The Ring, Part I.
It's five years ago. Bob Petrich and his family return to their El Cajon home after visiting neighbors. Their front door is open. There's been an intruder.
Petrich rushes inside, through the living room, past the spot where burglars had hauled away the television, past where they had wrapped up the stereo.
He runs directly into the bedroom, grabs for the tiny tray on top of his dresser and-- gone! They'd taken it. His 1963 American Football League championship ring.
The former San Diego Chargers defensive end runs back through the messy living room, back outside, and sticks a finger into the darkness:
"Whoever stole my ring, I'll find you! Whatever it takes, I'll find you! And when I do, I'll kill you!"
His wife grabs him and it is then, 43-year-old Bob Petrich realizes, he is on his knees. And he is crying.
The problem here is this: For the next eight days, a couple of professional football teams are going to be running around San Diego as if they own the place.
After this happens, next Sunday at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, one of them will be ruled the best in professional football.
But before anybody does anything stupid, like feel around for the city's keys, a few guys would like the future champions to realize something.
They aren't the first ones around here. Not by 24 years.
Fact: It has been the only ultimate football, basketball or baseball championship in this city's history.
Legend: They were the greatest AFL team in the six years before football chose to make the league prove itself with a Super Bowl. In personality and game plan, they were one of the strangest.
"We raised football to an art form," said tackle Ron Mix, now a prominent San Diego attorney not given to hyperbole. "We were light-years ahead of our time."
You don't remember them? Drop by Canton, Ohio. In pro football's Hall of Fame are 1963 receiver Lance Alworth, Coach Sid Gillman and Mix.
You don't remember them? Turn on NBC television. That sports announcer who gets laughs with plastic pig noses is 1963 linebacker Paul Maguire.
You still don't remember them? Go to the Super Bowl, and you won't even need a ticket. The guy under the big tent by Gate C, the guy selling chicken and ribs from five pits, will be 1963 halfback Paul Lowe.
By now, if you still don't remember them, you may need a drink. Try Solana Beach's Belly Up Tavern. The bartender there, with the gray beard and granny glasses and sandals, is 1963 guard Pat Shea.
"We are everywhere," Mix admitted.
Only, look around. When one Super Bowl team is not fashioning itself after a barn animal, the other is doing fast-food taco commercials. It is 1988, and the 1963 Chargers are ancient history.
One of the 22 starters is dead. Another just announced his retirement from the real world . A couple can't run, one walks with a cane, and another has trouble even admitting he ever played here. All that's left are their voices, their memories.
Yet this week, those voices will surface, like warnings from the deepest part of the woods. The memories will be filled with messages.
There are things a few guys think the winner of the Broncos-Redskins battle needs to know:
--Champions should have fun. They should scream and fight and raise the dead, because one day, champions will be old. One day, it will take them 20 minutes to get out of bed.
--Champions should take time to look out the window because the signs will not always be so well marked. One day they will retire, and they will feel lost. For some it only lasts a moment, for others, a lifetime.
--Champions should never expect this week to happen again. And they should promise themselves they will never forget it. Because one day, they may want to.
The Ring, Part II.
Since accepting his simple, gold, one-diamond, one-sapphire championship ring, Pat Shea has never taken it off.
Not when he was working as an installer of sewer pipes. Not when he was diving in the Atlantic Ocean for abalone. And not when he was tending bar, something he has done at 21 different drinking establishments since 1966.
"Just the other night, sitting around, I counted," Shea said.
These days, the tips are good and the fights are few. But the facts are hard.
"Face it," Shea said. "Who wants to be a 50-year-old bartender in a rock 'n' roll joint?"
They say the experiences you can't shake are the ones you never expected. Pat Shea figures this might be his problem.
He joined the Chargers after just one year of prep football at Mission Bay High and a couple of years as a second-stringer at USC. After a nondescript rookie season, he found himself starting on a Charger club that went 11-3 and averaged 28 points a game before scoring 51 in a championship game that came to be known as the Boston Massacre.
Said Shea: "I thought, hey, this happens all the time."
