DENVER — Pregame pep talks are as old as the game itself, but their usefulness in pro football is debatable. They tend to work better in Hollywood scripts than in places such as Mile High Stadium.
Al Saunders, the new coach of the Chargers, had little to risk by pulling a newspaper clipping from his pocket and reading it to his team before Sunday's game against Denver.
Saunders, who succeeded Don Coryell as coach 10 days ago, wanted his players to think about the inspirational story of Bob Wieland, the 40-year-old Californian who recently competed in the New York Marathon. The Vietnam war veteran, who has no legs, required more than four days to complete the marathon on his hands.
"If one man can believe in himself like that, we could believe enough in ourselves to play 60 minutes of football," Saunders said shortly after the Chargers ended an eight-game losing streak by startling the Broncos, 9-3.
The message seemed to ring true.
"We were on a mission today and there was no stopping us," said safety Vencie Glenn, whose interception of a John Elway pass with 24 seconds left aborted Denver's final chance to win.
The Broncos (8-2) maintained a one-game lead over Kansas City in the AFC West, with the Chargers (2-8) a distant fifth.
Glenn's interception in the Charger end zone came after the Broncos had driven from their 27-yard line with 1:42 left. It ended the worst day of the year for Elway, who completed 13 of 31 passes, with 3 interceptions.
"I was frustrated today, but I don't think that affected my play," Elway said. "The most frustrating thing is when you don't come out and play well against a team you're supposed to beat."
True enough--the Broncos were 16-point favorites. To lessen the odds, Saunders wanted an error-free, ball-control game with aggressive defense and sound kicking. The Chargers gave him exactly what he wanted.
Third-string quarterback Tom Flick, playing in place of the injured Dan Fouts and Mark Herrmann, executed a neat about-face from last week, when he completed only four passes and was intercepted four times in a 24-23 loss to Kansas City.
Against the Broncos, Flick performed like a poised veteran instead of a man starting only his second pro game. He completed 16 of 22 passes for 130 yards. Just as importantly, he threw only one interception.
"Football is fun again," Flick said. "I'm euphoric. I mean, I'm really happy.
"We didn't hurt ourselves today, and that made a difference. I felt I could throw it away today if there was nothing there. Last week I didn't feel that way."
Along with Flick's accurate short-range passing, the Chargers deployed a running game that produced a misleading 78 yards. Despite that rather small total, the Chargers were able to play ball control on each of their three scoring drives that culminated in Rolf Benirschke field goals.
In the first quarter, the Chargers kept the ball 9 minutes 23 seconds en route to a 25-yard field goal. In the second period, they consumed 7:13 before a 48-yard Benirschke kick. And in the fourth period, they used up 8:45 before a 21-yarder by Benirschke. For the game, the Chargers had the ball nearly 36 minutes.
"Our offense drove the ball down their throats," said linebacker Billy Ray Smith. "This is a great feeling, the best since I've been here in San Diego."
The Charger defense was just as effective.
Glenn's game-saving interception was preceded by two interceptions by Jeff Dale.
Dale's second interception, which he returned 50 yards, started San Diego's final scoring drive.
"We've been analyzed and criticized all year, and we made up our minds today to get back some self respect," said Dale, touching upon Saunders' pep talk. "We wanted it, we needed it and we got it today."
Dale said teammates kidded him after Elway penetrated a phalanx of blockers to run him out of bounds on his second interception.
"I didn't realize there were so many white (Charger) jerseys running near me," Dale said. "But, hey, for a quarterback, he's not too slow."
It has been a long time--two months, to be exact--since the Chargers were so light-hearted in the aftermath of a game.
For Saunders, there never had been a moment so meaningful.
"This is the biggest thrill of my life," said Saunders. "I'll remember this always."
It was an afternoon Denver Coach Dan Reeves would prefer not to remember.
"It seems like we can't stand prosperity," he said. "We had a two-game lead, but we made too many mistakes to win today. It was a tough loss, but we still control our own destiny (in the AFC West).
Reeves probably would have felt worse if he had known this was the first time in Bronco history they had held an opponent without a touchdown in Mile High Stadium, and lost.
It also was the first time in 4 1/2 years the Chargers had limited a team to just three points.
"It was a magnificent win, one we'll be proud of for a long time," Saunders said. "This is really a heck of a way to make a living. I'm pooped."