SAN DIEGO – Since the arrival of the team in 1961, the San Diego Chargers have gone through many changes.
Moving from Balboa Stadium to what’s now Qualcomm Stadium. Changing ownership several times and players each year. Re-inventing the Chargers’ colors and logo. Only one entity has remained intact: the Chargers cannon.
After every Chargers score, and usually once or twice during pregame, the cannon resonates throughout Qualcomm Stadium and invigorates the Chargers faithful.
San Jose State fraternity pledges unbolted the WWI Navy Line cannon from Spenger’s Fish Grotto in Berkeley and drove their prize back to campus in 1956, where it was used at San Jose State football games.
Alpha Tau Omega member Fred Soetje, a talented piano player with the stage name “Mickey Finn,” took the cannon with him to San Diego on a summer vacation in 1960 and kept it at his popular night club.
Chargers ownership accepted Finn’s request to announce every home score with the cannon, and a tradition was born.
Finn moved to Las Vegas in 1977 and sold the cannon to Jim Magot, who owned Bodies Boom Town Restaurant in University Town Center. Magot used licensed pyrotechnician Jim Peluso to ensure the cannon discharged safely.
It takes three-to-four minutes to safely reload the cannon. Once fired, the operator cleans the barrel. The operator cleans the cannon with a helix, also known as a worm, to get the powder particles out. He or she then inserts a wet swab for a minute and repeats the process to ensure all the fire has been extinguished for the next charge.
The cannon is not fired after extra points because of the time it takes to properly cleanse it.
Peluso was tragically killed in an auto accident in 1980
Enter Ron Dixon, himself a licensed pyrotechnician. Dixon purchased the cannon in ’80 and has owned and operated it for more than 30 seasons.
“Each game is like a whole new experience,” Dixon said. “It’s something I view as an extreme privilege and is something I value and take a great amount of pride in on behalf of the Chargers.”
Becoming a licensed pyrotechnician is no small endeavor. It requires a background check by the Department of Justice, a written examination of both the California Health and Safety Code and Title 19 of the State Fire Marshal regulations, followed by five letters of recommendation from licensed pyrotechnicians of the same grade or above.
“Above all else they just want to make sure you’re not going to blow your own or someone else’s fingers off,” Dixon said
Dixon usually takes 18 “charges” to every game, single loads that contain fine granules of ‘sporting grade’ black powder and an electric match that initiates black powder. All of these components are contained within a thin paper tube with soft polyethylene end caps.
“I used to take 15 charges, but that changed around the 2006 season,” Dixon said. “It just so happened to be right around the same time (Philip) Rivers took over the reins and LaDanian Tomlinson was having his career season.”
Since 1961, the cannon has been fired close to 500 times, an average of nine times per game, while using close to 100 pounds of sporting-grade black powder.
One of Dixon’s best memories is accompanying the Chargers to Super Bowl XXIX in Miami more than 15 years ago. Dixon and three others dissembled the cannon and the equipment staff loaded it on the Continental Airlines jet along with the rest of the Chargers gear and shipped to Florida.
Once in Miami, Dixon and company reassembled and painted the cannon, showcasing it in a variety of parades and celebrations before the game.
“The cannon was quite the star that week,” Dixon said. “I have great memories and pictures from that week. Going to the Super Bowl, win or lose, is an accomplishment, and it is something I will remember for the rest of my life.”
So just how popular is the cannon? It’s had its own group of fanatics, the Charger Alley Fan Club, since 1983. It’s older than every fan group except the Charger Backers, a group of diehard Charger fans who send the team off and welcome them back home upon return from road games.
Greg Adams founded the Charger Alley Fan Club. Adams’ father worked for the Chargers as a scout (1967-68) for former coach Sid Gilman.
Now the club counts close to 100 members who tailgate in sections M1 and M2 at every home game and sit directly behind the cannon on the field level.“The cannon club is a tremendous group of enthusiastic individuals that I have been fortunate enough to know for 25 years now,” Dixon said. “If you cut them they don’t bleed red, they bleed blue and yellow.”