It doesn't. He retired three years later with a bad back and a commitment to search only for something to make him feel as good as the championship had. Twenty-two years and more than 30 different W-2 forms later, the search continues.
"I'm still amazed I was in that championship game," he said. "It was like a damned miracle. Everything came to me. So after retirement, whenever I got down, I always figured, something would come along.
"Now, everybody asks me, when am I going to grow up?"
He answers with the ring. When things are slow, he will take time from pouring a round to stretch out that finger and let those guys on their elbows take a long look. He wears that ring as if it might still have magic.
"Sometimes I have these weird dreams," Shea said. "It's like we're getting ready to play the championship game again, only this time I'm not ready. I can't find my uniform, I can't find my shoes, I'm rushing around, just one more minute . . . "
The Chargers began the 1963 season in a recovery room. They had just lived through the only blip in their three-year existence. After finishing first in the AFL West in their first two years--including their debut season in Los Angeles--they had gone 4-10 in 1962 and finished last.
Gillman figured there was never anything wrong with any team that couldn't be cured with two additions--a quarterback and a heart.
And then he chose as the Chargers' summer training site, a partially completed dude ranch in the middle of the desert. You can't just sign heart, you must create it.
"I still don't know if everyone has forgiven Sid for that," said receiver Don Norton, now a publisher in Iowa.
The camp was called Rough Acres. It was 78 miles from San Diego, 40 of those miles on two-lane road, 5 of those miles on dirt road.
It was tiny stone huts and outdoor showers and dirt practice fields. It was rattlesnakes and tarantulas and 120-degrees-in-your-pads heat.
The cooking conditions were so bad, they went through six chefs. The first one quit before cracking his first egg. Something about no refrigerators.
"All of this was fine," Mix said, "for a minimum security prison."
Gillman figured to teach his young team the rules by changing the rules.
A heroic athletic move was not considered a fine run, but a diving catch in a cow pie.
"Don't laugh," said tight end Dave Kocourek, a real estate developer in south Florida. "Those were some of my greatest catches."
A daring move was not a fake, but a shower during an electrical storm.
"With no cover on that shower, you talk about some serious dancing . . . " Kocourek said.
Pressure was not in playing, but in coming home and finding flying rodents above your bed.
"I walk up once, and all the players are throwing rocks into my shack," recalled guard Sam DeLuca, a New York businessman. "They are trying to kill the bats on my ceiling. Real bats."
Quickness came not from a cornerback, but a handyman. During one recreation period, an errant table tennis ball landed directly on the head of a nearby rattlesnake. While most of the players fled, the man chopped the snake's head off and handed the ball back to one of the Chargers, saying, "Your serve."
"We just stared at him," Petrich said.
Leadership did not occur in the huddle, but in the only grocery store within miles, a tiny shack in the nearby city of Boulevard. In the back of the store was a beer bar.
"This is where Tobin Rote had his first influence in the team," Petrich said. "He taught us drinking games. Cardinal Puff, Bizz-Buzz."
Said Shea: "Old Tobe would tell us, if we didn't drink, we wouldn't make the team. We drank until we were sick."
They departed Rough Acres much as they had descended upon it, in a rotten mood after the camp owner had caught them dressing up one of his donkeys as a football player. It was one of several matters that prompted a lawsuit, which stopped the Chargers from coming back.
"We didn't want to push our luck," said Gillman, adding that he doesn't mind that former players are still complaining.
"I don't care if they didn't like the place," he said. "Ask them if they liked the results."
"He's right," said defensive tackle Hank Schmidt, an insurance agent. "It was hot, miserable, horrible--and it brought us together."
Indeed, they took on the regular season by winning their first three games, and the championship flight was on.
The Ring, Part III.
They say the 1963 championship game was the celebration of a new city, a new league, and a new style of football.
A couple of decades later, the cliches having yellowed, records show the 51-10 victory over Boston to be a celebration only of Keith Lincoln.
The third-year fullback from Washington State gained 392 total yards, 68 more than the entire Boston team, setting several club records.
