Charger replacement guard Dwight Wheeler: "A game is a game. But after this game, I may frame my pay stub."
They have survived picket lines and tire punctures and every other sort of parking lot persecution. And for what?
Today at 1 p.m. at the Coliseum, in their final game, the replacement Chargers will play the closest thing the National Football League can offer in the way of a real team. They will play the Raiders, who feature 26 regular roster players who crossed the picket line, including six starters--all of whom will start.
The replacement Chargers feature three regular roster players, but only two--nose guard Terry Unrein and defensive end Mack Moore--can play. Defensive back Jeff Dale is out with a back injury.
For the Raiders, who will have almost everyone, from Howie Long to Mervyn Fernandez, this can be construed as the beginning of the rest of their season.
For the Chargers, this is the Lame Duck Bowl. And they thought scraping eggs off windshields was hard work.
Charger Coach Al Saunders: "Our starting quarterback will be Rick Neuheisel, and our starting wide receivers will be Al Williams and Tim Moffett. Gosh. I even know their full names now."
Both teams are 3-1, and the winner will be the AFC West leader after one-third of the season.
Well, maybe. The real outcome of this game will be decided in a courtroom next month, as the regular players petition the National Labor Relations Board to have this week's replacement games stricken from the record.
So the Chargers could win and still lose. Or the Chargers could lose and still win.
Any lineman worth his 10-pound elbow pads will tell you that the only thing worse than being beaten on for three hours is getting beaten on for three hours for nothing . For some Chargers, that's the scariest part.
Offensive tackle Curtis Rouse: "I'm not looking forward to it . But I guess I got to show up, huh?
Rouse and fellow offensive tackle Greg Feasel, who as a package go 12-feet 10-inches and 641 pounds, will be entrusted with stopping the most dangerous portion of the returning Raiders, their defensive front. That's in the general vicinity of Raider stars Long and Bill Pickel and Greg Townsend.
You heard from Rouse. Feasel isn't talking to the media, which means he now qualifies as a real live NFL player.
They lead an offensive line that, while helping the Chargers to a 2-0 record in replacement games, helped the Charger offense to just 27 total points in those two victories. They have allowed four sacks. Charger running backs have gained a total of only 190 yards.
And the Raider defense, a couple of days after Long and Pickel showed up for work, was crushed by Denver's replacements, 30-14, on national television Monday. But that was before four more defensive regulars, including Townsend and linebacker Jerry Robinson, crossed the picket line Wednesday.
Quarterback Neuheisel: "We have to face it. The odds are long. No pun intended."
The Chargers' on-field hopes lie in their defense. It has been brilliant in the replacement season, allowing just 22 points in two games, limiting opponents to 407 total yards and 18 first downs and all kinds of other small numbers.
But now they'll be facing regular roster running backs Steve Strachan and Ethan Horton, wide receiver Fernandez and guard Bruce Wilkerson. And if quarterback Vince Evans goes down, in comes Marc Wilson, also from the regular roster. One of the notably missing, however, will be Marcus Allen, who did not cross the picket line.
Saunders: "How are we going to stop them? I don't know. With sticks and rocks and clubs?"
Not to interrupt this crying out at the savage fates, but . . . the Chargers do have a chance. And inside, the Chargers probably know it.
Their chance is not on paper, but in places more important.
For one, this will be the last game for most of the replacements. Their last time to make a game film. Their last chance for somebody to take a look. Inspiration from desperation.
Said running back Frank Middleton: "I want to play the best ball I can play and just hope somebody is watching."
Second, with all the talk outside the San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium walls about unity, something funny has been going on inside. Regardless of ability, the Charger team that will face this mixture of Raider stars and replacements is undoubtedly a team.
"We've survived the picket lines, we've survived the hassle, we've survived a lot of things, and we will survive this," Neuheisel said. "I'm not sure we have confidence. But we have camaraderie."
Finally, while the Raiders will likely be working on a ready-for-prime-time game plan, Saunders will still have the Chargers' offense doing those funny little replacement squad things. They will run wishbone options. There will be reverses and flea flickers, and although Saunders can't promise another rugby-style extra-point play, the Chargers will still be surprising.
"In times like these, you have to be more innovative as a coach," Saunders said.
"In times like these," echoed Neuheisel, "if you play conservative, you're dead."
At least the Chargers won't come home tonight like that. Will they?
Saunders: "The Raiders have 26 players back? Is that all?" (He grabs his chest and slides down in his chair . )