Curse of the Lightning Bolt?

1965 afl championship game programAfter writing his uniquely-wonderful book about the late Frank Buncom, Buzz Ponce will always, perhaps unfairly, be known as “the Buncom guy.”  I say “unfairly” only because Ponce is a gifted writer, and as a former Chargers ballboy, has an interesting perspective about Sid Gillman’s Bolts.  He has many stories to tell, and I have a feeling that Finding Frank may have been just the tip of the iceberg.  In this latest piece, Ponce ponders his life as a Chargers fan, and wonders if the team hasn’t been snake-bitten since entering their final AFL championship game without the focus necessary to defeat a tough Buffalo Bills squad.

Beginning with the American Football League’s debut in 1960, I have been a Chargers fan. I’ve celebrated the team’s highlights starting with their uprooting from the cavernous confines of the Los Angeles Coliseum to San Diego in 1961. Then through their lone championship year in 1963, their near misses in ’64 and ’65, the wonder years of Air Coryell, their Super Bowl run in 1994, and the team’s sometimes electrifying seasons under Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner.

But it hasn’t always been easy rooting for the Chargers. Frankly, for most of their 52 seasons, the team has been a doormat. At the end of the 2012 season after missing the playoffs yet again, the Chargers’ overall record stood barely above .500: 399 wins, 394 losses, 11 ties. Their post season record is a dismal 10 wins, 16 losses.

So while there have certainly been many Chargers highlights, there also have been many disappointing games, many disappointing losses. However, the 1965 American Football League Championship game versus the Buffalo Bills stands out as a defining low moment, a game that seemingly haunts the team to this day, 48 years later.

I have a unique perspective on that game. I was there, on the field at Balboa Stadium roaming the visitor sidelines wearing Buffalo red, white, and blue. I saw first-hand and up-close the Chargers’ meltdown; a meltdown that may still define the heart and soul of the San Diego Chargers.

I was on the sidelines that afternoon because I was employed by the Chargers as one of several ball boys in 1965. During summer training camp I lived with the team and befriended a few players, most notably linebacker Frank Buncom. Following training camp and through the regular season, I was assigned by the Chargers to work home games in Balboa Stadium and to report to the visiting team.

So there I was at 8:00 Sunday morning December 26, 1965, in the Bills’ locker room unpacking boxes and sorting through equipment, getting uniforms and gear ready for the 1:00 pm kick-off. I remember Buffalo’s effusive equipment manager Tony Marchitte calmly barking orders early that day, taking charge of his minions and turning the dungeon that was Balboa’s locker room into an organized, efficient space.

As the players began to arrive the mood within that dungeon became palpable; it was a quiet, somber, resolve. There seemed to be a steadfastness – a commitment — that permeated the locker area and that seeped into the soul of the Buffalo Bills. I had several chances that morning to duck quickly into San Diego’s side of the stadium and noticed a decidedly different ambiance: the Chargers players were smiling, joking, and seemingly looking forward to the beer and champagne that was already tucked away, ready for the celebration that was sure to come San Diego’s way.

And why not? The Chargers were strong 7-point favorites and had already thumped the Bills 34-3 in their first meeting that season; in their second contest, the teams squared-away in a 20-20 tie.     

As I document in the book Finding Frank: Full Circle in a Life Cut Short, San Diego was clearly the dominant team in the AFL in 1965; their winning percentage of .818 far outdistanced any other team and they outscored opponents 380 to 227. They featured a high-powered offense and a stout defense – both the elite in the AFL that season. The Chargers were ranked first in passing offense, first in rushing offense, first in passing defense, and first in running defense. The Bills were second in rushing defense, but a woeful seventh in total offense.

San Diego was ubiquitous with over confidence before the start of the ‘65 AFL title game. In a glaring example, the Associated Press reported the day prior that, “The Chargers are taking a relaxed and confident attitude toward Sunday’s AFL championship game.” Tight end Dave Kocourek, a key cog for the team throughout the early ‘60’s, was quoted as saying, “Our team is in a relaxed state of mind. I think that’s a good sign. Maybe it’s the season – green trees, green money. Whatever the reason, everyone’s in a really good mood.”

San Diego’s head coach Sid Gillman may have contributed largely to his team’s state of premature exuberance and the subsequent loss. He predicted a Chargers blowout and told columnist Larry Felser of the Buffalo Evening News before the game, “You know, there is no way we can lose this game.” When asked why, Gillman famously said the reason was, “Because of (quarterback) Jack Kemp. We’re going to win this game because Kemp has the maturity of a 10-year-old girl.”

In the Buffalo dressing room I had a very unique view on Gillman’s assessment and on how Bills’ coach Lou Saban went about preparing his team. Even for a high school kid – a ball boy outsider — it was evident; the solemn atmosphere that invaded the locker room was a direct result of the team’s groundwork and their coach’s single-mindedness.