He rushed for 206 yards in 13 carries and caught 7 passes for 123 more. He scored twice, on a 67-yard run and a 25-yard pass from backup quarterback John Hadl.
So why doesn't Keith Lincoln care?
"You know, I can think of more important things than playing for the Chargers," said Lincoln from Pullman, Wash., where he is executive director of Washington State's alumni association. "In fact, I can think of plenty more important things."
Doesn't wear it. Never even considers it.
"I don't think about it a hell of a lot," he said. "It's actually pretty bulky."
Lincoln, 48, actually takes pride in that you might never know he played pro football. There are no mementos in his office. There's nothing in his house, unless you count a hallway wall, upon which hangs an oil painting from the San Diego Sports Hall of Fame.
"I decided I want people to judge me for me" he said. "It's quite fine if they never knew who I was.
"Everybody talks about those great stats. Well, I was always just as satisfied with a good block or three-yard run. I wish more players realized that that's what life is all about, a good block, a three-yard run, the day-to-day stuff. Those are the things that matter."
If one person ought to have a tape of the championship, it should be Keith Lincoln. Goodness, after the first two plays he had 56 yards rushing and 12 yards receiving.
He has that tape. In 24 years, he's seen it once.
"One Christmas," he said. "Daggone relatives starting squawking for it."
After three straight opening wins, the 1963 team stumbled upon doubt. In one four-game period, it lost twice, to Denver and Oakland, allowing 84 points in those losses, ruining 67 points of their own.
The Chargers were 5-2 and worried that they couldn't stop anybody again. And then came the Eastern trip. For three straight weeks they would play in New York, Boston and Buffalo.
This was supposed to be the trip that would finish them. And it might have. Except that a party almost finished them first.
"I guess you could say we could party," said Rote, 60, who recently retired from his full-time position at a construction company in Oak Park, Mich., a Detroit suburb. "Just some parties were better than others."
The team stayed in Niagara Falls during that trip and had plenty of time for nights such as the one on which one player called the hotel's front desk and set up a party room. He told the receptionist to charge it all to the Chargers' Jimmy Jones.
It wouldn't have been a problem, but during the party, one Charger got angry at one of the outside guests and chased him into the bathroom. The guest locked the bathroom door, so the Charger had no choice but tear it down. And so on.
The next morning, the total party bill came to more than $2,000, which still wouldn't have been a problem until the hotel tried to find somewhere to mail it.
You see, these Chargers had no Jimmy Jones. The Chargers had never had a Jimmy Jones.
That day, a fuming Gillman called the squad together on a borrowed practice field. He lined them up side by side. He went down the row and asked each one, louder each time, "Are you Jimmy Jones?"
Nobody answered. Gillman screamed louder. Nobody answered.
"I knew who Jimmy Jones was," Gillman says today. "Don't kid yourself."
No matter, the Chargers had found another reason to stick together. Led by defensive end Earl Faison, who is now lining up against junior high students in a La Jolla classroom, they defeated all three Eastern teams, holding them to 26 points, total. Then they won three of their last four, setting up the title game with Boston.
And to this day, although they vary widely in weight, income and happiness levels, the 1963 Chargers remain united in one thing. Nobody will rat on Jimmy Jones.
"Jimmy Jones has become a fine, upstanding member of our community," Petrich says. "And anyway, you think after keeping it quiet all these years, we'd tell now?"
The Ring, Part IV:
A ring is not the only memento for the 1963 Chargers.
George Gross has had three knee operations and is battling arthritis. Don Rogers is facing a knee replacement. Bob Petrich has had seven knee operations and a shoulder operation and was recently in the hospital for two weeks with a staph infection in his knee.
Wright, a local player agent, is just confused.
"I used to be 6-4, 270 pounds," he said. "Doctor says now I'm 6-3, 255 pounds. I guess with old age, I am compressing. Funny, isn't it?"
Many also carry a certain uneasiness about their alumni cards. Many are wondering if pro football can be very, very good to anyone.
