Most sports fans can trace the downward trajectory or “curse” of their franchise to one singular scenario in sports history. Boston Red Sox fans will point to the sale of Babe Ruth for twenty-five thousand dollars and the rights to finance a play. Chicago Cubs fans spent 95 years and one Steve Bartman wallowing in misery. For fans of the San Diego Chargers, like myself, our moment came on April 24, 2004. A day that should have marked the turning point in our franchise from mediocrity to dynasty. A tourist destination to a free-agent destination. To fully understand the significance of this day we must rewind the clock… 3 years earlier…
April 21, 2001.
Fresh off a 1-15 season, the Chargers were awarded the #1 pick in the NFL Draft. A pick that was sure to be Michael Vick, perhaps the greatest athlete since Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders. Size, speed, and arm strength; This young man was poised to do great things. Character concerns about Vick led then Chargers GM John Butler to pursue trade opportunities.
The most enticing of which came from the Atlanta Falcons at fifth overall. The teams swapped selections, the Falcons chose Vick and the Chargers went on to select future Hall of Famer, LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson would then be paired with second round pick, Drew Brees. Standout quarterback from Purdue. There was no way? Right? The Chargers selected two Hall-of-Fame caliber players in the same draft? L.T. would immediately insert himself into MVP conversations, while Brees struggled with his transition to the pro game. One thing was clear. We had our quarterback and running back of the future and were missing just one piece.
In 2002, Brees would start all 16 games and throw for 3,200 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. Pedestrian stats for an NFL quarterback, but this was his first full season as a starter. By comparison, Tom Brady threw for 2,800 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and Peyton Manning threw for 3,700 yards, 26 touchdowns and a league-leading 28 interceptions in each of their first seasons. Of the three passers, Brees was the only one to regress in his second season. Still one thing remained clear they were missing a piece. THE PIECE.
April 24, 2004
The stage was set. Draft day. San Diego had stumbled their way to a 4-12 record. For the second time in 3 years, the Chargers were selecting at first overall. We are set at quarterback. We are set at running back. Undrafted free-agent Antonio Gates was signed after the 2003 draft. We are set at tight end. We were just missing that play-maker. That generational wide receiver that would accelerate the offense. He was going to bring us back to the days of Air Coryell. A time when nobody wanted to face the Chargers passing attack. San Diego fans were waiting to hear it and as Commissioner Paul Tagliabue walked to the podium Chargers fans were certain of one thing. We were going to select Larry Fitzgerald first overall and complete what would have become the greatest dynasty in NFL history.
As fate would have it, the Chargers would have a knee jerk reaction towards Brees’ subpar sophomore campaign. San Diego selected Eli Manning. Then they traded him to the New York Giants for Phillip Rivers and future draft picks. The rest as they say is history.
If history tells us anything, its that we never know what the future will hold. But for fans of the San Diego Chargers, we can look back on that day and know beyond a shadow of a doubt, for our franchise, that was the day the lights went out in San Diego.