To Win the Hearts and Minds of LA, the Resilient Chargers Must Win Now

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterDecember 29, 2017

CARSON, CA - DECEMBER 10:  Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the Los Angeles Chargers hands off to running back Melvin Gordon #28 in the third quarter against the Washington Redskins  after their game on December 10, 2017 at StubHub Center in Carson, California.  The Chargers won 30-16.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

COSTA MESA, Calif. — Drive two hours that direction, he points, and you can ski. Really. He's heard that Bear Mountain is a must. Drive 20 minutes over there, he motions, and you can catch rays on Huntington Beach. 

And, of course, when locals aren't perfecting their tans, Anthony Lynn is well aware they can buy tickets to see the Lakers or Clippers or USC football or UCLA basketball or the Dodgers or—deep breath—the Angels, the Kings, the Galaxy or, you know, invest in the Super Bowl-contending Rams. NFL fans do exist here in SoCal, but they're scattered, hidden, skeptical.

"It's a challenge," Lynn says. "But you know how you defeat that challenge—win."

The Chargers head coach then stares ahead, philosophizes. No. It's more than that.

"People get behind a team that'll fight, that'll compete, that they can relate to," Lynn says. "And when I look at this team, we started 0-4. This team fights. This team competes."

If first impressions truly are formed in seven seconds, the Chargers' first date with Los Angeles was akin to showing up two hours late with coffee stains on their shirt, armpits pouring sweat and no wallet in their pocket. Four crushing losses to start this 2017 season turned the StubHub Center into a certifiable joke. The Chargers deserted their fans of five-plus decades in San Diego for this? Yikes. It's as if the team's logo should've been changed to an egg splattered on owner Dean Spanos' face.

Then, a weird thing happened. The Chargers won. And won. And won. Now, at 8-7, playoff hopes still flicker. A win against the lowly New York Jets kept Super Bowl hopes alive.

If they take down Oakland, Baltimore beats Cincinnati and Tennessee loses to Jacksonville, they're in.

CARSON, CA - DECEMBER 10:  Head coach Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers signals in the second quarter against the Washington Redskins on December 10, 2017 at StubHub Center in Carson, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

To truly win the hearts and minds of Los Angeles, everyone knows, they must keep fighting.

When this season's over, Lynn knows exactly how he wants L.A. to think of his team: Tough. Smart. Fighters. Because, Lynn says, "I've been 0-4 a few times in my life." Because this is a team fueled by a quarterback (Philip Rivers) gunning for a Super Bowl at 36 years old, a wide receiver (Keenan Allen) who's overcome a broken collarbone, a lacerated kidney and a torn ACL and arguably the NFL's best cornerback (Casey Hayward) now coping with a numbing tragedy.

Nothing about Lynn screams L.A. No gelled hair, no surfboard in his office.

He's bold, blunt, built like Roy Jones Jr. and his voice rumbles. As birds sing and flutter above a practice field surrounded by imported palm trees, Lynn takes in the jarring juxtaposition. Right here is where his Chargers are clawing their way into relevancy one uppercut, one haymaker at a time.

And if L.A. cares more about glitz than grit? If nothing he's building resonates?

"I can't help that," he says. "I know what my vision is for this team."

That's a team that'll fight, win and fight some more.

A Super Bowl run right about now sure wouldn't hurt, either.

He still thinks about the day he should've died, the day his body helicoptered 50 feet in the air and smashed into a parked Volkswagen. Reminders are constant. Just last summer, in a New York City cab, Lynn read a sign on the back seat that said if a pedestrian is hit by a car traveling 30 mph, that person has a 70 percent chance of living. Get hit at 40 mph, it read, and you have a 20 percent chance of living.

At 60 mph? "One hundred percent fatality."

"I'm looking at it like, 'Somebody needs to change that from 100 percent to 99.9,'" Lynn says. "I think God kept me here for a reason. I think about that often. So when I go through things, tough times, it's not that I'm comfortable with it. I'm very uncomfortable. But I also know it's a great opportunity to grow."

