By JAY PARIS
It’s an annual ritual, and if familiar with the 1994 Chargers, you’ll understand.
“All the years kind of run together,” said Bobby Beathard, the Chargers’ former general manager. “But that one stands out.”
Which has Beathard plopping on his couch, reliving among the most magical seasons in Chargers history. Nothing illustrates the Chargers’ Super Bowl season more than the AFC Championship Game, when the underdog Chargers upset the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers.
To this day, it has Beathard wrestling with his remote to watch a replay of that special rainy afternoon on the banks of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers.
“I still have the DVD and I watch it once a year,” Beathard said. “That is one of the greatest moments in all my years of football.
“To go back there and beat those guys was amazing. Our guys just seemed to put everything together and the game plan was great.”
That epic win deserved a toast when the scoreboard read through the Pennsylvania mist: Chargers 17, Steelers 14.
It deserved a toast when Chargers owner Alex Spanos raised the Lamar Hunt Trophy in a steamy and cramped visitor’s locker room. The one with Junior Seau hollering, Natrione Means giggling and minority owner George Pernicano lighting cigars as fast as he could distribute them.
The Steelers, the “Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl” Steelers, got smoked.
By the Chargers? A team coming off an 8-8 season with a revamped roster that Beathard had shook out like an old rug? The new-look Chargers started the year with 32 fresh faces.
Yeah, those Chargers and the good ol’ days were really just that.
The Chargers towered over the AFC that season and stood tall in the community. That unlikely collection of coaches and players rekindled San Diego’s love affair with fans, making lightning bolts of all shapes and sizes acceptable again.
An energized fan base went bonkers over their Bolts.
“The city realized we were heading in the right direction,” Beathard said.
Its the 20th anniversary of that remarkable campaign, one that ended at the Super Bowl after starting at the Hall of Fame.
The Chargers raised their 1994 curtain in Canton, Ohio, absorbing the first of four straight preseason losses.
It’s hard predicting greatness when a team is winless after a month of summer games. Among those losses was one in San Antonio, where a miffed coach Bobby Ross dressed down his players while they were getting dressed.
“We’ve got to catch the dang ball,” he told reporters, livid at his receivers’ lack of focus. “And if we don’t, we’ll fine him. Or we might just leave them in Germany.”
That was the next stop of the Chargers’ preseason world tour and Berlin may never been the same.
The Chargers lost again, this time to the Giants in the American Bowl. But the best story came from a German beer garden, where the tasty hops of the native country were being served at a team welcoming function.
With steins of local suds being poured with gusto, a friendly “fraulein” asked quarterback Stan Humphries his order.
“I’ll have a Budweiser,” Humphries said, and her stunned expression was priceless.
But the Chargers went from flat to fabulous and it didn’t take the long. They actually won their final preseason game and were just getting warmed up.
“It was just a group of guys that had the right chemistry and it started at the beginning of the season,” linebacker Dennis Gibson said. “We won a few close games, that gave us a bunch of confidence and it just kind of snowballed.”
That it started rolling in the Rocky Mountains was appropriate. The Chargers won at Mile High Stadium as often as Ross wore slacks that didn’t stop at the top of his ankles.
And the season opener looked familiar with Denver’s John Elway driving for a late score to break the Chargers’ heart once again.
But when rolling out for the game-winning pass, the great Elway went all blooper film. The ball slipped from his grasp, floated in the wrong direction and was intercepted by Seau.
The Chargers prevailed, 37-34, winning for the first time in Denver since 1986.
“I just couldn’t believe the ball was up there,” Seau said afterward. “Especially coming from a guy who usually doesn’t make those mistakes.”
Make no mistake: something changed that late afternoon in Denver and if wanting to cue “The Twilight Zone” theme about now, be our guest.
“We’re a young team and we’re still growing,” said wide receiver Shawn Jefferson, who had a 47-yard scoring reception. “This gives us a big old shot in the arm.”
Which led to a big pass play two weeks later. It tied an NFL record and had the Chargers barking in Husky Stadium.