Saban simply wouldn’t let the Bills get over-confident and giddy. And really, how could they? Consider their fate: the coach traded the team’s best player before the season began, sending the talented but bickering running back Cookie Gilchrist to the Denver Broncos. They played the title game without their two best receivers who were lost to injury – Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass. Starting center Dave Behrman did not play due to muscle spasms in his back and the Bills also lost safeties Gene Sykes and Tom Keating for the season. As if things could not get any worse for Buffalo, guard Billy Shaw was injured on the first play of the game and did not return until the second half.

So it was in this setting that I meandered up and down Buffalo’s sidelines wearing a Bills team-issued t-shirt with water bottles and towels in hand, watching the visitors thrash San Diego 23-0 in what remains even nearly half a century later as the Chargers’ all-time lowest moment.

Saban’s strategy for the game was brilliant while Gillman’s was lackluster at best, with no surprises other than an uninspiring team performance. How did Saban do it, how did the journeyman coach outwit the future Hall of Famer Gillman? How, with all of those injuries and playing on the road, did he devise a plan that shut down and shut out the flamboyant Chargers, runaway owners of the league’s best offense?

In hindsight and with many years to digest, Saban’s approach now seems simple: smother San Diego’s passing game. In particular, smother Lance Alworth. The magnificent Alworth, arguably the league’s finest receiver, was held to just 82 receiving yards the entire afternoon – and that wasn’t by chance. Saban and his defensive coach Joe Collier correctly bragged post-game that their line of attack from the get-go was to stop the acrobatic wide receiver. Said Collier, “We double-teamed Alworth on almost every play. When he lined up at flanker, Booker Edgerson and Hagood Clarke double-covered him. When he was at split-end, it was George Saimes and Booker.”

Buffalo also often blitzed linebackers Mike Stratton, Harry Jacobs, and John Tracey along with defensive back Saimes. The result was an incredible pass rush that kept San Diego quarterback John Hadl rattled and harassed the entire game and held Alworth and the Chargers to zero touchdowns.

Offensively for the Bills, Kemp was at his scrambling best – a sort of “in-your-face” shout back at Gillman for the coach’s derisive pre-game comment. Also no doubt, Kemp’s performance was a reminder to Gillman that he shouldn’t have put the future GOP Congressman on waivers three years earlier. But Kemp was sanguine post-game, saying only the appropriate things such as, “We just wanted to roll out more and do some things like bootlegs and play action passes…”

On the visitors sideline during the game, I remember Saban always looking calm, always looking confident, always looking in control. For a kid who loved the Chargers, I couldn’t help it — I was impressed with the coach and his team. The Bills and their low-key self assurance that day contrasted sharply to San Diego’s attitude and even though the first half ended with just a 7-0 score in favor of Buffalo, I dejectedly sensed it was lights out for the Chargers. Save for a 47-yard scamper down the sidelines by Paul Lowe, San Diego just couldn’t put any sustainable drive together; instead they were relegated to errant punts and missed field goal chances. The second half was all Bills as they piled on an additional 16 points and kept the Chargers scoreless.

The winning locker room after the game was diametrically opposite of the solemnity I observed pre-game. Buffalo turned into party beasts with beer and champagne aplenty. Paul Maguire, a Gillman cast-off a year ago but now a Bills standout in the game with crucial dead-on punts and spectacular blocking on a Butch Byrd punt return for a touchdown, was toasting everyone and all – including me. Sportscaster Charlie Jones – whom Maguire would work with a few years later – was resplendent in an NBC coat and tie dripping with champagne, along with colleague Paul Christman.

I was able to mingle freely during this raucous celebration and watch grown men laugh and shout like I had ever seen before. I was right there, front row center, watching Christman on national television introducing AFL Commissioner Joe Foss who sang Buffalo’s praises and presented the Championship Trophy to a beaming Lou Saban. It was a Forrest Gump moment, indeed.

One player that day for Buffalo though would have the tables turned on him 42 years later as the head coach of those Chargers. A rookie by the name of Marty Schottenheimer was an obscure linebacker for the Bills in 1965. But as San Diego’s head coach in 2007, in another playoff game that had eerie reminders of the ’65 Championship game, the high-flying Chargers lost to New England in the third round of the playoffs – one game before the Super Bowl — signaling the end of Schottenheimer’s coaching career and spoiling an otherwise spectacular 14-2 season record that year.

I struggle to remember other personalities and moments that late December afternoon in the only championship locker room I’ve experienced. While I recall certain players celebrating wildly, there’s one particular image that’s cemented in my mind; most all others are blurred and gauzy with the heavy, hazy effects of time. After the television cameras were turned off in the Bills’ locker room, after the players began to shower, dress and leave the stadium, I wandered outside and into San Diego’s tomb-like locker area.

