Chargers bolt for Los Angeles

1961 was a long time ago — 56 years, to be exact.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated into the Oval Office. Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Baby Boomers were jamming along to the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, while they watched “The Twilight Zone” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Something else happened that year, too. It may not have made global headlines, but, here in San Diego it was front page news.

Why were locals so excited? There was a simple explanation, really. For the first time, San Diego would have a professional sports team. They called themselves the Chargers, and they were a high-scoring brand of pigskin prowess taking the American Football League by storm.

Hometown fans would go on to spend the next 56 years falling in love with their football team each season. There were the gracefully athletic exploits of Hall of Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth, also known as “Bambi.”

There were the aerial attacks of the Don Coryell days, buoyed by the talents of quarterback Dan Fouts and wideouts Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner. There was the single Super Bowl trip, clinched on a chilly night in Pittsburgh in 1994 on the brawny back of San Diego son Junior Seau.

There was LaDainian Tomlinson, galloping past Denver defenders and into the record books with his 29th touchdown of a magical 2006 campaign, setting a mark that may never be matched.

Just three weeks ago, a different kind of headline made the front page. As the nation prepared to formally welcome Donald Trump into the White House, and as millennials tapped along to the latest Drake single reverberating from their palm-sized super-phones, the city of San Diego finally felt the gut punch it had been bracing for for years. One simple sentence left a city grieving.

Adam Schefter of ESPN dropped the bomb on San Diego on Jan. 12, writing, “The Chargers plan to announce that they are moving to Los Angeles for the 2017 season.” By the next day, it was official.

The Chargers franchise and San Diego’s newest villain, team owner Dean Spanos, had been seduced by the hard-to-fathom holiness of Hollywood, an allure everyone but the billionaire owner himself found difficult to believe existed.

The reactions of locals were swift and strong. A makeshift memorial of Chargers gear — jerseys, hats, gameday signs, even a San Diego Union-Tribune cover story celebrating that aforementioned Super Bowl run — began to accumulate outside Chargers Park.

The memorial was eventually set on fire, a destructive allusion to the hell a region of blessed beaches and heavenly sunshine momentarily felt it had been thrust into.

Despite a public fallout, Chargers owner Dean Spanos stands to gain plenty from the move north. Photo courtesy of AM 750 LA Sports/Twitter

Fans aged 8 to 80 sobbed into their sleeves, brooded without aim, and saluted the decidedly evil Spanos the only way they felt appropriate, needing no more than a single finger to do so.

It all represented the frantic, funereal release of years of frustration, generated mostly by the struggles of both team and city to agree on the improvement or replacement of the team’s Mission Valley home, an aging Qualcomm Stadium desperately in need of a retirement party.

The Hail Mary that was Measure C on last November’s ballot, one that called for the publicly-funded construction of a downtown, waterfront stadium adjacent to the Convention Center, was soundly defeated on Election Day.

Neither side was willing to fork over the $1 billion in funds to build a pigskin palace deserving not only of professional and collegiate football games, but also of Super Bowls, World Cups, and Final Fours.

As a result, both sides were ultimately left with little choice but to walk away from the table, ignoring the pleas of lifelong Bolts backers to give it just one more shot.

And so it was that San Diego lost its longest-running professional sports franchise.

Gone, just like that.

If there was a positive for hometown fans to draw from the amputation of the franchise from its longtime home, it was this: everything Spanos and Co. touched seemed to turn to a magnet for mockery. Their hastily-released Los Angeles logo, a carbon copy of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ longtime mark drawn by a shakier hand, drew ire from hockey franchises, minor league baseball teams, and DiGiorno Pizza on Twitter.

Their temporary home during the construction of an eventual stadium in Inglewood will be a soccer facility in Carson with 30,000 seats that still may prove difficult to fill on some Sundays.

When they do move into their new digs in Inglewood, they will be the secondary tenant of the decidedly-mediocre Rams, owned by a man named Stan Kroenke who offered money to the team to keep them in San Diego.

Their introductory pep rally at the famous Forum was attended by no more than a couple hundred fans, some of whom were discovered to be aspiring actors asked by the team to fill space on television cameras. Even other league executives openly expressed disappointment in the decision to leave San Diego.

Fans share their opinions on the team’s location via a gameday sign at a 2016 game. Photo courtesy of John Gennaro/Twitter

Despite all of this, Spanos and the Chargers remain committed to Los Angeles for one simple reason: the promise of greener, moneyed pastures. The franchise’s struggles on and off the field for much of this decade do little to change the financial prospects of playing in one of the country’s largest markets.

By representing the City of Angels, Spanos all but guarantees that the value of his football franchise, or business, will double before the ink is dry.

Whether he is interested in selling the team or simply upping his family’s bottom line, the move somehow manages to be a smart business decision for the newfound target of hometown hostilities. Unfortunately, professional sports are more than just another business venture. They inspire communities, raise local spirits, and bring fans to their feet as their heroes chase championships down on the field.

Some regions are even synonymous with certain athletic traditions: college football in Alabama, baseball in the Bronx, college hoops in otherwise blasė states like Indiana and North Carolina.

That interconnectedness between sports teams and the cities they call home is something that cannot simply be ignored, even as the NFL and other professional sports leagues rack up relocation bills with an eye toward even larger dollar signs, leaving local fans wondering where it all went wrong.

It remains to be seen whether the Chargers’ bolt north will be a successful one. Will a strong start to the 2017 season grab the attention of habitually-fickle fans up north? Or will early struggles force the team to play second, third, or seventh fiddle to Los Angeles’ Dodgers, Lakers, Clippers, Trojans, Bruins and Kings?

No one knows for sure. What is certain, however, is that in even asking the question, the organization has forced fans in San Diego to sever ties with a bank of memories they’ve been building since the Kennedy administration.

Evidently, even 56 years isn’t long enough to save a city and its team from the fallout of a single SportsCenter headline.

Written by Noah Hilton, Assistant Sports Editor