Wilbur Young's feet caught on fire--on the sidelines. And the night before, Gene Klein and his wife had to sleep with all their clothes on in a Cincinnati hotel.
The previous year somebody had loosened the lug nuts on the rear wheels of Gary (Big Hands) Johnson's van during the last practice of the season. Earlier that season, there had been death threats, epithets and paranoia. The next afternoon the cops left Johnson's side only when he ran onto the playing field.
Never before nor since have they come so close to pro football's showcase event.
On Jan. 11, 1981, they lost, 34-27, to the wild-eyed, wild-card Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders did them in with the "Immaculate Deflection"--a Jim Plunkett pass that bounced off running back Kenny King's hands and into the waiting arms of tight end Raymond Chester. The result was a 65-yard Raider touchdown on the fourth play of the game.
On Jan. 10, 1982, they lost, 27-7, to the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals freeze-framed the Chargers at Glacierfront Stadium on a day that featured a wind chill factor colder than Lee Van Cleef's smile.
The two losses were the third and fourth for the Chargers in five conference championship games. During the 29 star-crossed years of its existence, the San Diego professional football franchise has won one championship. The team did it in the old AFL. John F. Kennedy was still president when that 1963 season began. The Super Bowl--a title named after an adjective and numbered by Romans--was not yet a gleam in NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle's eye. And merger was still a dirty word.
But now Rozelle's annual corporate orgy is two days short of its 22nd birthday. And the sad fact of the NFL matter for the host city is this: The Super Bowl got to San Diego before San Diego got to the Super Bowl.
So the time has come to reflect upon the Chargers' two closest brushes with the kind of hoopla that has paralyzed the two cities whose teams have arrived to play for the right to wear a ring that would make Sammy Davis Jr. blush.
The 1980 Chargers, champions of the AFC West at 11-5, were a team that was lucky to arrive in the conference championship game at all. Only a 50-yard touchdown pass with 2:08 remaining from Fouts to Ron Smith (who had run the wrong pattern) enabled them to escape with a 20-14 victory in a first round playoff match-up with Buffalo.
"We knew it was going to be tough to beat Buffalo because of their style," kicker Rolf Benirschke said. "They controlled the ball and we feared that ability to run the clock down."
In fact, the Bills had beaten the Chargers in San Diego 26-24 earlier in the season. This time, Fouts threw for 314 yards. John Jefferson caught seven passes for 102 yards and free safety Glen Edwards intercepted two Joe Ferguson passes.
Next up were the Raiders, with whom the Chargers had split two games that year.
The media had great fun with the enmity that had grown between Klein and Raider Managing General Partner Al Davis. Among other things, there was more controversy surrounding Los Angeles sports columnist Melvin Durslag's contention that Davis, unpopular with his fellow owners, couldn't get a fairly officiated game from a Rozelle crew.
"I honestly don't feel individual officials would take it upon themselves to shade calls to spite Al," Klein said at the time. "And I certainly deem it unlikely that any such directive would be issued by Pete Rozelle."
The Klein-Davis feud later accelerated into an episodic war that included a Klein heart attack suffered while testifying against Davis during Davis' victorious 1982 lawsuit against the NFL.
Klein later won a lawsuit against Davis in which he charged that Davis' "malicious prosecution" caused the heart attack. Davis' attorney, former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, quoted Dante, John Milton and Matthew Arnold in an eloquent defense. Joseph Cotchett, one of Klein's lawyers countered with this from Mark Twain: "Get your facts first. Then you can distort them any way you want."
Klein won a total of $10 million in damages, a sum later reduced to $2.04 million last year. But asked seven years later about the buildup before the Raider game, Klein said: "I don't remember anything except that it was a week of excitement."
At that time, the players were more amused than surprised at Klein vs. Davis.
"It's the kind of hype Ali used to sell tickets," said Charger tight end Kellen Winslow. "But this isn't hype. These are true feelings between two men."
"Two grown, very wealthy men arguing," Jefferson added. "I enjoy it. I sit back and watch what happens and giggle."
But Jefferson turned dead serious the day before the game when he and teammate Gregg McCrary noticed the back wheels of Johnson's van wobbling as he drove from the stadium lot after practice.
