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Dolphins Get Past Chargers

Miami defeats San Diego, 26-10, in a game marked by collection of money for wildfire victims.

October 28, 2003|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

TEMPE, Ariz. — At precisely 4:30 Monday afternoon, the gates to Sun Devil Stadium swung open and more than 60,000 fans, some of whom had been in line since 10 the previous night, rushed through the turnstiles. Most of them came not to cheer for the San Diego Chargers. Nor for the Miami Dolphins. They came because of an offer no true fan could refuse: Free football. Free NFL football. "Free Monday Night Football."

But despite their joy at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, these fans showed they understood their good fortune came at the expense of the fortunes, and, in some cases, the lives of others. The game, won easily by the Dolphins, 26-10, thanks to three touchdown passes by Brian Griese, originally was scheduled for San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. But it was shifted to Tempe because of wildfires in San Diego County, part of a rash of fires in Southern California that have resulted in at least 14 deaths, the loss of more than 1,500 buildings and the burning of more than 500,000 acres. Fans, asked for donations in exchange for free tickets, contributed at least $200,000, with the tabulation still going on late into the night.

Among those losing homes were Rick Smith, former media relations executive with the Chargers and Los Angeles/ St. Louis Rams, and John Hinek, the Chargers' director of business and stadium operations. Fullback Lorenzo Neal and tight end Stephen Alexander had to evacuate their homes, as did coach James Lofton.

"My heart goes out to people who build their lives, build their homes and it's gone in seconds," said Neal, who expected to move his family back into his home today. "Let's face it. You are not going to remember this game years from now, but you will remember these fires."

The seriousness of the situation hit the fans five feet past the turnstiles, where Arizona Cardinal cheerleaders waited with buckets labeled "San Diego Fire Relief Fund." Five members of the Cardinals -- running back Marcel Shipp, kicker Tim Duncan, defensive end Kenny King, guard Tony Wragge and linebacker Tony Gilbert -- volunteered to stand by the entrances and encourage contributions.

"I was on the Internet last night looking for tickets," said Perry Dytrt of Mesa, Ariz., clad in a Dolphin jersey. "I was willing to pay $100. Instead, I get to go for free and contribute to a good cause. What a great deal."

"Everybody is doing what they can," Shipp said. "But we didn't really do anything. The fans didn't pay attention to us. They were busy yakking at the cheerleaders."

Fears that the first Monday night game in Sun Devil Stadium since 1999 would be played with empty seats as a backdrop caused the league to approve the mass giveaway.

The possibility of shifting the game to Tempe was first raised in a call from NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to Cardinal vice president Michael Bidwill, son of Cardinal owner Bill Bidwill, on Sunday afternoon. With the fires raging, smoke spreading across the skies above Qualcomm and the stadium being pressed into service as an evacuation center, it became obvious "Monday Night Football" would have to be moved.

Thus began a frantic 24 hours.

The ABC television crew didn't have to be told of the impracticality of holding the game at Qualcomm. Some of them had been setting up their facilities Sunday at the stadium wearing surgical masks because of the smoke and ash.

The move caused ABC to have to cut the number of cameras to be used from the normal 20 down to nine.

"The producers won't have as many options as they normally do," said ABC vice president for media relations Mark Mandel, "but 99% of the viewers won't notice."

They would have noticed if commentator John Madden hadn't been there, however. And since Madden doesn't fly, he was one of the first to leave San Diego, the bus that transports him around the country pulling out at 7:30 Sunday evening. It arrived in Tempe at 3:30 a.m. Monday.

"He was more important than all our trucks," Mandel said. "If John Madden can't get there, we won't do the game."

There were hundreds of little details to work out. For example, the stencil the Chargers use to paint their logo in the end zone couldn't be transported to Tempe in time. So an ASU volunteer traced a stencil off an image on the Charger Web site.

The Dolphins (5-2) built a 24-3 halftime lead on the touchdown passes by Griese, who was starting in place of the injured Jay Fiedler (left knee). Griese's passes went to Chris Chambers (five yards), James McKnight (two) and Randy McMichael (seven). Olindo Mare accounted for the other three points with a 44-yard field goal. In the second half, San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson scored the Chargers' only touchdown on a one-yard run. The Dolphin defense added a safety and picked off San Diego quarterback Drew Brees three times.

Late in the game, the public-address announcer made an unprecedented announcement: "Paid attendance: zero."

Asked whether free tickets are something the Cardinals ought to consider to pack Sun Devil Stadium, something they have been unable to do because of their consistently poor record, Shipp said, "It works."

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