The burden in L.A. is unique—making you care about football—so the man in charge must be unique. That's Lynn. He's been preparing for this his entire life. Forty-eight hours before his team smashes Washington, 30-13, everything hits him.

Mom working two jobs. Never knowing his father. Starting his own lawn-cutting business at 12 years old and getting into construction at 13 just so he, his mother and sister could keep the lights on.

Nearly dying as an adult.

All of it led to this.

"We've had some candlelight dinners," Lynn says, "and not because we're trying to be romantic. So I've been there before. I've had some struggles and ups and downs. I can relate to this team—no doubt about it. No. 1, it makes you tougher."

He'd earn $15 a pop cutting grass in his neighborhood about 30 minutes north of Dallas, and Lynn can still picture his family spreading out all the money in their possession on top of a mattress to pay off the stacks upon stacks of bills. Whatever was left—$22 or so—Lynn was allowed to keep for himself as allowance. His mother refused to go on welfare when she had every reason to, repeating, "I had you. You're my responsibility."

Every lunch break, she'd pray for him, too. Of Lynn's 10 closest cousins and friends, eight are now dead or in prison for life.

Building. Creating. Working. That's all Lynn cared about as a kid. By 17, he had risen to foreman at that construction company with 16 employees under him, and he even owned his own construction company between playing in the NFL and coaching. One of Lynn's greatest skills today is tricking his wife into thinking she is picking out wallpaper, furniture and other knickknacks when actually he is the one doing it. Interior design became a passion.

If he wasn't coaching, he'd be building custom homes.

He relishes a clean slate.

"It's like this team right now," Lynn says. "You're building something from scratch, and then you see it, and it's a beautiful thing.

"You have to deal with people. You have to coordinate. Get things lined up. And then, you get to see that house on Sunday. Hopefully at the end of the season you see the mansion."

He embraces impossible odds.

What's 0-4? What's reintroducing the NFL to the nation's second-largest city? None of this seems too daunting to him. Not when you're struck by a drunk driver while crossing the street and sent flying into the air. On Aug. 20, 2005, after his Cowboys team broke camp, that's what happened. The driver's blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit.

Lynn totaled that Volkswagen and suffered three broken ribs, two collapsed lungs and severe facial and shoulder damage that required four operations. For two days, he couldn't even feel his legs. Yet, miraculously, Lynn was back coaching in two weeks. All he remembers are the headlights of an oncoming car.

"I thought I was dead," he says. "I was in and out of consciousness. I didn't think I was going to live."

He wasn't dead, wasn't paralyzed, so he pressed on. Plastic surgery cleaned up the gnarly scars that made him sick to his stomach.

While there are no physical reminders, the memory sticks. Such is the lens Lynn looks through in building this team. He believes it's selfish to only care about his players as players. Seventy-two percent of players, he notes, are broke, unemployed, divorced or dead four to five years after leaving the NFL. A "disturbing" stat, he says.

So the X's and O's are secondary. Every team has the same salary cap. Every team has talent.

"What sets you apart?" Lynn asks aloud.

Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn commands the sidelines during a December 10 game against the Washington Redskins.
Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn commands the sidelines during a December 10 game against the Washington Redskins.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

To him, it's 53 players forging an undying trust in each other. He "ab-so-lutely" has as many genuine non-football conversations as he can with everyone in his building, so when adversity strikes—losing on a last-second field goal, flying 50 feet through the air, relocating to a new city—they all have each other's backs.

That's when you generate healthy conflict. When you can be blunt. When you unearth every ounce of your potential, and winning games merely becomes a byproduct.

One of this team's Pro Bowlers faced adversity, too.

And this player's brother wasn't as lucky as Lynn.

The wounds are still fresh. Clearly. Oh, Casey Hayward willingly meets up at a Panera Bread seven minutes from the Chargers facility. It's not like he's in a state of shock, of seclusion. He laughs about the snow dumped on his family back in Georgia and ponders which jersey he'll wear into the stadium tomorrow. Russell Westbrook is a go-to—he loves how the Long Beach native could miss "a million" shots and keeps shooting.

Hayward admits he still revels in making Green Bay regret its decision to let him go.

