When the San Diego Chargers belatedly honor the team’s only championship on Dec. 1 in halftime ceremonies at Qualcomm Stadium, it will mark not only an anniversary date, but also a frustrating history.
To be more precise, some say San Diego’s sports teams are cursed; others say it’s just a superstition. Either way, a self-conscious reality surrounds the Chargers and the city of San Diego.
To wit: America’s self-proclaimed Finest City is the only metropolitan area in the United States that can boast of only one championship in all major sports—the 1963 Chargers.
San Diego’s sports curse—or whatever else you might want to call it—hangs over the city’s otherwise beautiful environs like a dark, ominous cloud. San Diego’s inability to win a major league professional sports championship—Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship, Stanley Cup—stakes a dreadful claim; it’s the largest city in the United States with this peculiarity.
And it gets worse. San Diego owns the idiosyncrasy of having the longest major league championship drought for any city that has at least two major sports franchises. You have to go back 50 years to find the last and only championship in the city’s entire history.
That few people remember the time and circumstances of that lone championship casts yet more gloom over the city and its team. Both have done a very uninspiring job of preserving a legacy. But oh, what a championship it was.
As recounted in the recent book, Finding Frank: Full Circle in a Life Cut Short, the 1963 San Diego Chargers—resplendent in their storied powder blue jerseys and luminously helmeted gold bolts—were the toast of the town.
After spending their summer training camp at an outpost 60 miles east of San Diego called Rough Acres—complete with rattlesnakes and barren sod for a field—the team breezed through the regular season with an 11-3 record. The Chargers then soundly thumped the Boston Patriots 51-10 in the American Football League’s championship game in Balboa Stadium.
It may sound preposterous considering their often determinedly dogged doormat status through the years, but two generations ago, the Chargers were one of professional football’s true glamour teams.
Those Chargers were a swaggering outfit that thrilled fans with high scoring, explosive games years prior to when quarterback Dan Fouts and head coach Don Coryell led the Chargers in the more heralded, so-called Air Coryell era.
The early Chargers were laden with proven, prominent football stars throughout most of the ‘60s. Future Hall of Famers Lance Alworth, Ron Mix and head coach Sid Gillman were the stellar names along with Ernie Ladd, Tobin Rote, Paul Lowe, Speedy Duncan, Chuck Allen, Keith Lincoln and Earl Faison .
In addition to Gillman, another coaching notable who served as the defensive coach was future Hall of Famer Chuck Noll, who went on to win four Super Bowls—more than any other head coach in the history of the game—with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In this pre-ESPN era that lacked the professorial investigative scrutiny given today’s game, many thought the ‘63 Chargers were indeed the superior team in all of football and would have bested the National Football League champion Chicago Bears if given the opportunity. But San Diego fans and others were left daydreaming of such an epic battle as that could never be; the historic merger between the American Football League and NFL was still seven years away and the first so-called Super Bowl wasn’t staged until the end of the 1967 season.
Of course, this begs the ultimate San Diego-sports question: Could the Chargers actually beat the mighty NFL champions of 1963, the Chicago Bears?
Otto Graham, for one, thought so. In the aftermath of San Diego’s win over the Patriots, the Hall of Famer and former Cleveland Browns quarterback was one of many who believed the Chargers were the preeminent team in football that year.
As he said in an article entitled "The AFL’s First Super Team" by sports journalist Ed Gruver, “If the Chargers could play the best in the NFL, I'd have to pick the Chargers."
In the same article, no less an authority than the late filmmaker Steve Sabol, then president of NFL Films who had viewed extensive footage of every great professional football team, offered this opinion:
I think Gillman's Chargers would've done very well against the NFL champion Bears," Sabol said. "I think that (Charger) team could've won. It would've been a very interesting matchup between a space-age offense and a stone-age defense.
Gruver also quotes the late veteran football writer Larry Felser.
The ’63 Chargers were a rousing offensive team that included two future pro football Hall of Famers, wide receiver Lance Alworth and tackle Ron Mix, plus a pair of superb running backs in Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe, and a skilled quarterback in Tobin Rote.
The Bears were strictly a defensive team. It was a good defense, but it didn't have Dick Butkus yet. The offense was far from top-quality, and the quarterback was journeyman Bill Wade. Gale Sayers hadn't arrived yet, either.
So, it would have been an epic battle indeed, one that the Chargers could have actually won. If so, imagine the ramifications: Small, provincial San Diego in the upstart and looked-down-upon American Football League, whipping the Monsters of the Midway, the venerated Chicago Bears of George Halas lore.
Instead, San Diegans are left with a team from 50 years ago that holds the keys to the city’s only championship. A team that was so bold for its day that the coach and general manager—Gillman—insisted that their championship rings have inscribed on them not AFL Champions, but World Champions. A nice, in-your-face jab at the NFL.
For a city that leads the country in the absence of sports crowns, San Diego’s jewel is a championship team from a half a century ago that’s been tarnished by time and that few recall. The team and the city have done a woeful job of keeping a legacy alive. Let’s hope, by adding the 1963 Chargers to the team’s Ring of Honor at Qualcomm in December, the shine returns to San Diego.
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