Earlier this week, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn joked about doing some redecorating before his first game as the team’s head coach Monday night in Denver.
Maybe with a brush and bucket, maybe with paper and duct tape, Lynn wanted to cover all of the signs noting the elevation of the Broncos’ home field — a reminder of exactly where they are and a warning for how they’re about to feel.
Above the visiting locker room, the one where the Chargers will begin their season, a sign reading “Welcome to the MILE HIGH CITY” will drive home the point. Underneath it are the numbers for even more of an effect: 5,280.
“I think it’s more psychological, to be honest,” Lynn, a former Broncos player, said. “I never knew we had those signs in the visiting locker room until I came back for the first time as a visitor. … I think it’s more of a mental thing than anything.”
But to be clear, playing football a mile above sea level in shoelace thin air has physical effects.
Your chest burns like you just downed a double shot of cheap whiskey. Your legs wobble like, well, you just downed a double shot of whiskey. Your head spins like… well, you get the point.
“You’re exhausted, tired,” Chargers linebacker Korey Toomer said. “You don’t have any legs. But once you get through that mentally, you’re good.”
The ways players attack the mental challenge differ throughout the locker room. Russell Okung, who played for Denver last season, said a slightly more rigorous pregame routine would get him used to the elements.
“You know it’s there going into it. Don’t make it too much of an issue,” Okung said. “When you get there, you take it on when you need to.”
Toomer, an asthmatic, goes to more extreme lengths to put it out of his head.
“I have asthma. It doesn’t bother me at all. I won’t let it. I won’t even bring my inhaler. I could care less. I’d rather die,” he said. “That’s the mental part of it.”
Training in elevation undoubtedly has positive effects. Austin Ekeler, the Chargers’ rookie running back slated to return kicks Monday night, played college football at Western State, a school in Gunnison, Colo., that plays football 7,750 feet above sea level.
“It’s like legal blood doping,” Ekeler said about practicing that high above sea level.
Not coincidentally, Western State’s men’s and women’s cross country teams have finished first or second in Division II 18 times since 2000.
The physical challenges are real, as is Denver’s comfort in their environment. The Broncos have lost just six times at home in the past four seasons, including one game to the Chargers.
Lynn won’t need to pack his paint brush, though. The Charger players know that focusing on something they can’t change is wasted energy.
“It affects you more towards the end of the game, but that goes for everybody,” Toomer said. If you’re in condition, it’s more of a mental thing in the beginning. You can’t go in there thinking, ‘Oh my God. This weather is going to kick my (expletive). Excuse my language.
“You can’t go in there thinking like that. It’s definitely a psychological thing.”
After a tough battle in training camp, the Chargers ultimately decided their free safety this season would be Tre Boston, who beat out veteran Dwight Lowery by a narrow margin. It’s a decision Chargers brass repeatedly called a difficult one.
And even with some less-than-stellar news this week, there are no regrets.
Boston’s appeared on the team’s injury report the last two days with calf tightness, and if he couldn’t play, the team would be forced to go to the reserves sooner than expected.
However, a pair of promising practices has Lynn optimistic that Boston will be on the field in Denver.
“He moved around better today. He looked good,” Lynn said. “I think he’ll be fine.”
Lynn said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley will be on the sidelines during games. Some coordinators, like Lynn, prefer to watch the game from the coaches’ box above the field. “We were going to play with guys moving up and down (to the press box), but they both decided to stay on the field which is fine with me,” Lynn said. “I’m comfortable if they’re comfortable.” … Wide receiver Dontrelle Inman and defensive end Jerry Attaochu are both questionable for Monday’s game after being limited in practice Saturday. … Denver will be without defensive linemen Jared Crick and Zach Kerr, the team announced Saturday.