Like a Cinderella finally invited to the big party, San Diego has begun what promises to be a two-week binge of sports boosterism and hometown chauvinism as Charger fans revel in their team's first appearance in the bowl called super.
So ravenous were San Diegans on Monday to purchase anything connected to the team bound for Miami and Super Bowl XXIX against the San Francisco 49ers that a security guard was assigned to the team's official souvenir store at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. Only two customers were let in at a time.
"Finally, San Diego has something to be excited about," said Debbie Lambert, a San Diego nurse, leaving the store wearing a plastic blowup Charger helmet and bearing a bag with Charger pens, Charger hats, Charger visors, Charger pompons and Charger T-shirts.
Ruth DeLaune, manager of a senior citizens home in Lakeside, wore a Chargers 1994 AFC Conference Champions T-shirt bought earlier in the day as she waited in the chilly weather for a second chance to peruse the blue-and-gold merchandise.
"You just gotta do it," she said, as if no further explanation was needed.
From the front seat of his mini-truck, budding rapmeister Barry Farrar was selling cassettes of his own highly unofficial Charger theme song, "The Bolts Are Back" by Fish Dog and Boltmaster G. (For non-cognoscenti, bolts refer to the lightning bolts on the players' helmets.)
The first explosion of Charger madness came just hours after the team triumphed over the Rush Limbaugh-favored Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. About 68,000 fans jammed the stadium Sunday night to welcome home their conquering professionals.
Another 10,000 fans were turned away as the stadium became SRO (standing-room only) and then some. Fans abandoned their cars along Interstate 8 and hotfooted over wet Mission Valley terrain to reach the free-admission celebration.
The rally presaged what, if the pattern of other Super Bowl buildups is followed, will be a fortnight devoted to mass consumption of souvenirs, a desperate scramble for tickets, dueling newspaper columns by columnists in the competing cities, bets among politicians, Bud Bowl hype and large-scale, civic-sponsored euphoria.
So ritualized has it all become that San Diego attorney Cynthia Thornton, surveying the madness that engulfed the city as soon as the Steelers' last pass was batted down by a Charger defender, wondered if there is a heretofore unexplored scientific explanation.
"Maybe there's a gene spliced onto the Y chromosome that activates when the Super Bowl is mentioned," she said. "Guys who don't care anything about football are suddenly yelling about the Super Bowl."
Much of the talk Monday was about the unprecedented party at the stadium, accomplished with only minor rowdiness. "This just shows San Diego is the best city in the world, which we knew a long time ago," said San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, wearing a Charger sweat shirt.
At the end of the festivities, fans surged onto the playing field and grabbed hunks of turf and jostled television crews. Still, there was only one fistfight and only a few minor arrests.
"Nobody celebrated by turning over cars or shooting off guns," one security guard said. "This is still San Diego."
Not in all American cities, of course, would things have gone so smoothly, especially with a crowd that had imbibed large quantities of beer and waited several hours for the team to arrive, with only cheerleaders and disc jockeys for diversion.
It was, observers said later, a true San Diego experience, exuberant yet laid-back.
"San Diego can still celebrate a sports team's victory without rioting, and that's kind of refreshing these days," said Barry Lorge, former sportswriter and now a sports consultant in San Diego. "San Diego lacks that hard edge of the mob mentality" at sports contests.
"This is San Diego," said Marty Levin, anchor at the city's NBC affiliate. "We live here because we don't want to live in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York or San Francisco. It really is a more mellow place. I think we have a far smaller number of jerks per capita here."
"SUPER BOLTS!" said the front-page headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune in a font of type usually reserved for declarations of war. The paper's entire front page consisted of two Chargers' stories and a suitable-for-framing-size picture of star running back Natrone Means.
Although the academics will tell you that any true links between a city and its sports hirelings are tenuous at best, the Chargers and San Diego have one thing in common: a history of being undervalued by their peers.
"I could not be prouder for the city of San Diego," the team's Louisiana-born quarterback Stan Humphries had shouted to the roaring crowd. "We're happy for y'all. We're going to go to Miami and win that sucker."
When the city snagged the 1996 GOP convention a few weeks back, Mayor Golding was asked by the political press if San Diego had finally arrived and she replied in mock annoyance, "Every time we succeed in San Diego, somebody says, 'Well, does this put San Diego on the map?' Let me tell you: San Diego is on the map."
Despite a rash of victories overcoming first-half deficits, the Chargers had their doubters.
Even Limbaugh, who is so popular in the San Diego market that he can be heard proclaiming on one radio station in the morning and another in the afternoon, had dissed the Chargers by characterizing the game as a non-contest between "the men of Pittsburgh against the boys of San Diego." Steeler players had become willing dittoheads when dispensing pregame quotations.
"They did their talking in the papers, but we did ours on the field," beamed Humphries--affirmation, if any was needed, that playing well is the best revenge.