The destructive fires that have swept through San Diego County this week forced the Chargers to temporarily relocate to Phoenix as they prepare to play Houston. It also has forced upon them one of those reality checks that come only in times like these: Football is a game. Fire can mean life or death. Uprooting to practice away from their home stadium is not an ordeal. The real ordeal is the reason Qualcomm Stadium was temporarily unavailable to the team.
A homeless football team is no tragedy. A homeless family is.
For a team that had already started to find itself this month, and started to play up to the lofty expectations everyone had of the Chargers, my sense is that this week's harrowing experiences will forge a bond that further unifies them as a team and perhaps even help define their season. Quite literally, they will have been through the fire together and come out stronger for it. They certainly won't react to on-field adversity the same way they did before this week.
I talked with someone in the Chargers organization this week and he told me what it was like last Sunday night in San Diego, when you could walk outside and smell the smoke in the air, like a next-door-neighbor's barbeque that drifted for miles and miles. Monday was the toughest of times, with so much uncertainty and so many decisions to be made; the kind of decisions that most had never encountered before. Football was a very distant concern at that point. Lives were being changed and property was being lost depending on which way the wind blew.
In the Chargers locker room on Monday, it was said that LaDainian Tomlinson looked almost stricken. The fires had raced all the way up to his property line in North Poway, rendering him just another evacuee, among the thousands. Philip Rivers, his wife, and their three daughters also had to leave their homes behind, as did Chargers defensive stars Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips. The fire was no respecter of persons, no matter the level of fame or celebrity.
"It was a day that was just incredible,'' Tomlinson said. "It's unreal when you think about what happened. Getting a phone call, the reverse 911 call, and [them] saying you have to evacuate. You look at the sky and it's orange. You're trying to pack stuff within a matter of minutes. I have two dogs. You grab your dogs and as I'm leaving my community, I see the fires right around my community. At that point I'm thinking it's over, my house is going to burn down. Thank God it burned all the way around my house, it didn't get my house. My house stayed intact. Everything else around my house burned, but I thank God that my house is still there.''
Being so far removed from the site of the tragedy in Southern California, it's hard for most of us to really imagine the width and the breadth of the saga. Rivers wasn't yet a Charger four years ago this month, when another series of fires in the San Diego area forced the team to move a home game against Miami to Phoenix. But this time, he was in the middle of the maelstrom.
"It was a situation none of us had ever experienced,'' said Rivers, one of almost 20 Chargers players and coaches forced to evacuate their homes. "There's smoke and ash and stuff in the air, so it's an unknown. But we were able to get out safe and get our families out safe. We feel for all the people who were more directly affected than we were. But now we've got to keep going and keep working.''
I'd be surprised if this week doesn't loom large in wherever the Chargers are headed this season. At 3-3, with two wins in a row before they took their Week 7 bye, they already were looking like a team on the rebound that would soon be back atop the AFC West, the division they've won two of the past three years. This week's forced hiatus to the desert created a crucible of sorts that can't be duplicated in many other ways.
At their hotel north of Phoenix, Chargers players have hung out together after practice, going to dinner in groups and affording them more quality down time as a unit than the regular season usually allows. There can be real benefits to such circumstances, and some players already have spoken of the opportunity that exists to make this week's tragedy a unifying experience for the San Diego area and the team.
Some familiar themes in situations like this have emerged in the comments of Chargers players and coaches this week. Now that the worst appears to be over back home, the team wants to get back to the work of football, hoping that the games to come will serve as a welcomed distraction for the folks who have been through such tumult and lost so much. The Chargers want to do what they do, and do it as well as they can, now fitting it some how into the collage that is the ongoing relief efforts.
"That's our objective, just to try to come together and really entertain the people of San Diego,'' Tomlinson said. "They look forward to seeing us play. They have passion about football and San Diego. I think for them to see us play and for us to play our hearts out for them, with what they're all going through, I think it can bring us together.''
Starting this week against the Texans, that makes the Chargers a team on a mission. And you never know where something like that can wind up. With all those Pro Bowl players and all that play-making talent, we already knew these Chargers were dangerous. But now they're driven. Now they're determined. Suddenly their 2007 season seems entirely different.