Win No. 3 had its roots in 1961. The Chargers wore their all-white uniforms on Throwback Weekend and boy did Humphries make a throw. Perched at the San Diego 1-yard line, he heaved a pass toward Lake Washington, Tony Martin caught it and he might still be running.
Martin snagged Humphries’ offering around midfield and produced an 99-yard touchdown which had the Chargers and their coaches skipping down the southern sideline.
The Bolts had broke from the gate with their best start since 1981 and, well, what a ride so far.
Did the Chargers know how good they were?
But were they sensing something, well, super was developing?
“One of the hardest things any coach can to is to instill confidence in a team that it has the ability to win,” Gibson said. “And I really, really think because of the close games we won early in the season, where we came from behind, we started feeling it.
“I remember talking on the bench with guys in the third quarter and we would be losing and it didn’t matter. We knew were going to win anyway. There was just something about that team that came together and started to gel.”
Next came a nail-bitter at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where the Chargers stole a win from the Raiders and hightailed it back home. Darrien Gordon had a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown and John Carney nailed a 33-yard field goal in the closing seconds for a 26-24 victory.
A week later Means’ star continued to rise as he ran over, through and past the Saints, rushing for three touchdowns and 120 yards. The Chargers’ version of a Mardi Gras was gathering steam as their parade of wins hit six.
During their sprint from the gate the Chargers’ balanced offense was averaging nearly 29 points a game, with Humphries as the league’s top-rated quarterback.
The defense, with Leslie O’Neal and Chris Mims on the edges, and Reuben Davis and Shawn Lee — know as “Two Tons of Fun” – had already notched 20 sacks.
Seau was Seau, running around like a Tasmanian Devil after someone stepped on its tale.
The special teams showed the return power of Andre Coleman and Gordon; Carney was headed to a franchise-record season for field goals.
The feeling in the community matched what was oozing from the locker room. There was a growing belief that the Chargers were bottling that winning concoction of youthful exuberance, veteran experience and maybe a lucky bounce here and there.
Put in a blender and 6-0 pours out. Just make sure the glass it finds has a lightning bolt, because they were everywhere else.
Bolt fever was sweeping the region and few were seeking doctors for the cure.
“We had a group of players that maybe was not the most talented, but they stuck together,” said Beathard, who moved west in 1990 after building three Super Bowl teams in Washington. “The chemistry on that team was incredible. We would get behind, but we would hold together and believe in each other. That was our strong suit.”
That fortitude was soon tested. That 6-0 jolt was followed by roller coaster of a loss, a win, a loss, a win, a loss and a win. That six-pack of triumphs had morphed into a 9-3 record with nothing guaranteed as the season turned the final corner into the holiday month.
What awaited was two lumps of coal: the Raiders gained revenge at Jack Murphy Stadium and the 49ers revealed what they were packing in a 38-15 shellacking.
The wheels weren’t falling off, but they showed a wobble or two.
“The last three or four weeks we’ve come under a lot of criticism, some of which I didn’t feel was totally right,” Boss Ross bellowed.
With two games remaining, the Chargers could clinch the AFC West title by beating the Jets. And the game in the Meadowlands followed the season’s script when the Chargers dug a 6-0 hole.
But Humphries threw three touchdown passes, two to Martin, and the Chargers had rallied again, winning 21-6.
“I don’t think I’ve ever wanted a game so much,” Ross said.
The Chargers won the AFC West, finished 11-5 and earned a first-round bye as their reward. But Don Shula’s Dolphins, with quarterback Dan Marino, were San Diego-bound for the AFC Divisional Game.
Miami soundly thumped the Chargers in the first half, with Marino tossing three touchdown passes for a 21-6 lead.
But the resilient Chargers didn’t blink, puling to within 21-15 on Means’ 24-yard, third-quarter touchdown run. When Humphries clicked with Seay from 8 yards out for a 22-21 edge with 35 seconds remaining, the team’s fourth trip to an AFC Championship Game was in the bag.
Or was it?
Instead the Dolphins nudged close enough to summon Pete Stoyanovich for a last-second, game-winning, 48-yard field goal, and at least it was fun while it lasted.
Then came two words which long live in Chargers lore: wide right!
