Wilbur Young's feet caught on fire--on the sidelines. And the night before, Gene Klein and his wife had to sleep with all their clothes on in a Cincinnati hotel.
The previous year somebody had loosened the lug nuts on the rear wheels of Gary (Big Hands) Johnson's van during the last practice of the season. Earlier that season, there had been death threats, epithets and paranoia. The next afternoon the cops left Johnson's side only when he ran onto the playing field.
We're talking early '80s here. Back when Dan Fouts didn't look so much like Merlin Olsen. Twice the Chargers got within 60 minutes of the Super Bowl. Twice they fell short.
Never before nor since have they come so close to pro football's showcase event.
On Jan. 11, 1981, they lost, 34-27, to the wild-eyed, wild-card Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders did them in with the "Immaculate Deflection"--a Jim Plunkett pass that bounced off running back Kenny King's hands and into the waiting arms of tight end Raymond Chester. The result was a 65-yard Raider touchdown on the fourth play of the game.
On Jan. 10, 1982, they lost, 27-7, to the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals freeze-framed the Chargers at Glacierfront Stadium on a day that featured a wind chill factor colder than Lee Van Cleef's smile.
The two losses were the third and fourth for the Chargers in five conference championship games. During the 29 star-crossed years of its existence, the San Diego professional football franchise has won one championship. The team did it in the old AFL. John F. Kennedy was still president when that 1963 season began. The Super Bowl--a title named after an adjective and numbered by Romans--was not yet a gleam in NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle's eye. And merger was still a dirty word.
But now Rozelle's annual corporate orgy is two days short of its 22nd birthday. And the sad fact of the NFL matter for the host city is this: The Super Bowl got to San Diego before San Diego got to the Super Bowl.
So the time has come to reflect upon the Chargers' two closest brushes with the kind of hoopla that has paralyzed the two cities whose teams have arrived to play for the right to wear a ring that would make Sammy Davis Jr. blush.
The 1980 Chargers, champions of the AFC West at 11-5, were a team that was lucky to arrive in the conference championship game at all. Only a 50-yard touchdown pass with 2:08 remaining from Fouts to Ron Smith (who had run the wrong pattern) enabled them to escape with a 20-14 victory in a first round playoff match-up with Buffalo.
"We knew it was going to be tough to beat Buffalo because of their style," kicker Rolf Benirschke said. "They controlled the ball and we feared that ability to run the clock down."
In fact, the Bills had beaten the Chargers in San Diego 26-24 earlier in the season. This time, Fouts threw for 314 yards. John Jefferson caught seven passes for 102 yards and free safety Glen Edwards intercepted two Joe Ferguson passes.
Next up were the Raiders, with whom the Chargers had split two games that year.
The media had great fun with the enmity that had grown between Klein and Raider Managing General Partner Al Davis. Among other things, there was more controversy surrounding Los Angeles sports columnist Melvin Durslag's contention that Davis, unpopular with his fellow owners, couldn't get a fairly officiated game from a Rozelle crew.
"I honestly don't feel individual officials would take it upon themselves to shade calls to spite Al," Klein said at the time. "And I certainly deem it unlikely that any such directive would be issued by Pete Rozelle."
The Klein-Davis feud later accelerated into an episodic war that included a Klein heart attack suffered while testifying against Davis during Davis' victorious 1982 lawsuit against the NFL.
Klein later won a lawsuit against Davis in which he charged that Davis' "malicious prosecution" caused the heart attack. Davis' attorney, former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, quoted Dante, John Milton and Matthew Arnold in an eloquent defense. Joseph Cotchett, one of Klein's lawyers countered with this from Mark Twain: "Get your facts first. Then you can distort them any way you want."
Klein won a total of $10 million in damages, a sum later reduced to $2.04 million last year. But asked seven years later about the buildup before the Raider game, Klein said: "I don't remember anything except that it was a week of excitement."
At that time, the players were more amused than surprised at Klein vs. Davis.
"It's the kind of hype Ali used to sell tickets," said Charger tight end Kellen Winslow. "But this isn't hype. These are true feelings between two men."
"Two grown, very wealthy men arguing," Jefferson added. "I enjoy it. I sit back and watch what happens and giggle."
But Jefferson turned dead serious the day before the game when he and teammate Gregg McCrary noticed the back wheels of Johnson's van wobbling as he drove from the stadium lot after practice.