diego had reeled off four wins to open this season, a feat no Charger team had accomplished since 1980. And now here were the Chiefs, the defending AFC West champions, led by 38-year-old Joe Montana and 34-year-old Marcus Allen, coming to Jack Murphy Stadium. No wonder it was the hottest ticket in town, hotter even than another geriatric team that was playing the Murph the following week: the Rolling Stones.
At least two fans, proving you can't always get what you want, offered to swap their Stones tickets for Charger tickets. Not a tempting deal, that one: A field-level ticket for the game fetched up to $275, while the going rate to see the Stones from the same perch was $125. Who could keep his bearings in all this excitement? Certainly not the person who offered Stones tickets on the "50-yard line."
Charger fans have gone nuts over the Bolts. The hibachis were fired up as early as 9:30 in the morning in the stadium parking lot, and fans who arrived later than that found themselves in an unaccustomed traffic snarl. That included several former players who were to be honored as part of Alumni Day but didn't make it in time for the pregame ceremonies. Hey, the old days were never like this.
All told, a crowd of 62,923 was accounted for—the most people ever to watch a Charger home game—and the throng created enough noise to actually give the Chargers a home field advantage. Center Courtney Hall, whose six years in San Diego are second only to the nine years put in by defensive end Leslie O'Neal, could recall nothing like it for a regular-season game at the Murph. "Not since I've been here," he said. "Then again, they haven't had much to cheer about."
The Chargers hadn't beaten the Chiefs since 1989, and Hall and O'Neal were the only current San Diego players still around from the team that pulled off the victory. Since then, the Chargers had lost eight straight regular-season games to Kansas City. This is a franchise that has qualified for the playoffs once in the previous 11 seasons. So who knew if the Chargers could keep winning? Not even their general manager, who on Friday afternoon admitted to nervousness. "I know we're a pretty good team," Bobby Beathard said. "But I know the Chiefs are a real good team. We're trying to get to the Chiefs' level, in terms of what they've accomplished, and this is part of the test of getting there. People are watching to see how we handle being the only undefeated team and in a game this big."
Alas, the commemorative uniforms won't be worn again (the players are allowed to keep them), though a deli owner in Mission Valley, Calif., collected nearly 5,000 signatures on a petition asking the club to adopt them permanently.
Suitably attired, the Chargers played a near flawless game: no sacks allowed, no interceptions thrown, one fumble, one penalty for five yards, and a score on each of the four possessions when the offense got inside Kansas City's 20-yard line. The Chargers finally graduated from the surprise team of the NFL to one of its elite.
"K.C. has been a team we haven't been able to get off our backs," tackle Harry Swayne said afterward. "We talked about it all week. It's time for us to get over the hump. Well, we did it. That was a big step for this team. We've shown a lot of toughness in five games."
San Diego already has swept the AFC West, beating the Seattle Seahawks by 14 on the road and coming from behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Raiders—also away from home. "People said, 'Yeah, you beat the Broncos, but maybe they're not so good,' and they said the same thing about the Raiders," said Means. "This game sends the message around the league that the Chargers are for real."
It was a coming-out party for Means, too. He gained a career-high 125 yards on 19 carries and wore out the Chiefs on the game's only two touchdown drives. On the first drive, late in the second quarter, Means carried the ball on every play. He covered nine, eight, six, six and, finally for the score, nine yards to put San Diego ahead 13-3. In the fourth quarter, Means accounted for 57 yards of a 77-yard drive while breaking off runs of 25 and 23 yards. "I felt like they were getting tired," Means said. "You could feel the arm tackles." Quarterback Stan Humphries and wide receiver Mark Seay took care of the last five yards on a pass play that made the score 19-6 with less than eight minutes left.
"This is just a great, great win," said Charger coach Bobby Ross, a rare display of effusiveness for the former Army lieutenant who has coached at two military academies. After losing his first four games as the Charger coach in 1992, Ross has gone 24-9 while stockpiling hardworking soldiers to his liking. They include Means, a second-round pick last year; Seay, a 1993 waiver pickup who once took a bullet near his heart while protecting his niece from gunfire; and defensive tackle Rueben Davis, who signed as a free agent this year and has played the past four games with an elaborate contraption on his arm to protect a dislocated elbow.
