When scavenging through the history of a professional football team, can one game be pinpointed in changing the course of the team's overall success? Like baseball's "Curse of the Bambino," can one episode chart the path of a franchise for years to come and doom a team from reaching its championship goal?
Look no further than the San Diego Chargers as an example of a star-crossed team.
Beginning with their origin in Los Angeles in 1960, the Chargers have had a history of roller coaster seasons with most of them being on the downside. The team was dominant and colorful in the old American Football League throughout their first six years, and then they quickly collapsed as a powerhouse.
What happened? Why such a long drought between championships?
Their lone title year was a half century ago in 1963, when they bulldozed the Boston Patriots, 51-10. Their near misses in '61, '64 and '65, the wonder years of Air Coryell, their Super Bowl run in 1994, and the team's sometimes electrifying seasons under Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner stand out as significant.
But if you're a Chargers fan, you'd best be comfortable being stepped on, for many of their 52 seasons, the team has been a doormat. At the end of the 2012 season, after missing the playoffs yet again, the Chargers' overall record stood barely above .500 (399-394-11). Their postseason record is a dismal 10-16.
It was a game 48 years ago that haunts the team to this day: the 1965 American Football League Championship game versus the Buffalo Bills. A home game for the Chargers played in sold-out Balboa Stadium.
I have a unique perspective on that particular game; I was there, on the field, roaming the visitor sidelines wearing Buffalo red, white and blue. I saw first-hand and up-close the Chargers' meltdown. A meltdown that may continue to define the heart and soul of the San Diego Chargers.
I was on the field that afternoon because I worked for the Chargers as one of several ball boys in 1965. During summer training camp, I lived with the team and befriended a few players, most notably linebacker Frank Buncom. Following training camp, I was assigned by the Chargers to work home games in Balboa Stadium and to report to the visiting team.
So there I was at 8 a.m., Sunday, December 26, 1965, in the Bills' locker room unpacking boxes and sorting through equipment, getting uniforms and gear ready for the 1 p.m. kick-off. I remember Buffalo's loquacious equipment manager Tony Marchitte barking orders, taking charge of his minions and turning the dungeon that was Balboa's locker room into an organized, efficient space.
As the players began to arrive, the mood within that dungeon became palpable. It was a quiet, somber, resolve. There seemed to be a steadfastness—a commitment—that permeated the locker room area and seeped into the soul of the Buffalo Bills. I had several chances that morning to duck quickly into San Diego's side of the stadium and noticed a decidedly different ambiance. The Chargers players were smiling, joking and seemingly looking forward to the beer and champagne that was already tucked away, ready for the celebration that was sure to come San Diego's way.
And why not? The Chargers were strong 7-point favorites and had already thumped the Bills 34-3 in their first meeting that season. In their second contest, the teams squared-away in a 20-20 tie.
As I document in my book Finding Frank: Full Circle in a Life Cut Short, San Diego was clearly the dominant team in the AFL in 1965. Their winning percentage of .818 far outdistanced any other team, and they outscored opponents 380 to 227. They featured a high-powered offense and a stout defense—both the elite in the AFL that season. The Chargers were ranked first in passing offense, first in rushing offense, first in passing defense and first in running defense. The Bills were second in rushing defense, but a woeful seventh in total offense.
San Diego was ubiquitous with over confidence before the start of the '65 AFL title game. In a glaring example, the Associated Press reported the day prior that, "The Chargers are taking a relaxed and confident attitude toward Sunday's AFL championship game." Tight end Dave Kocourek, a key cog for the team throughout the early '60's, was quoted as saying, "Our team is in a relaxed state of mind. I think that's a good sign. Maybe it's the season—green trees, green money. Whatever the reason, everyone's in a really good mood."
San Diego's head coach Sid Gillman may have contributed largely to his team's state of premature exuberance and the subsequent loss. He predicted a Chargers blowout and told columnist Larry Felser of the Buffalo Evening News before the game, "You know, there is no way we can lose this game." When asked why, Gillman famously said the reason was, "Because of (quarterback) Jack Kemp. We're going to win this game because Kemp has the maturity of a 10-year-old girl."
In the Buffalo dressing room, I had an exclusive view on Gillman's assessment and on how Bills' coach Lou Saban went about preparing his team. Even for a high school kid—a ball boy outsider—it was evident. The solemn atmosphere that invaded the locker room was a direct result of the team's groundwork and their coach's single-mindedness.
Saban simply wouldn't let the Bills get over-confident and giddy. And really, how could they? Consider their fate: the coach traded the team's best player before the season began, sending the talented but bickering running back Cookie Gilchrist to the Denver Broncos. They played the title game without their two best receivers who were lost to injury—Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass. Starting center Dave Behrman did not play due to muscle spasms in his back, and the Bills also lost safeties Gene Sykes and Tom Keating for the season. As if things could not get any worse for Buffalo, guard Billy Shaw was injured on the first play of the game and did not return until the second half.
So it was in this setting that I meandered up and down Buffalo's sidelines wearing a Bills team-issued T-shirt with water bottles and towels in hand, watching the visitors thrash San Diego 23-0 in what remains even nearly half a century later as the Chargers' all-time lowest moment.
