SAN DIEGO — Daniel Hunter still thinks about it. He was the only Charger to touch rookie Paul Palmer. He reached for him at the Kansas City 18-yard line, actually had his hand on the ball, then was shoved from behind.
"I was clipped. I would have had him if I wasn't clipped," Hunter said. "It was freaky. It was one play that has stayed in the back of everyone's mind."
Timmie Ware still thinks about it. He was the last Charger to have a shot at Palmer. After chasing him the length of the field, he dived for him at the Charger 10 and missed.
"I dove off the wrong foot, the back foot, or I might have had him," Ware said. "Bad timing. Bad dive. I can see it today."
Wayne Sevier, special teams coach, still thinks about it. It happened in his first game since he returned to San Diego after a seven-year absence.
"I never even saw Palmer cross the goal line," Sevier said. "As soon as it looked like he was going to make it, I started looking for a penalty flag. Any kind of penalty flag. Looked everywhere. I was angry, I was depressed."
And his team was strikingly, stunningly beaten. On Sept. 13, in the opening game of the season, Palmer returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown with 3:19 left to deal the Chargers a 20-13 loss.
Ironically, today, in the first game after the strike, the same teams play, this time at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium at 1 p.m.
After dispensing with the typical chatter about the effect of the strike, most of the Chargers understand just one thing about this game.
Kansas City is a team they should have beaten. Kansas City is a team they had beaten. Just before the kickoff return, they had come back to tie the score, 13-13, on Vince Abbott's 33-yard field goal. They had been working the field with ease. They were en route to outgaining the Chiefs in total yardage, 342-232.
Only a freak play could have stopped them. Only a freak play could have kept them from being one of the NFL's two unbeaten teams at 5-0.
A freak play did.
"It's been there in all of us, all week," said cornerback Hunter. "We haven't had to talk about it, but we know what happened, and we can't forget it."
Added receiver Ware: "There is no worse feeling on special teams than to think that you let the other team beat your team. You don't have to always feel like you won the game for your team. But you never want to feel like you lost it. This time, we did.
"Yes, we have discussed it."
Feeling it most this week has been Sevier. He coached the Chargers' special teams in the AFC West title years of 1979 and 1980. His teams have made the playoffs in eight of his 10 full National Football League seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Redskins and Chargers. He wasn't quite ready for all of this.
"I remember we had just kicked a field goal to tie it up, and everybody in our huddle was excited, fired up, bright-eyed," said Sevier. "We were moving the ball well. We hold, we score and we win.
"Then we go out and, on one play, we lose."
Sevier sighed. "I have felt very much pressure on myself and my special teams all week."
On Friday, at a special teams meeting, Sevier pulled out the Paul Palmer film. He played it again and again.
"Not for punishment," he said. "But we have to address the issue. We have to learn from it."
Sevier also has cleaned house. Of the 10 members of that original kickoff team, besides Abbott, only five will open Sunday's game at the same position. There have been four player changes and one position change.
"Obviously, we're going to do everything we can so it does not happen again," Sevier said.
But nobody can promise that it won't happen again. Not Sevier, not his players, and certainly not the laws of football.
Such is the charm of a good kickoff return. You can't do anything about it.
"If it was up to just me, I would say no, that is not going to happen again," Hunter said. "But a lot of it is up to the returner. If Palmer gets the ball again, makes some good moves, it could happen."
Sevier agreed. "The only thing I can ever guarantee is that a team won't return a punt for a touchdown. I can always punt it out of bounds. But we cannot kick off out of bounds. We have to kick to their guys sometime."
With today's game featuring players who have formally practiced for just five of the last 34 days, don't expect any guarantees:
- The players could look talented and strong, or they could look sick. Probability: You won't be able to tell the difference.
"I think there's definitely going to be a drop-off in our conditioning and skills, but remember, we're talking about 27 other teams with the same problem," Charger Coach Al Saunders said. "The main concern will be whether the players will mentally come together as a unit. We have feelings on this team about the last four weeks that range from concerned to ambivalent. It will be a challenge for our veteran leaders to bring everybody together under one goal."