Davis twisted a knee at the start of the fourth quarter as Kansas City drove inside the San Diego 10. "Six or seven guys fell on my leg, and it just went numb," Davis said. When the trainers began sprinting toward him, Davis angrily waved them back to the sidelines. "No way I'm coming out," Davis said later. The knee and the defense held, forcing the Chiefs to settle for a field goal. Davis helped limit Kansas City to 64 yards on the ground in 18 attempts.
And then there is Humphries, very much Ross's kind of guy. Three weeks ago against the Raiders, he returned to the game after injuring his knee, thereupon leading the Chargers to the winning drive. The tale grows more valorous with each retelling, but Humphries is indeed a rugged leader; he piloted the Chargers to a 17-0 playoff win over the Chiefs in 1992 with a dislocated throwing shoulder. When Ross replaced Bob Gagliano with Humphries in the second game of that season, it was the 14th change of San Diego quarterbacks in a 66-game span. The Chargers were 22-44 in those games.
Since then, with Humphries as their starter, the Chargers are 22-8. The team may at last have found a successor to Dan Fouts. No wonder Charger fans wear T-shirts that say PROTECT STAN on both the front and back. He has the competitiveness of Fouts, the long-ball accuracy of Joe Namath and, as his size-38 pants attest, the midsection of Sonny Jurgenson.
Just as Beathard had worried about his team's showing with so much on the line, he fretted, too, about how well Humphries would respond to his new role as the AFC's highest-rated and newly hyped quarterback. "Yes, it's a test in the same way," Beathard said. "All the talk all week about him has put him in a new position." Not to worry. Humphries completed 16 of 25 passes for 171 yards without forcing any balls into coverage, after which he hustled out of the locker room after briefly taking reporters' questions. "I don't care for this, but it's part of my job," he told the assemblage. "I never claimed to be the flashiest quarterback. I worry a lot less about what people say than I do about how I play."
Humphries's performance gained added luster when measured against Montana's. The Chief quarterback heaved 55 passes—the most he has thrown in a game in almost eight years. While he did complete 37 of those for 310 yards, for the second straight game Montana could not get his team into the end zone, the first time he has suffered back-to-back blankings in his 155-start career.
On Sept. 25 the Chiefs lost 16-0 to the Rams in a horror that was passed off as the by-product of a rampant flu bug and a flat effort. "Marty felt like we didn't play hard enough and weren't ready to play," defensive end Neil Smith said of coach Marty Schottenheimer after a practice last week. "So he's worked us hard. When you get that back-to-basics speech, you know you're in trouble."
Schottenheimer has a knack for bringing his teams back from losses, and this time he had the luxury of a bye week. His career record after a loss was 44-10-1, including a 24-4-1 mark with Kansas City. What's more, Montana had not lost consecutive games in nine years.
All of a sudden the questions about Kansas City run deep. Montana has neither a running game to worry opponents nor breakaway receivers able to turn those 10-yard slant patterns into catch-and-run plays that chew up big yardage. The Chargers, playing a basic zone almost all afternoon, willingly permitted Montana the underneath throws.
Montana dropped back to pass on each of Kansas City's final 16 plays in a futile effort to get a touchdown. "It was such a big deal for them," O'Neal said, "they were running a no-huddle offense."
With 37 seconds left, Montana brought his team to the one but took a hit in the ribs while being sacked by Lonnie Young. He was having trouble breathing, taking short, quick breaths to mute the pain in his ribs. He completed one pass for five yards and then, as the clock ran out, lofted a ball toward J.J. Birden in the back corner of the end zone—just in front of the reunion of the Chargers' cheerleaders—a group, by the way, that did not choose to wear its 1961 uniforms. San Diego cornerback Dwayne Harper batted the ball away.
Montana immediately ripped his helmet off and doubled over, taking a huge gulp of air. Humphries rushed to offer the usual postgame salutations, but the old quarterback hardly noticed him.
Winded and weary, Montana trudged off the field in a condition that made you think he would not be exit-row qualified for the flight home to Kansas City. Humphries left in a happy sprint, his pretty blue shirt hardly soiled. As he disappeared through a tunnel, he raised an index finger to the fans, a crowd of believers that is growing larger by the minute.
PETER READ MILLER
It took more than one Chief to bring down Means, who tore through K.C. for 125 yards on 19 carries.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Since Humphries took over as the starter in '92, the Charger outlook has been nothing but sunny.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
These are heady times for Charger fans, who saw their defense blast Montana and recover the fumble.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Darren Carrington (29) and Darrien Gordon collaborated on a second-half Charger interception.