It’s tough to let go of cherished parts of your childhood. I grew up explaining to everyone how a kid from Savannah, Georgia could become a fan of the San Diego Chargers. I spent years cheering loudly for LaDainian Tomlinson, staring angrily with arms crossed as the camera panned to Norv Turner, and debating with my dad where the front office went wrong. This post is just as much about discussing the Chargers leaving for Los Angeles, as it is therapy for a lifelong fan and his father.
I announced recently on the Bolton Sports Podcast that I am no longer supporting the Chargers. In fact, this post is the start of a new series of works that will be my NFL Fan Free Agency. I am working with my buddy Dayne Young to do a bracket-style tournament that will end the week after the NFL Draft. The goal is to find a new team to invest in, and cheer for based on many different merits. I will have more on this series later, but for now, just view it as my creative outlet to work through the departure of my Super Chargers.
I think it’s important to start with the foundation of my fandom, and why it matters at all that a person gets attached to something as inconsequential as an NFL team. My dedication to the Chargers begins with my father. He was born a military brat, subject to move at any given time depending on Uncle Sam’s orders for my grandfather.
Gary Bolton moved to San Diego in 1974 at the age of 14. His dad transferred to Camp Pendleton to finish out his 28-year service in the United States Marine Corps. The move came as the Chargers drafted Dan Fouts to be the new franchise quarterback. A few years later, Don Coryell showed up to coach the Bolts. The brand of football known as “Air Coryell” was born, and so was a diehard Chargers fan.
“They were the most fun to watch, besides living in San Diego, you couldn’t help rooting for the Chargers,” Gary said.
He went to his fair share of games during his high school years, and a relationship was born with a city and a team. The football was fun, the team was good, and Jack Murphy Stadium was a great place to tailgate. He had franchise cornerstones and future Hall of Famers like Fouts, Charlier Joyner, and Kellen Winslow to cheer for.
“The defense was the worst, but the offense was one of the best ever. Every game came down to whoever scored last, or which offense messed up,” Gary said. “They were hold your breath games, week in and week out.”
Gary joined the Marine Corps, like his father before him, in 1979. After a year in bootcamp and avionics electronics school, he was stationed in El Toro, California. It was just an hour and a half away from the Chargers, and the peak of Coryell days. He would eventually move back to San Diego after leaving the Marine Corps three years later.
In January of 1986, Gary moved from San Diego to North Carolina after re-joining the Marine Corps. Though he never lived in San Diego again, the relationships he built with friends, the Chargers, the city, and the experiences at The Murph designated him as a fan for life.
“It was the mid-70s. There was great music coming out of L.A. and performing in San Diego. There was great entertainment,” Gary said. “It was my age, and living in close proximity to the team. They were so fun that you wanted to join the hype.”
I have to note that while interviewing my dad about the formation of his Chargers fandom, one quote stood out. It’s a firm representation of the San Diego Chargers experience as a fan. No matter how great the city was or how fun the games were, there was always a footnote.
“However, it is the Chargers. What can you say? They were the same then as they are now. They do good things, and they ultimately end up losing it. They should have won at least one Super Bowl during that time frame (Air Coryell Era).”
It’s funny to hear my dad put it that way. I’m sure if you surveyed my friends Dayne, Evan, Greg, and Dillan, they could account for hundreds of similar comments or rants from my mouth. As you can imagine, my story about the Chargers has some parallels to my fathers’. But there was one major difference, and the core reason why the end of the San Diego football era stings both of us in different ways.
I’ve always looked up to my dad, and I’m lucky to have ended up with a father like him. Through the years, I’ve seen him do everything he can to support and love me. The example he set, whether it was through taking care of me, or later taking care of my mother was something that could only be God’s blessing.