Johnson thought they were kidding when they pulled up next to him at the exit and told him what they saw. Defensive lineman John Lee was riding shotgun with Johnson at the time and didn't find anything funny about it. When Jefferson and McCrary offered to follow Johnson to the nearest filling station, Lee climbed out of the van and rode with them.
By the time Johnson had phoned Coach Don Coryell about the incident and returned home, there were more than 20 officers at his house. Two of them stayed all night. Meanwhile, Coryell phoned every player on the roster and ordered them to check their lug nuts. Johnson's van was the only one that had been tampered with.
Seven weeks earlier, Johnson had been the victim of a death threat after he had knocked Eagle quarterback Ron Jaworski goofy with an alleged late hit in a 22-21 Charger victory. The referees penalized Johnson for roughing on the play. And moments later, federal agents informed Klein of the death threat.
'A Little Incredulous'
"I was a little incredulous," Klein says. "There were times when I wanted to kill some of my players. But I'd never heard of anything like that."
Klein decided not to inform Johnson of the threat until after the game. Johnson knew something was wrong when he saw all the policemen near his locker. So the sight of more uniforms outside his home after the van incident didn't surprise him. He figured the two events were related. And although officials never apprehended any suspects, Johnson still believes the perpetrator was a disgruntled gambler who had lost a bet.
Regardless, the night before that championship game with the Raiders was a long one for Johnson.
"I didn't sleep too well," he says.
And he reportedly became ill with an upset stomach during the second half after leaving the game with one tackle, three assists and a sack.
His replacement was the same Young whose feet would catch fire in Cincinnati one year later. And it was Young who committed the offside penalty on third-and-five from the Charger 43 with less than three minutes remaining to cost the Chargers their last opportunity at getting the ball. After the penalty, the Raiders ticked off seven straight running plays to exhaust the clock.
Coryell says the thing he remembers about the game was an injury to one of his pass protectors that wasn't reported until after the game.
"It was a kid who was trying to tough it out," he says. "If we had known about it, we would have gotten him out of there and I think we would have won. Instead, they had about five sacks on us."
Coryell won't name the injured player. And, strangely, the records show the Chargers allowed only two sacks that day.
But they had other problems. One was the inability of smallish left outside linebacker Ray Preston to defend against the run. Raider Mark van Eeghen led all rushers with 85 yards on 20 carries. Plunkett, passing when he wanted to rather than when he had to, completed 14 of 18 for 261 yards. He threw no interceptions; Fouts threw two. Jefferson uncharacteristically dropped two balls. At least one of them would have been a touchdown. But basically the Chargers just never recovered from the Plunkett-King-Chester "Immaculate Deflection."
"Nobody could quite believe that play," Benirschke said. "It was like the whole game we were trying to catch up from that play."
The preface to a very cold day in Cincinnati a year later was a very humid day in Miami. It was Jan. 2, 1982, the first round of the playoffs following the 1981 season. Nobody imagined this game was hurtling toward overtime when the Chargers bolted out to a 24-0 lead after one period.
Dolphin coach Don Shula replaced starter David Woodley with Don Strock.
"Then," says Charger publicist Rick Smith, "all hell broke loose."
Dolphin Uwe von Schamann kicked a 34-yard field goal. Joe Rose caught a one-yard touchdown pass from Strock. And on the last play of the half, Tony Nathan raced 25 yards with a lateral from Duriel Harris who had caught a 15-yard pass from Strock. The 40-yard "hook-and-ladder" touchdown cut the Charger lead to 24-17.
Surprised at Result
The Dolphins' name for the play was "86 Circle Curl Lateral" and they were stunned the Chargers would fall for it.
"It's pretty hard to believe that a guy would bite on that with six seconds to go," Strock said later. "But when it worked, it made every high school coach in the world happy because every high school has that play."
"We had not prepared for Strock," said reserve Charger linebacker Jim Laslavic.
"Everybody was shell-shocked at halftime," said Benirschke. "Nobody knew what to say."
Except Fouts. According to Benirschke, he stormed into the locker area, flung his helmet the length of the room and began raging.
"Goddamit," he said. "We're not going to lose this game."
"I'm convinced," Benirschke says now, "we won that game because Fouts wouldn't let us lose."
