An ode to San Diego Stadium

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The very last of the concrete still stands in Mission Valley, for only few more weeks. A guy who experienced the joys of San Diego Stadium — as a kid, young athlete, fan, and city leader — shares just a few of his personal experiences.

Guest Commentary
by Darren Pudgil

As the last remnants of the stadium come down, I thought I’d share a few memories, some that go back to my childhood. Perhaps, it’s part of the grieving process. Like so many other San Diegans, I’ll always consider that place very special. Lots of good times.

First, though, a thank you to the visionaries and genuine leaders who made it all happen, who had the foresight and the courage to be bold, who got that stadium approved and built and brought the Chargers here. Beyond Jack Murphy, there were plenty of others, many working behind the scenes, who deserve credit and thanks. This was a major civic achievement the likes of which San Diego had rarely seen –- and quite possibly will never see again.

Now the memories. My favorite was my first.

November 1975: I was 8. It was me, my dad and my brothers. The occasion: Monday Night Football. The Chargers vs. Joe Namath and the Jets. It was only the second Monday Night game ever played in San Diego. Our seats were high up in the “View” section in the closed end of the stadium looking east out over Mission Gorge. I remember it being so cold. In reality, it was probably 60 degrees or so.

I don’t remember much about the game, other than the Chargers won and that Joe Namath was benched for the first quarter because he had stayed out past curfew the night before. After the game, instead of going home like we should have (it was a school night), we went to Daisy’s in Chula Vista and had a very late dinner. So cool.

November 1977: Our Pop Warner team got to go to an Aztec football game. It was my first. I didn’t know much about the Aztecs or who they were playing. But it turned out to be one of the biggest games in school history: SDSU vs. 13th-ranked Florida State. The Aztecs pulled off a stunner, upsetting the Seminoles, 41-16. Our team was seated right above the Aztec tunnel/canopy and I remember the players running off the field after the game in euphoria flinging their chin strips, arm pads and anything else they had up towards us in the crowd.

December 1978: The Super Q Bowl -– the annual day-long marathon of seven or eight Pop Warner football championship games. Our Pee Wee team wasn’t that good, so we didn’t get to play there. But I got to go as a “junior paramedic” thanks to my brother Duane who was a paramedic for Ballard’s Bay Cities Ambulance in Chula Vista. I was decked out in an all-white uniform and my brother had a special blue and white name tag made for me.

We got there early in the morning and stayed until the last game ended that night. If needed, I was ready to administer some aid –- if only a Band-Aid. But my services were not needed, so I spent most of the day down on the sidelines just watching, chugging sodas, and at half-times going out on the field and throwing a Nerf around.

December 1983: I played football at Chula Vista High School and we had a pretty strong team. A bunch of scrappers –- players and coaches of every color working together toward a common goal. We went 9-1 during the regular season, beat Point Loma and San Pasqual in the play-offs, and ended up playing in the stadium for the CIF Championship against El Camino, a perennial football powerhouse.

Before the game, as we were leaving the locker room and walking through the tunnel on our way to the field, I saw Dan Fouts standing off to the side, waiting for the elevator. I paused for a second and took in the moment.

As for the game, we won 17-13. I rarely scored during the season, but this game I made it into the end zone. And I remember that cannon going off and scaring the hell out of me. We went back to the stadium the following year and again played for the championship, again against El Camino. But that game is not really worth writing about.

October 1984: My dad and I were at a high school football game at Madison High School scouting a team we might be facing in the play-offs. It was a Saturday night. At some point during the game the crowd started going wild. And I mean WILD! But it was in between plays. I’m like what the heck is going on? Is someone streaking? My dad and I looked at each other puzzled. There was a guy about 10 feet away jumping up and down. He had a radio. My dad asked him what was going on. He hollered out: “Garvey just hit a home run!!!”

