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Los Angeles Chargers open training camp in Costa Mesa

Quarterback Justin Herbert throws the ball during Chargers training camp on Wednesday at Jack Hammett Sports Complex.
Quarterback Justin Herbert throws the ball during Chargers training camp on Wednesday at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

It might be toned down, but professional football is back in Costa Mesa this summer.

The Los Angeles Chargers opened their training camp Wednesday morning at Jack Hammett Sports Complex, the first of 16 open practices in the city over the next three-plus weeks.

Fans came from near and far. Lifelong Chargers fan Alberto Najera of Costa Mesa, 34, who stood in front of the bleachers watching the practice, said he could ride his bike to the field.

Jonathan Rodriguez of San Diego, meanwhile, said he drove up to the training camp with a friend after working a graveyard shift Tuesday night.

Rodriguez, 29, was dressed in Chargers gear from head to toe, including a face mask that had two Mexican flags sticking out of the top of it. His friend Jorge Santiesteban, 41, was also decked out in team gear, including a sombrero.

“We’re representing the city they came from, man,” Rodriguez said. “San Diego Chargers fans, we’re still here … We have Bolt Pride family everywhere, worldwide. We caught the game in Mexico, we caught the game in London, we went to France, Japan. Everywhere there’s Chargers fans.”

A masked fan looks on from the sideline during Chargers training camp on Wednesday.
A masked fan looks on from the sideline during Chargers training camp on Wednesday at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Rodriguez and Santiesteban noticed a change from past years when they entered the complex. There was a minimal line to get in, even at 8:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the practice began.

The Chargers have been training at Jack Hammett Sports Complex since 2017, but last year’s NFL training camps were closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s camp is scaled back, with a smaller team store and no interactive fan zones.

Fans have to pre-register for the free tickets. As of Wednesday afternoon, five other practices no longer had tickets available, including the team’s joint practices with the San Francisco 49ers on Aug. 19 and 20.

The team will also have a fan fest at its home stadium, SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, on Aug. 8.

Though fans weren’t allowed to get up close to players for autographs due to NFL COVID-19 protocols, the Chargers still showed their appreciation on Wednesday. Several, including running back Austin Ekeler, signed miniature footballs after the practice session and threw them into the crowd.

Second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, last year’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, also was generous with his time and his autograph.

“It’s good to have fans back and to be able to say thank you, and have their support,” Herbert said. “As weird of a year as it’s been, to have them show up and watch football and be a part of it, I think it’s a pretty cool moment.”

Running back Larry Rountree III high-steps through an obstacle during Chargers training camp on Wednesday in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Herbert played it cool in a post-practice press conference when asked about the remark of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes at a recent golf tournament. A fan told Mahomes to watch out for Herbert this year, to which Mahomes replied, “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

The Chiefs have been to two straight Super Bowls.

“I think it’s pretty cool that Patrick Mahomes knows who I am,” Herbert said with a smile. “I’ve got such great respect for what he’s been able to do.”

First-year head coach Brandon Staley, the defensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams last season, guides the Chargers in 2021. He brings a new staff including offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, the grandson of late Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

The Chargers missed the playoffs and went a frustrating 7-9 in 2020, including six losses by a touchdown or less. But they won their last four games. The progression of Herbert should excite fans, as will the return of Pro Bowl safety Derwin James, who missed the entire season last year after undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus.

Fans look on from the sideline during Chargers training camp on Wednesday at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Staley said it wasn’t an accident that Wednesday’s practice went a brief 75 minutes.

“I wanted our guys to get to the end of practice and say, ‘Hey, I could have gone longer than that,’” he said.

The time will come for that. Staley was just glad to be back in front of fans.

“What makes it feel real is when you come into the parking lot and you see a bunch of kids getting ready to watch training camp, you see fans in the stands wearing our guys’ jerseys and our colors,” he said. “It’s just a different atmosphere.”

Also on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Rams opened their training camp at UC Irvine. The Rams’ training camp at UCI runs through Aug. 10, with 10 practices open to the public. Free tickets are available online.

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