"If anything, my name has become a liability," said Alworth, a San Diego real estate developer. "First off, everybody confuses me with Lance Rentzel (the once-troubled Dallas Cowboys wide receiver). And the ones who know who I am, they just think of me as being a football player. And sometimes that's not a good connotation."
Said Wright: "I don't even think about my football days, because I don't have time for childish games anymore. I've learned, in football, unless you're a superstar, you're a foot soldier. And once the war is over, what in the hell use is there for a foot soldier? Nobody needs you.
"Unless you plan and prepare, to have a mediocre five- or six-year pro football career is the kiss of death."
Besides, most figure, pro football today is no longer their pro football anyway. Different game, different sport, maybe no longer even sport.
"Today's NFL is just a glorified game of touch football," Norton said. "You can't hit below the waist. Receivers can just run out for a pass and not worry about getting killed.
"Can you believe that guys are being penalized for blocking other guys in the back? Serious."
A guy has his championship ring swiped today, shoot, he doesn't spend six months looking for the criminal. Bob Petrich did.
He never got the ring back, but the man was found in Seattle, where he had been caught in another robbery and shot in the head.
"I was called about that," Petrich said. "I said, 'Good.' "
The players still aren't sure what happened Jan. 5, 1964. They only figure, it could probably never happen again.
"It was as close to perfect as a game could get," said center Don Rogers, a San Diego financial adviser. "The whole day there was a weird feeling in the huddle. Usually Lance and Keith and Paul were always screaming for the ball, but they were quiet.
"We had such a feeling of power, of overwhelming the Patriots, that we just wanted to get on with the next play."
Before 30,127 at Balboa Stadium, the Chargers received the opening kickoff and started from their 28. On the first play, a pass from Rote to Lincoln, they gained 12 yards. On the second, Lincoln ran for up the middle for 56 yards. Two plays later they scored, and the rout was on.
Some say it was because they had already played the Patriots twice that year, which was more homework than Sid Gillman's analytical mind would ever need. Others say no, it was just that weird feeling.
"I'll never forget the touchdown I scored," Norton said of a 14-yard catch to end the first half. "I didn't even hear the play in the huddle. We were going too fast. I had time to hear the last words, 'Screen left U', and just guessed on the rest. Sure enough, the ball came to me."
Afterward, Rote threw a party, planning to pay for it with part of his playoff share. Took everybody down to the Bahia Hotel and bought 65 pounds of roast beef and all the beer they could swallow.
"Then it turned out, we only got a $2,500 playoff share," Rote recalled. "Needed every penny on that party. Every last cent. What the heck. Damn good party."
CHARGER STARTING LINEUP FOR AFL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME ON JAN. 5, 1964
Pos. Player WR Don Norton LT Ernie Wright LG Sam Deluca C Don Rogers RG Pat Shea RT Ron Mix TE Dave Kocourek FL Lance Alworth QB Tobin Rote FB Keith Lincoln HB Paul Lowe
Pos. Status WR publisher, "Voice of the Hawkeye," Dubuque, Iowa LT player agent, San Diego LG McDonald's franchise operator, Pelham Manor, N.Y. C financial advisor, San Diego RG bartender, Solano Beach RT attorney, San Diego TE real estate agent, Marco Island, Fla. FL real estate developer, San Diego QB retired marketing executive, construction, Oak Park, Mich. FB executive director of Washington State alumni association HB caterer, San Diego
Po. Player LE Earl Faison LT Hank Schmidt RT George Gross RE Bob Petrich LLB Emil Karas MLB Chuck Allen RLB Paul Maguire LCB Bud Whitehead RCB Dick Harris LS George Blair RS Gary Glick
Po. Status LE teacher, Muirlands Junior High, La Jolla LT insurance agent, El Cajon RT loan agent, La Mesa RE real estate development, San Diego LLB deceased, 1974 MLB assistant general manager, Seattle Seahawks RLB announcer, NBC sports LCB sale representative for adhesives, Fresno RCB track coach, asst. football coach, South Torrance High LS football coach, Laurel High, Laurel, Miss. RS construction company owner, Fort Collins, Colo.