Stoyanovich missed, the record mass of 63,381 boosters went bonkers and the Chargers were a four-hour plane ride from a AFC title date with Pittsburgh and four quarters from their first Super Bowl.
“Once the team had the experience of coming from behind it changed everything,” Beathard said. “Every team that is going to make the Super Bowl has to have a few games like that to know you can do it. Then you have that belief that you can come back. It was probably the biggest thing we had going for us.”
Not much was in the Chargers’ favor when their chartered plane settled in the Steel City.
Newspapers were running ads for Super Bowl XXIX trip packages to Miami. TV sets broadcast the Steelers’ version of the Super Bowl Shuffle. The plucky Chargers were dismissed by the experts; laughed at by odds makers.
The Chargers consumed it all and responded with a collective shrug.
“We were underdogs all year,” Lee said. “Even at home, even when we were undefeated. People didn’t count on the character on this team and that’s the special part of this game.”
Oh yes, the game. Let the doubters doubt but when the ball is kicked off, all those predictions mean squat.
Of course, the Chargers fell behind, 10-3, at the half — and they were lucky it wasn’t worse. The Steelers were manhandling San Diego, 229 yards to 46.
When Gary Anderson opened the third quarter with a 23-yard field goal, it was 13-3 and looking like a collective 0-4 in AFC title tilts. The Chargers had advanced to three previous AFC Championship Games and, well, they turned out like this one’s anticipated conclusion.
What was that Beathard saying about keeping the faith?
Bang: A 43-yard touchdown pass from Humphries to Alfred Pupunu.
Zap: Another 43-yard scoring strike, this one to Martin.
Bingo: A 17-13 Chargers cushion and it was so quiet in Three Rivers Stadium one could hear a dynasty drop.
But the Steelers were the Steelers, meaning fire still filled their belly. They were poised with a first down at the Chargers 9-yard line with two minutes left.
Three plays later, it was fourth-and-destiny for the Chargers.
“To this day,” Gibson said, “people ask me about that play.”
Beathard reflected and produced a hearty laugh. On a team with the likes of Seau, O’Neal, Humphries, Means and countless others more recognized than Gibson, it came down to a pass play with a run-stuffer being asked to shine.
“Of all the guys, Gibson,” Beathard said, chucking with the irony. “He wasn’t the fastest guy, wasn’t very quick and pass coverage was his weakness. But he was smart.”
Keen enough to listen to defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger. The team’s grandfatherly figure with the headset was smack dab in the middle of the chaos, showing all the emotion of someone waiting for a bus.
“He was the calmest dude I ever met,” Gibson said. “Bobby (Ross) was going berserk, everyone was yelling, it was pure pandemonium.
“Junior was beside himself; he saw it slipping away. But I had to get everyone lined up in the right defense and I was yelling and screaming at Junior, but he couldn’t hear me. So I just grabbed him and pushed him over to where he needed to be. He was really excited, but I guess we all were.”
The Steelers stayed in their run package; the Chargers remained in their base defense which kept Gibson on the field and inching toward the Chargers’ all-time highlight film.
“They were in the shotgun and the receivers on the outside were covered up,” Gibson said and despite telling the story countless times, the excitement in his voice remains evident. “Neil O’Donnell checked down to Barry Foster and was looking at him all the way.”
The ball floated toward Foster, but Gibson was right where Arnsparger told him to be.
“I was able to get around Foster,” Gibson said, “and knock it down with my left hand.”
Raise a hand if that tale still produces goose bumps from those bleeding Chargers blue.
The Steelers were shocked, the Chargers were stunned and was it really true?
The Chargers were going to Super Bowl XXIX and doesn’t that roll off the tongue nicely.
But first was their return to San Diego and those that were at The Murph that night never forgot it.
The Chargers would stumble in the Super Bowl against the 49ers but that did little to diminish a season worthy of celebrating once again.
Happy 20th anniversary, 1994 Chargers, and that gets us thinking while reminiscing about one of the franchise’s grandest moment.
Think Beathard has an extra copy of his treasured DVD?
+ Contact Jay Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org