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1963 Team Reminisces on Championship Season
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Fifty years ago, Bud Whitehead plied his trade by sneaking up on opposing wide receivers. Today, he's content with sneaking up on former teammate Bob Petrich as he herds his two grandchildren around their team's reunion.
Then, the old cornerback whips out an old joke Petrich hasn't heard in years.
"Does this guy owe you money?" he asks the kids with a smile. "Watch out for this guy."
The jokes used to provoke a laugh or two from Petrich at team practices, and they work on his grandchildren, too.
The roped-off area outside Qualcomm Stadium became a contemporary version of the old locker room at Balboa Stadium. A sign outside the reunion in the parking lot read that the space was reserved for all the members of San Diego's only championship-winning team. In reality, the area housed those players, their family members, alumni, fans and all the shared memories of a magical season a half-century gone by.
"You look older, but when you're around these guys, you don't feel older," Petrich said. "Just remembering everything brings you back and you feel like it could've happened yesterday."
But what Petrich and others so vividly remember actually took place on January 5, 1964. That's when his team ran circles around the then-Boston Patriots, winning the AFL Championship by 41 points and capturing the imagination of football fans nationwide.
That season elicits different memories from the players that saw it end. Some, like former All-AFL running back Paul Lowe, vividly remember each of the team’s three losses that season. Others, like cornerback Dick Harris, recall how that team bounced back from adversity.
The Chargers had just lost by one point to the Raiders with a three-game road trip upcoming. But Harris saw no panicked players as he surveyed the team locker room after the game, and that's when he said he knew the year could be a special one.
"We played the New York Jets the next week and blew them out, 53-7," Harris said. "And we won the next two road games after that."
Other stories passed around the reunion just as frequently. A few minutes after bear-hugging Whitehead, former middle linebacker Chuck Allen asked him if he remembers the scrawny kid in the Raiders locker room with the microphone.
"Of course I do," Whitehead answers. "How could I forget?"
The story goes like this: Whitehead, Allen and a few other Chargers arrived early at Frank Youell Field for their game against the Raiders. They noticed they weren't alone in the visiting locker room; a skinny kid in full pads and a Raiders jersey was already inside, clutching a microphone. He saw the incoming Chargers and left, excusing himself for the inconvenience.
"I'd recognize that kid's voice anywhere, now," said Allen. "It was Regis Philbin doing a bit for the local news up there."
There were somber memories, too. The home stretch of the season was delayed when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. So when that anniversary happened late last month, Petrich admitted, "it was tough not thinking about my team and where I was."
The season eventually resumed, and so did the Bolts' title hopes. And after his team advanced to the title game, Allen remembers watching the Patriots-Bills do battle for the AFL's Eastern Division. The two teams ended up in a lock for first place, and had to play a tie-breaking additional game.
Lowe remembers the hours of preparation that coach Sid Gillman poured into his game plan in the preceding week. And after their two potential opponents needed another week to solve the tie, Gillman "went right back to the chalkboard."
He devised a game plan that Lowe will never forget. The running back would be a decoy -- the recipient of fake handoffs and pitches used to confuse the opposing defense and free up fellow runner Keith Lincoln.
It worked magnificently, and the Chargers captured the 1963 AFL throne.
"Let's put it this way -- we were all well-coached, and we had the game plan to win anything," Lowe said. "And after we won, we made sure we gave a little champagne toast to coach (Gillman) for getting us there."
That locker-room toast was immortalized with an iconic photograph and an AFL trophy. And now, after 50 years, the entire 1963 team will be equally preserved with their own, special spot in the Chargers Ring of Honor.