On October 27, 1991, two weeks before my tenth birthday, I became a San Diego Chargers fan. It’s one of those childhood memories that is vivid but also patchy, as if I dreamt it last night and have to reconstruct some of the connective narrative to make it make sense. It’s also a story I’ve reluctantly had to tell to anyone who has ever asked me “why are you a Chargers fan?” to defend my decision not to support the Seahawks (the local team) or a more national team that was popular in the 90s, like the Cowboys, 49ers, or Packers.
The day before I became a Chargers fan, I made my first start at middle linebacker in Grid Kids (peewee football) after our best defensive player broke his arm the previous game. There is only one play I remember, but it may be my most vivid pre-puberty memory. I saw a hole open in the offensive line before I ran headfirst into it as fast as I could, not even seeing the running back I hit before I heard a POP and fell on top of him. The crowd audibly gasped and waited for us both to get up before cheering. And I remember after the game my dad was so proud (neither my dad nor I remember if I actually had a good game outside of that one hit) that he told me we were going to go to Seattle to go to a Seahawks game the next day, just the two of us.
The game in Seattle is fuzzy, and I only recall a few things related to childhood anxiety. The steps of the Kingdome were steep and I didn’t want to fall down them (we had shitty seats). You had to pee in a trough in front of everyone instead of your own separate urinal stall. Drunk fans were yelling at each other and threatening to fight. But I couldn’t let my dad know that I was out of my comfort zone. After all, I was a linebacker now, and I wasn’t afraid of throwing my body at other kids who were older and bigger than me, so why should I be afraid of peeing in a trough? So I turned my anxiety into playful antagonism (as kids are apt to do) and started rooting against the Seahawks to irk my dad and the fans around us.
If a second year superstar named Junior Seau hadn’t worn the same number as my dad and I, I might not have remembered that game at all, and I definitely wouldn’t be writing about the Chargers today. It was one of those coincidences that hit at the right moment to make a lasting impression. Junior was a great player, and I identified with him because he wore 55 and had the same neck roll. My dad took the opportunity to bribe me into playing better, saying something to the effect of “if you play like him, then I don’t care that you’re a Chargers fan.” Until I looked up the date of the game today for this post, I thought the Chargers won (they lost 20-9). I guess it didn’t matter. We ended up going to every Chargers game in Seattle together until 2006.
Rooting for a team can be as complicated as my story about the Chargers or as simple as “I like their logo.” It’s irrational. But my relationship with the Chargers is more than just an admiration for the big men running around in the homoerotic uniform. It’s a convoluted mix of nostalgia and male bonding, an attachment baked and hardened in hours of free time spent in frivolous but rewarding pursuits. I subscribed to Sports Illustrated so I could cut out every photo of a Chargers player and make a scrapbook. I recorded every Chargers game on VHS that was televised in Washington (did you know TNT used to have Sunday night football?!) and stat tracked every game live on the internet when stat tracking became a thing. If it wasn’t for the Chargers, I’m not sure I would’ve convinced my younger brother to apply to UCSD, where he ended up going and where he lives now. I’m sure it’s because I subconsciously felt compelled to share the Chargers and San Diego with my brother (who doesn’t like football) the way my dad shared football with me. Football, the Chargers, San Diego, and family have stewed together in a strange elixir that became part of my character. You can say sports don’t matter, but it’s hard for an adult to extract something that’s part of his or her identity and not be hurt.
It’s no wonder, then, that following the Chargers has taught me a lot about adulthood and the harsh realities of the world. They made the Super Bowl in the 1994 season behind Junior’s Defensive Player of the Year season, only to get crushed in the Super Bowl (a game that I still have not seen the second half of). They lost 15 games in a row behind the putrid play of Ryan Leaf. They had the best team in the league in 2006 and lost in the playoffs when Marlon McCree fumbled a game sealing interception. But that’s just on the field pain. Every fan has stories like that. The Chargers taught me more about disappointment than that. They exposed me to corruption, incompetence, and tragedy. They had a team doctor that was handing out pain pills like porn fliers in Vegas, feeding the addictions of players I grew up with. Incidentally, he’s now blacklisted by the NFL and runs a very popular sports medicine Twitter account. Archie Manning refused to let his son play for the Chargers because their ownership was so clueless, making the Chargers (and their fans) the biggest punchline in the NFL. And that all-pro linebacker whom I was supposed to play like? He ended up shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun after exhibiting symptoms of CTE for years.
The stadium saga and today’s announcement that the team is going to move to LA was a civics lesson in how rich men try to fleece governments. I’ve seen the drama unfold over almost two decades, with countless stadium plans, city hall meetings, and arguing lawyers. It was shitshow of spin and inept plans. It wore on me. I stopped buying Chargers merchandise. I quit going to games. I unfollowed every Chargers reporter on Twitter. People asked me why I cared, it shouldn’t matter since I don’t live in San Diego. It matters because a team becomes linked with its community. And I empathize with every San Diegan who feels the same way about the Chargers that I do. The same fans who messaged each other on every draft day, that were writers and Bolts from the Blue, that podcasted updates every week. They became part of my “fan elixir” just as much as LaDainian Tomlinson or Antonio Gates.
Today is especially sad because it is the official end of the hope I had that Dean Spanos would do the right thing. I thought that there was still a chance he could forget about the bottom line and stay in a bad stadium situation for a little while longer. That maybe there was a chance he could come up with a plan that would keep the Chargers in San Diego, instead of abandoning thousands of fans like me for whom the Chargers exist as part of their identity. Instead, they will just become the second tenant to an LA stadium, existing for tourists and transplants to go see when their actual favorite team comes to town. Spanos proved he was another mediocre rich man born into prosperity that America seems to be littered with, who ripped the guts out of regular people in order to take the team’s value from $800 million to a billion. So here I sit, reminded once again that unremarkable rich men can get away with whatever they want. Congratulations, Dean, on adding another comma to your net worth. Charger fans are only collateral damage.