The Chargers 1994 Super Bowl Season: I was renting a house from a guy who was a friend of Paul Lowe, one of the greatest Chargers of all-time who played in the 1960s. Paul hooked us up with tickets to most of the games that year -– and what a year to have tickets. Those were some incredible games.

After his football days, Paul operated a catering business that specialized in barbeque and he always had a tailgate party in the parking lot before each game. For 10 bucks, it was all-you-could eat brisket, ribs, burgers, cornbread, etc. It was heaven! There was only about 20 of us. After the games, Paul would start the barbeque back up and some of the Chargers, including Leslie O’Neil and Natrone Means, would often come out and join us. Super good times!

Early 2000s: Having never been to a monster truck show, my brothers and I decided it was time. And we brought my nephew. I didn’t know the difference between Big Foot or Grave Digger, nor did I care to. I was just there for the experience.

At some point, there was a break in the action, and out from the big tunnel under the scoreboard came a long black limousine. It slowly made its way out to center field and stopped. Out stepped a very frail Evel Knievel who stood up next to the car and waived to the crowd. People went berserk! He then stepped back inside and rolled off.

January 2007: Chargers vs. Patriots, AFC Divisional Play-Off Game. The Chargers had emerged from some down years to have one of their best seasons ever (14-2) and San Diego was all abuzz. I was working at the County for Ron Roberts at the time, and a couple days before the game we unfurled a massive “Charger Power” banner from the tower of the County Building downtown and held a big rally. We also printed up a thousand or so “Charger Power” placards to give out.

At the game on Sunday, we were tailgating when my brother David’s friend George showed up in his truck, hauling his toy trailer. The tailgating would soon kick into high gear. In the back of his trailer was a sweet blue Rhino (not the animal, the all-terrain vehicle). We decided it needed to come out.

I was hesitant to go cruising around the parking lot, thinking we could get busted, but we did it anyway. We’d keep an eye out for the police and then go the other way. Long story short (if not too late) -– three somewhat middle-aged guys including me thought we were pretty cool, slowly driving through the (super-packed) parking lot, with music BLASTING (I had made a CD with the San Diego Super Chargers song, Monday Night Football song, FOX and CBS NFL songs, Kid Rock, Bad to the Bone, etc).

We’d stop off at other tailgate parties, people we didn’t even know, and pass out the extra “Charger Power” placards I had (and maybe pick up a beverage). There were random girls hopping up on the Rhino as we were driving around. It was like a music video.

As for the game, the Patriots upset the Chargers, 24-21. We were bummed, of course, but we had a blast nonetheless.

December 2010: I was working for the mayor at the time and was sitting in my office one afternoon when the phone rang. It was the stadium general manager in a bit of a conundrum. It had rained for days across San Diego and the stadium -– and everything around it –- was flooded. It was the day before the Poinsettia Bowl (Navy vs. San Diego State). The playing field was under a lot of water and it wasn’t draining out because the water level in the San Diego River was too high.

So I went down to the stadium that afternoon for a big pow-wow with bowl officials and ESPN executives to decide what to do. They were talking about postponing the game or possibly cancelling it.

All of a sudden, I have an idea. So I reach down, unholster my Blackberry, step out into the hallway, and dial up the director of the city’s Public Utilities Department. (or whatever it was called back then). I informed him of the situation, and asked him if he had access to any equipment, hoses or pumps, or whatever. He tells me he’s on it. Not more than 20 minutes later, the first city truck arrives on scene, towing a water pump. I meet him at the top of the tunnel on the east side. He backs down, rolls out a big hose and starts pumping water back up the tunnel and out into the parking lot. Soon another truck arrives, then another.

They worked all night long. And so the game went on. A couple weeks later, we brought all these guys down to City Hall and honored them.

I have other stories, but this is already way too long.

I feel very fortunate to have lived in San Diego during such a wonderful era. I will miss that beautiful stadium, but will cherish each and every memory.

Darren Pudgil is a public relations consultant and life-long San Diego County resident.

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