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AFC World : San Diego Has Been Starved for a Super Bowl, and Now Charger Fans Are Eating Up the Chance at a Title

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is pretty much a given that the outcome of any championship football game will have a direct impact on a community’s food consumption.

Take Pittsburgh, which last week reported a record number of blank stares into cold plates of bratwurst.

The scene could not have been more different at Vic’s La Fiesta Liquor and Deli near San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, where owner Vic (B.B.) Hanhan has been making submarine sandwiches at breakneck speed since the Chargers’ torpedoed Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game.

Hanhan is used to catering to the large appetites of his Charger regulars.

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Junior Seau: “Double roast beef, ham, turkey. I mean we’re talking a monster sandwich,” Hanhan said.

Leslie O’Neal: “Ham, turkey, cheese, melted on a French roll.”

Harry Swayne: “Ham, turkey, bacon on croissant. Two of them.”

But what’s with all these other people?

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“Business has quadrupled since the game,” Hanhan said. “People want to eat, they want to drink, they want to party.”

Same story downtown at Rubio’s on Fourth Avenue, where fish taco sales have been jumping. Some would attribute this increase to a favorable change in the weather. Those in the know say it really had to do with the changing of the guard in the AFC.

“I haven’t seen this since the Padres,” said Tim Ward, manager at Rubio’s, referring to the baseball team’s World Series run in 1984. “This is probably a little bigger.

“If you’re happy, you’ll spend money.”

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As dawn broke on the morning of the AFC title game, Scott McCully arrived to work at Trophy’s Bar and Grill in Hazard Center.

It was 6:30.

“One guy was already waiting for me at the door, just like that McDonald’s commercial,” McCully said.

By 9:15, 300 people had lined up outside to watch the title game on several big screens. McCully unlocked the door and watched the patrons rumble in like bulls through Pamplona. The Chargers’ victory kept the cash register ringing until the wee hours.

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“If we would have lost that game, the place would have cleared out,” McCully said. “The whole town’s buzzing. Everyone was just drained after the game. Everyone was just on edge.”

Anyway you look at it, San Diego had been starved.

It has not had a football championship since Sid Gillman’s powder-blue-jersey Chargers won the old American Football League crown in 1963.

Last Sunday, when linebacker Dennis Gibson knocked down a fourth-down pass in the end zone at Three Rivers Stadium, securing the Chargers’ upset victory, the emotional floodgates of San Diego opened and descended upon “the Murph.”

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In an impromptu show of support, more than 68,000 fans filled the stadium to greet their returning heroes.

It was the second-largest crowd in stadium history, topped only by the 73,302 who showed up for the 1988 Super Bowl between the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos.

“It took an hour and a half to get out of the parking lot,” remarked Lotta Cross, president of the Charger Backers, the team’s booster club.

And no one cared.

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San Diego fans have a reputation for being fair-weather and fickle, but it may be more a case of die-hard loyalists not allowing themselves to be set up again for the big fall.

The city has been sabotaged before. In 1992, the Chargers won the AFC West title in Bobby Ross’ first season and then fell on their faces, losing a divisional playoff game to Miami, 31-0.

After the 1981 season, the Dan Fouts-led Chargers, with one of the best offenses in NFL history, were freeze-dried at Riverfront Stadium in the title game, losing to Cincinnati on a day with a wind-chill factor dipping to minus-59 degrees.

“Didn’t you hear about Cincinnati opening the gates so the wind would blow?” Cross said, dusting off an old conspiracy theory. “We found out at the end of the game. Every time we had the ball, they created a draft, the maintenance people. (Coach Don) Coryell raised holy heck.”

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Phil Barile, 83, ticket manager for the 1960 Los Angeles Chargers, remembers Dec. 29, 1979, as his biggest disappointment.

The Chargers had won the West title with a 12-4 record and played host to a wounded Houston Oiler team in a playoff game.

“The Oilers were without (quarterback Dan) Pastorini, (tailback Earl) Campbell and their receiver, (Ken) Burrough, and they beat us 17-14,” Barile said.

But all those disappointments seemed to wash away on Gibson’s season-saving deflection.

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Fans were willing to let go and forgive Charger management for past missteps: The crime, all those years, of not providing the great Fouts a defense; those peculiar 1980s decisions to hire Al Saunders, then Dan Henning.

People are not afraid to be Charger fans anymore.

Carl Tucker, a 39-year-old painter, pulled his Ford pickup into a local strip-mall parking lot last Wednesday. Mounted on the hood of his truck was a black plastic wind scoop on which was inscribed in block letters: The Bolt Is Back.