I’ve thought a lot about the beauty of life and childhood over the past few years. At first, It seems unfair that a parent or guardian is bestowed with unconditional love for a child who can’t truly comprehend or return the favor for many years. You give everything you’ve got to help shape a human being who may spend their whole lives ignorant to that sacrifice. I’ve come to realize that this phenomenon is actually perfect. It’s almost a design of life and God’s will. There is nothing quite like the day you wake up and it dawns on you that someone sacrificed everything so you could play tee-ball, have Pokemon cards like your friends, and even have a bed to sleep on. It makes you smile, and reminds you to give everything you can to those people in your life.
One of those people for me was Gary Bolton.
It’s human nature to want to connect with those who love you. For my dad and I, the common thread was the San Diego Chargers (and the band Rush). He formed his fandom around proximity, a time in his life, and the experiences he had. My fandom begins and ends with wanting to cheer with my dad. It’s not a unique story, but it is an important one.
The conditions were perfect. Not only was my dad a fan, but I was young enough to still look up to athletes. (It’s funny how covering sports makes that seem so silly) My father had his own era for San Diego Chargers, San Diego Padres, and Los Angeles Lakers to look up to. I won’t forget UCLA either, even though I never became attached to the Bruins. As I matured into prime primal-sports-cheering age, the Chargers drafted Ladainian Tomlinson. The Padres had the end of Tony Gwynn’s career. The Lakers were in the prime of Kobe and Shaq. While I did follow the Padres and Lakers, nothing compared to Sundays in the Bolton household. My mom even chimed in the cheering, as long as they didn’t play her Atlanta Falcons.
The star athletes were there. Tomlinson developed into the best running back in the NFL. Drew Brees and eventually Phillip Rivers developed into elite NFL quarterbacks. (More on that situation in a few) Junior Seau was one of the best athletes I had ever seen on defense. Rodney Harrison was awesome. Antonio Gates rivaled Tony Gonzalez as the best tight end ever. Jamal Williams was one of if not the best nose tackles in the league. I can’t forget about Lorenzo Neal, a player who should be a Hall of Fame full back, but will most likely never get such an accolade. How could you not like this team?
As I grew older, the cynicism that persists in the Chargers fanbase eventually found it’s way into my DNA. For all of the great reasons to be a fan, the franchise would challenge it’s fans, my dad, and I to not go away out of pure frustration. We dealt with the firing of Schottenheimer. We dealt with the hiring of Norv. We dealt with the Eli Manning draft mess. We dealt with a GM and Owner who would not pay or budge in contract negotiations. We dealt with the signing of David Boston, yet the departure of Vincent Jackson years later. We dealt with letting Drew Brees walk (I like Phillip Rivers by the way). We dealt with not winning a Super Bowl, despite having Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, Jackson, a great offensive line (Dielman, McNeill, Hardwick, Olivea), prime Shawn Merriman, Luis Castillo, Quentin Jammer, Wes Welker, Shaun Phillips, Donnie Edwards, Nick Kaeding, and Mike Scifres all come in and out of the franchise. Many of those players were on the field together.
Now, we deal with it all being gone.
It’s almost appropriate that the Chargers screwed up leaving San Diego. It seemed like the franchise always had a screw loose, even when it was the most talented franchise in the league. When you are on the inside, you acknowledge these faults, but you still continue to cheer. After it’s all over, you kind of just scratch your head.
What am I left with? My dad of course! The reason why any of it mattered. I will always love the San Diego Chargers. The frustration, the cheers, all of the moments I spent with my father surrounding that franchise are some of the best moments of my life. I bonded with him over that team. It just doesn’t feel right to follow the franchise to Los Angeles. Our bond is still back in San Diego.
And of course, I will always have these:
Like I said to start, letting go of a cherished piece of your childhood is tough. Some may think the fans, my dad, and I are better off without the life-shortening stress of being a Chargers fan. I will always miss it. That stress was so worth the moments I got to have with my dad.
Cheering for a sports team seems so irrational until the reason you cheer goes beyond what happens on the field.