"My job," he says, "is to show my old team up every time I go out there to play. "

He repeats that he is the best cornerback in football. Put up any numbers you want. He assures it's not close.

Yet when the conversation shifts to the trauma of two weeks ago, Hayward can't make eye contact. He stares straight ahead, into the parking lot, and those eyes start to well. His words trail off. He tries to stay strong. On Nov. 27, at about 9:30 p.m. on the West Coast, a cousin called from Georgia.

Have you talked to your brother? he asked Casey.


He's been in a wreck.

Casey Heyward defends a pass in a December 24 contest against the New York Jets.
Casey Heyward defends a pass in a December 24 contest against the New York Jets.Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Casey called his brother, and there was no answer.

That's because right in the midst of this breakout season, of introducing himself as a star to all of L.A., Jecavesia Hayward died in a car crash. Casey's brother was one of three passengers in a car that struck a tractor-trailer pulled over in an emergency lane off I-75 about 90 miles south of Atlanta. Thrown from the vehicle, he was pronounced dead at the scene. Hayward flew home that week to cope, to grieve, "to be strong" for his family. That's not easy. Just last year, breast cancer took his mother's life.

Hayward is putting it on his own shoulders to keep everyone strong. Tears were shed. And after missing a full week of practice, the cornerback flew back West to cover Cleveland's Josh Gordon for three hours.

This is exactly what his brother would want.

"If I didn't play, he'd be mad at me," Hayward says. "That wasn't even a choice."

Casey Hayward is a fighter in Lynn's vision, one anyone in Southern California can relate to. He knows, every Sunday, eyes are on him.

His is a pain that gives everyone in those stands goosebumps.

"Nothing is promised," Hayward says. "We have to go out here, take every day and run with it. … For me, I know that life has to go on. No matter who's here and who's not, life has to go on."

A flurry of names still on the Chargers schedule cross his mind—Kirk Cousins, Tyreek Hill, Alex Smith, Derek Carr, Michael Crabtree. He knows none of them will show mercy. On the field, he puts bluntly, "nobody really cares" what you've been through. Nobody will care that Casey and Jecavesia were born 11 months apart and were incredibly close. He was the quarterback; his bro was a defensive end. Into adulthood, if Casey ever needed anything at all, Jecavesia had his back.

There's something else on Hayward's mind, too.

Jecavesia left a baby girl on the way. She's due in January. Casey has already told the baby's mother that he'll be the father that child needs.

"I'll make sure his little girl is taken care of," he says, "and not just financially. I'll try to be a father figure."

He glances down at the cell phone in his hand.

These last 14 days without his brother, Casey has found himself constantly cycling through old pictures and videos to see his sibling's face, his smile. It makes him so sad, he says aloud that he needs to quit. He'll give himself a good two months before diving back into those visuals. Voice cracking, Hayward says he told his brother's girlfriend he hopes the baby is the spitting image of Jecavesia.

And life goes on. The Chargers season goes on.

To Hayward, making football work in L.A. is simple. This is no different than "Lob City" making people care about the Clippers, he says, or Lonzo Ball filling the gym at UCLA. Win games and people want to see you play.

"When we were losing," Hayward says, "we were so s--tty, nobody wanted to see that! Anywhere. You could be in Green Bay. If they lose…"

He pauses. OK, that's different.

"They still might have 70,000 there, but that's because there's nothing to do there. … You just have to win these games."

Nobody recognizes Hayward this hour outside Panera, walking in and out without saying a word. Someday, he knows folks will recognize players everywhere. A true sense of community will grow organically. He can already feel it growing in the outpouring of love on social media in the wake of this tragedy. And when he's on the field, his mind is "at ease." His brother, he's convinced, is watching closely.

"He's looking down. Helping me keep making this playoff push. I just know he'd want me to keep going.

"He'll live through me, for sure."

With that, Hayward heads back into the lot toward his Mercedes-Benz and stops to smile.

Tomorrow, he presses on.

"I'll try to put a show on."