“The first one I made was two years ago, when we played Miami (in the playoffs),” Tucker explained. “Before the half, I tore it off. We were losing, 31-0. I took a hammer to it in the back yard.”

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For the Super Bowl against San Francisco, Tucker plans to dress in a yellow suit and paint a lightning bolt on his truck.

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So, the San Francisco 49ers are 19-point favorites in Super Bowl XXIX?

Don’t tell George Pernicano about beating the odds. In 1957, a Friday the 13th, Pernicano was flying home from Las Vegas to San Diego. The plane made a scheduled stop in Palm Springs and then another stop that was not scheduled.

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“We were taking off, and something came by my window,” Pernicano recalled this week. “It was the damned wing tip. I said ‘Lord, don’t let me get blown into the air.’ ”

The aircraft skidded to a crash on the desert floor. Pernicano and all the other passengers somehow managed to escape the plane before it caught fire and blew up.

“Two more minutes in the air and we would have hit the mountains,” Pernicano said.

In 1961, Pernicano purchased 5% of the Chargers and has not missed a game since, home or away. Now 77, he boarded the team plane as usual for the team’s recent trip to Pittsburgh for the AFC title game.

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It was a Friday. The 13th.

“My wife said, “You know it’s Friday the 13th?’ ” Pernicano said. “I knew. I tell people it’s my lucky number. I used to tell Fouts and (John) Hadl, I’d say, ‘Never let this plane take off without me, because I’ve already been in a plane crash.’

“I died and was reborn that day. I’m really only 37 now.”

The Chargers’ victory over Pittsburgh almost counts as another rebirth.

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Pernicano pointed to the 1963 championship ring on his finger.

“Last year I told the coaches I wanted this ring replaced with a new one,” he said. “I’m still in a dither, a daze. I’ve gone to all the Super Bowls, but to actually be in one. . . .”

His voice trailed off.

“It’s just such a thrill. Hell, I’m pooped.”

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Two former San Diego Charger greats had some explaining to do last week. Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback, works as a sports anchor for a CBS affiliate, KPIX-TV.

In San Francisco.

He has seen every 49er game this season and knows of the team’s greatness.

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Asked by a San Diego writer last week to predict a final score, Fouts said, “38-10.”

And the winner?

“I’m not telling,” Fouts said.

Can you throw a guy out of Canton for treason?

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Sid Gillman, the Chargers’ coach from 1960 through ’69, and then again in 1971, also is a Hall of Famer.

He also has a problem.

Gillman, who still resides in San Diego County, has been telling anyone who will listen for the last 10 years that Steve Young is a Super Bowl quarterback.

Gillman was Young’s first professional quarterback coach in 1984, when both were employed by the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League.

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“I’ve been praising that guy since the first day he put a football in his hands,” Gillman said. “Some other clubs could have had him, you know.”

The Chargers?

Silence.

“Some clubs said he didn’t have an arm. Can you imagine that? He’s a Hall of Famer, no doubt. He just needs a Super Bowl.”

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Which means he needs to beat San Diego.

“I’m kind of divided,” he hedged. “I’m just interested in the game, I don’t pull for anybody.”

Another pause.

“Of course, I’m pulling for the Chargers,” he said. “I have to pull for the Chargers. I live in San Diego. I’ve never seen this town this way. Never.”

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What about ’63?

“It was different. They took us in, but nothing like this. And we had a great football team.”

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Sometimes, being a Charger fan is hell.

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After 30 years of undying devotion, Don Blake walked away from his favorite team last year. He grew tired of the promises, the near-misses. Mostly, he got tired of owner Alex Spanos.

Blake, a longtime member of the Charger Backers, was voted the team’s fan of the year in 1988. He used to attend booster-club meetings to agitate coaches and demand that Spanos be held accountable.

Blake, 64, was outraged last year when the team nearly let General Manager Bobby Beathard slip away.

So he quit the Chargers, cold turkey, gave up his season tickets. This week he received two Super Bowl tickets in the mail.

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Gave those away too.

“I can’t be a goody-two-shoes and crawl back and say ‘I’m back,’ ” said Blake, who spent 26 years in the Navy’s submarine force. “In a way I feel like a traitor, but I’ve got to be honest.”

But how could he walk away? “It used to be the biggest thing in my life, but it’s almost relegated to the point of zero,” Blake said. “This city deserves it, but this is a fickle sports city. I remember times when I went out of town where I couldn’t give my tickets away.”

Blake concedes he will watch the game from home.

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“I’ll sit here and criticize the whole damn game,” Blake said. “I’ve never been a fair-weather fan.”


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