Down to the Wire
"That (hook and ladder) play made us realize that this game was gonna go down to the wire," Fouts said. "I said, 'So be it. We were gonna be there, too.' "
"Back and forth," Klein said. "Forth and back."
Benirschke's 29-yard field goal 13 minutes and 52 seconds into overtime gave the Chargers a 41-38 victory in an epic that took four hours and five minutes to play and produced 1,126 yards of total offense.
Winslow caught 13 passes for 166 yards and blocked a 43-yard von Schamann field goal attempt on the last play of regulation.
The Chargers, in fact, had had to rally to get to overtime. Trailing 38-31, they gained possession late in the game when Gary Johnson and linebacker Linden King stripped the ball from rookie Dolphin running back Andra Franklin at the Charger 18. Fouts needed three minutes and 41 seconds to march the Chargers 82 yards on 10 plays. The game-tying touchdown came on a 10-yard lob to James Brooks in the end zone.
Intended for Winslow
Funny thing about that pass. It was intended for Winslow. But Fouts overthrew him.
"That one was just pure luck," Fouts said. "I didn't even see James Brooks."
Winslow survived a pinched nerve, a bruised shoulder, a split lip, cramps and heat exhaustion. The Chargers survived another match point 8 minutes into overtime when Leroy Jones blocked a 34-yard von Schamann attempt. Minutes earlier, Benirschke had been wide left from 27 yards, the first time in his career he had missed a kick that would have won a game.
The temperature that day in Miami was 79 degrees.
"The plane flight back was very subdued," Klein remembers. "Everybody was dead tired."
Meanwhile, the long-term weather report called for the possibility of snow one week later in Cincinnati where the Chargers would play for the AFC championship.
"We'll be happy to play them in a blizzard," Coryell said bravely.
A blizzard might have been warmer. The wind-chill factor at game time was 59-below.
How cold was it? Klein was concerned his wife wouldn't be able to breathe between the time she got off the team bus and made it to the owner's sky box. He swears he spilled hot coffee at his feet, looked on the floor and watched it freeze before his eyes.
Saw Bright Sunlight
Benirschke woke up that morning and experienced a soaring feeling when he saw the bright sunshine.
"Maybe the cold has passed," he told himself. Then he looked at the steam rising eerily from the Ohio River. "That's when I realized how awfully cold it was."
NFL Commissioner Rozelle phoned Dr. Ralph Goldman, a Massachusetts weather expert, the morning of the game and asked him if was safe to play. Four hours before kickoff, Rozelle phoned team owner Klein at his freezing Cincinnati hotel room and told him he couldn't call off the jam. Meanwhile, farm services issued radio reports warning listeners to bring their livestock in out of the cold.
"Somebody should have spoken up and pointed out that we're not animals either," Johnson says now. "It was too cold. It was ridiculous."
"It was so cold, I thought my face would break off," said Bengal offensive lineman Anthony Munoz.
Said Cincinnati fullback Pete Johnson: "I forgot I had feet."
"It was," said Klein, "a cold mother."
Coach Still Bitter
Former Charger coach Coryell is still bitter about the decision.
"That game should never have been played," he says. "The NFL is very very fortunate that no player was seriously injured or killed by the cold."
In the first quarter, a 37-yard Benirschke field goal attempt stopped dead in the air about halfway to the goal posts. A controversy later arose over the wind blowing through the large doorway at one end of the stadium. Seems the door was always closed when the Bengals were driving in that direction.
The cold weather probably hampered the Chargers' free-wheeling offensive style more than it did the Bengals. But four Charger turnovers turned out to be the difference.
"We didn't play very well," Coryell said after the 20-point defeat. "If we had played as well as we can, it would have gone down to the wire."
Suddenly the Chargers were history.
The next year, Miami thrashed them 34-13 in Rozelle's jerry-built Super Bowl tournament aimed at salvaging a strike-torn season.
In the following four seasons, the Chargers won 25 games, lost 39 and escaped further playoff ignominy by not qualifying.
They started the 1987 season with an 8-1 record and dared dream of playing a Super Bowl in their home stadium. However, they lost their last six games in one of the biggest fold-ups since the M*A*S*H 4077th bugged out of Korea.
There were no death threats, frostbite or heat exhaustion. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Chargers were back home . . . but not to play football.