Attendance has lacked at times at the StubHub center, the Chargers' temporary 30,000 seat home stadium.
Attendance has lacked at times at the StubHub center, the Chargers' temporary 30,000 seat home stadium.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Judging by those embarrassing crowd shots on Twitter, part of you expects the atmosphere at the StubHub Center to resemble an awkward blend of Aunt Ida's bake sale and a lethargic high school pep rally with millennials' faces buried in their cell phones.

Chargers players themselves have been ripping their "home" crowd. The scene at this quaint 27,000-seat soccer stadium has been lame at best, a true disadvantage at worst.

But ignore those outrageous signs asking for $100 to park and tailgate(!), head inside and this place truly has a Cameron Indoor charm on this day. As the Chargers run up the score on Washington, the atmosphere is actually…fun. Loud. Hopeful. A "Fight for L.A." banner stretches above two full sections, safety Jahleel Addae is on the videoboard with flames all around him and Keenan Allen is diving for a 51-yarder one moment and screaming into the crowd the next.

This feels like the birth of something real. Not forced, not manufactured. Real. Even a corny "Saved by the Bell Lookalike" segment on the board ends with the real-life Zack Morris and A.C. Slater on the sideline.

Without question, the NFL recklessly abandoned three loyal fanbases all in the name of money. The Chargers are light years away from filling that $2.6 billion monstrosity set to open in 2020. But they know they must win—now—to earn your attention and affection.

Safety Tre Boston points to losing six straight games once with the Panthers. That team made the playoffs that season and the Super Bowl the next. This team can, too.

"It's easy to quit," Boston says. "It's hard not to when s--t is getting a little shaky. You just have to have faith. You have to know what kind of team you have. I worked hard with these guys in training camp. During OTAs. We know what we have in this locker room. We know we're not quitters. That's not us."

Lynn's monthly team-building exercises help. They've waged paintball wars and had heart-to-hearts with a team psychologist.

The Chargers are cultivating something special.

Whether L.A. knows it or not.

"Some guys are used to being in amazing stadiums," Boston says. "Amazing fans. I think we just have to take what we've got. You know what I mean? Deal with the hands that are dealt to you. … If it's 16 away games, hey, we don't care. We're going to play them. We told ourselves that early in the season. S--t. Don't feel bad for yourself. Who feels bad for us? Name one team. They're trying to come in here and whup our butts.

"Our mindset here is we've got to stay strong. An easy mindset can be broke."

So there's Keenan Allen roasting cornerbacks on his way into the NFL record books. After becoming the first player ever to log 10 receptions, 100 yards and one touchdown in three straight games, Allen eviscerated Washington for 111 yards on six catches. His body's been a virtual science experiment his entire pro career, so this run is especially sweet.

As "here we go again" dread crept into his mind, he needed to build, rebuild and rebuild again.

"We're resilient," Allen says. "We keep coming back. We have great character. We have one of the biggest hearts in the NFL."

And there's Jahleel Addae, the team's leading tackler who still remembers going undrafted in 2013. He thinks back to the training camp that earned him a job—"I was just going crazy, bro"—and downplays this move from San Diego to L.A. All Addae cares about is keeping his tenacity revved to 100.

Like his coach, he's blunt: This is a dream. Anyone who needs a crowd to get amped is in the wrong profession.

"I'm not out there to collect a check," Addae adds. "I'm out there because I truly love the game.

"Everyone likes a winner. … It's a big month for us."

Of course, after shellacking the 'Skins, they were shellacked themselves at Arrowhead. These Chargers now need help to get into the dance. Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, the Rams have become must-see TV.

The Rams are winning over fans.

Whenever the Chargers season does officially end, any L.A. fans on the fringe will likely put on a Jared Goff No. 16 jersey, surf, ski and maybe forget about the Chargers altogether. Lonzo Ball is tossing pristine alley-oops, and the Dodgers were just in the World Series, after all. Time is ticking. But these Chargers aren't worried, and they're not finished yet.

They're sure their fight will resonate.

Will have a lasting effect.

"Just because you go through some tough times," Lynn says, "doesn't mean you abandon ship. You keep fighting. You keep competing."

And you have to keep winning.


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