Saban's strategy for the game was brilliant, while Gillman's was lackluster at best, with no surprises other than an uninspiring team performance. How did Saban do it? How did the journeyman coach outwit the future Hall of Famer Gillman? How, with all of those injuries and playing on the road, did he devise a plan that shut down and shut out the flamboyant Chargers, runaway owners of the league's best offense?
In hindsight and with many years to digest, Saban's approach now seems simple: smother San Diego's passing game. In particular, smother Lance Alworth. The magnificent Alworth, arguably the league's finest receiver, was held to just 82 receiving yards the entire afternoon—and that wasn't by chance. Saban and his defensive coach Joe Collier correctly bragged post-game that their line of attack from the get-go was to stop the acrobatic wide receiver. Said Collier, "We double-teamed Alworth on almost every play. When he lined up at flanker, Booker Edgerson and Hagood Clarke double-covered him. When he was at split-end, it was George Saimes and Booker."
Buffalo also often blitzed linebackers Mike Stratton, Harry Jacobs and John Tracey, along with Saimes. The result was an incredible pass rush that kept San Diego quarterback John Hadl rattled and harassed the entire game and held Alworth and the Chargers to zero touchdowns.
Offensively for the Bills, Kemp was at his scrambling best—a sort of "in-your-face" shout back at Gillman for the coach's derisive pre-game comment. Kemp's performance was a reminder to Gillman that he shouldn't have put the future GOP Congressman on waivers three years earlier. But Kemp was sanguine post-game, saying only the appropriate things such as, "We just wanted to roll out more and do some things like bootlegs and play action passes..."
On the visitors sideline during the game, I remember Saban always looking calm, confident and in control. For a kid who loved the Chargers, I couldn't help it—I was impressed with the coach and his team. The Bills and their low-key self assurance that day contrasted sharply to San Diego's attitude and even though the first half ended with just a 7-0 score in favor of Buffalo, I dejectedly sensed it was lights out for the Chargers. Save for a 47-yard scamper down the sidelines by Paul Lowe, San Diego just couldn't put any sustainable drive together. Instead they were relegated to errant punts and missed field goal chances. The second half was all Bills as they piled on an additional 16 points and kept the Chargers scoreless.
The winning locker room after the game was diametrically opposite of the solemnity I observed pre-game. Buffalo turned into party beasts with beer and champagne aplenty. Paul Maguire, a Gillman cast-off a year ago, was toasting everyone and all—including me. Sportscaster Charlie Jones—who Maguire would work with a few years later—was resplendent in an NBC coat and tie dripping with champagne, along with colleague Paul Christman.
I was able to mingle freely during this raucous celebration and watch grown men laugh and shout like I had never seen before. I was right there, front row center, watching Christman on national television introducing AFL Commissioner Joe Foss who sang Buffalo's praises and presented the Championship Trophy to a beaming Lou Saban. It was a Forrest Gump moment, indeed.
One player that day for Buffalo though would have the tables turned on him 42 years later as the head coach of those Chargers. A rookie by the name of Marty Schottenheimer was an obscure linebacker for the Bills in 1965. But as San Diego's head coach in 2007, in another playoff game that had eerie reminders of the '65 Championship game, the high-flying Chargers lost to New England in the third round of the playoffs—one game before the Super Bowl—signaling the end of Schottenheimer's coaching career and spoiling an otherwise spectacular 14-2 record that year.
I struggle to remember other personalities and moments that late December afternoon in the only championship locker room I've experienced. While I recall certain players celebrating wildly, there's one particular image that's cemented in my mind. After the television cameras were turned off in the Bills' locker room, after the players began to shower, dress and leave the stadium, I wandered outside and into San Diego's tomb-like locker room area.
I went there, really, only in search of Frank Buncom. I wanted to know how the player who had seemed to take a special interest in a typical kid was doing, and how he was holding up after such a traumatic loss. Buncom stood just inside the locker entry way when I found him, chatting very quietly with several other players. When he turned and saw me, he flashed his smile, made a circle with his thumb and fingers and mouthed his signature line, "Are you kidding me...?"
It was his way his way of saying it's all going to be OK—his way of moving on. I shook his hand, mumbled my regrets and scurried back to Buffalo's locker room.
Buncom was dealt to the Cincinnati Bengals two years later and died a year after that. He and his Chargers teammates on that '65 team—most of whom had played together in title games in 1963, '64, and '65—never again played in a championship game for San Diego. The franchise would have to wait 29 years to play in another league championship when San Francisco shellacked the Chargers 49-24 in Super Bowl XXIX.
Simply put, December 26, 1965, was a dark day for the San Diego Chargers. Have the San Diego Chargers ever fully recovered from their debacle on a sun-splashed December afternoon in Balboa Stadium against the Buffalo Bills, 48 years ago? Was that game the Chargers' turning point to mediocrity? Because of their careless and carefree play, was their fate sealed on that day to never return another championship to San Diego?
Was the '65 AFL Championship game the Chargers' Curse of the Lightning Bolt?