I went there, really, only to search out Frank Buncom. I wanted to know how the player who had seemed to take a special interest in a typical kid was doing, how he was holding up after such a traumatic loss. Buncom stood just inside the locker entry way when I found him, chatting very quietly with several other players. When he turned and saw me, he flashed his smile, made a circle with his thumb and fingers and mouthed his signature line, “Are you kidding me…?”

It was his way his way of saying it’s all going to be OK, his way of moving on.  I shook his hand, mumbled my regrets, and scurried back to Buffalo’s locker room.

Buncom was dealt to the Cincinnati Bengals two years later and died a year after that. He and his Chargers teammates on that ’65 team – most of whom had played together in title games in 1963, ’64, and ’65 –never again played in a championship game for San Diego. The franchise would have to wait 29 years to play in another league championship when San Francisco shellacked the Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX.

Simply put, December 26, 1965 was a dark day for the San Diego Chargers. The team’s sloppy performance – off the field with their braggadocio and during the game with their shoddy play — begs the big question:  in 804 games that stretch over 50 years, is it fair to signal out this one particular game as a franchise turning point?

And bigger questions, still: have the San Diego Chargers ever fully recovered from their debacle on a sun-splashed December afternoon in Balboa Stadium against the Buffalo Bills, 48 years ago? Was that game the Chargers’ turning point to mediocrity? Because of their careless and carefree play, was their fate sealed on that day to never return another championship to San Diego?

Was the ’65 AFL Championship game the Chargers’ Curse of the Lightning Bolt?

 

Todd Tobias (790 Posts)

Todd Tobias's interest in the American Football League began in 1998, when he wrote my master's thesis about Sid Gillman. He created this site to educate and entertain football fans with the stories of the American Football League, 1960-1969. You can follow Todd and get more AFL history on Twitter @TalesfromtheAFL.


24 Responses to Curse of the Lightning Bolt?

  1. L Andrew Bernheim says:

    I see at least one other SanDiego Charger Ballboy writing on this site. I was also a Ballboy . I worked the summer of 1969 as a 16year ball boy at UC Irvine. Tom Denman was the equipment manager then

  2. Howard says:

    Just a great report!! Outstanding ability to bring you there up close and personal!

    • Buzz Ponce says:

      Thank you, Howard! Glad you enjoyed the read.

      • Tom says:

        Buzz it’s been said the only thing we own in life are our memories and great thanks to you for sharing a few of yours.
        Their have been as you know other curses most notably the Bambino in Boston, the Billy goat in Wrigley and Bobby Layne in Detroit, one less publicized but talked about by locals and others over the years is one concerning a section of Southeast Los Angeles County called the Dairy Valley curse. Coincidentally three Chargers off that 1965 team hailed from the greater Dairy Valley area Dick Degan, John Farris and Paul Lowe. The curse has been said to have affected the lives and careers of many former residents from Dick and Pat Nixon to Dallas Moon, Bob Chandler, Jim Vellone, jerry and Mike Quarry, Ed Obbannon, Eric Hipple and a list of others much to lengthy to mention here and recently Jay Gibbons, Renardo Sydney and Ben Howland. Notable exceptions are Troy Aikman, Joe Gibbs, Ron Yary and Jim Zorn.
        Without elaborating, a yes or no will do, with Frank Buncom the exception, have you ever personally felt that your life was affected by the curse The Bolts?

        • Buzz Ponce says:

          Hey Tom, very interesting about the Dairy Valley curse; I was not aware of such a thing. But those are some great names that came from that area with their own great stories. Thanks for pointing that out.
          You asked a very interesting question: did I ever feel affected by the Chargers’ “curse”? Short answer: no. I have nothing but great, wonderful memories of my one year working for the Chargers. If anything, that experience has enhanced my life many times over.

          • Tom says:

            Buzz not to over play this but Nomar Garciaparra is another guy who hailed from Dairy Valley and who has had, I suspect a blessed life, but who’s baseball career was cursed and negatively altered by injuries. Nomar went from being called the next Joe DiMaggio, to years during his prime on the DL

  3. 1967 says:

    Further evidence ‘hype’ doesn’t win games – performance does. Like Gillman, how foolish Namath, Clay/Ali or the 1980 Russian Olympic Hockey team for example would’ve looked (as several other athletes, players & associated have variously, over time), their boasts come a cropper.

    Raison why stats & smack talk fail to suffice & rosters should not serve as tally, victor declared antecedently. Why, caught up in the moment, the uninitiated playing the part the ‘jumper’ to the media’s ‘go ahead – do (say) it’ – teeter on the edge their own egotism before taking the plunge; result trumping quip final analysis.

    I see the 1960’s Chargers as underachievers for whatever reason(s); they were the Chiefs before KC overcame that same label, ditto the Dallas Cowboys (‘Tomorrow’s Champions’), the latter’s 1960’s into early 70’s cross to bear. The Allen/Gabriel led LA Rams & Unitas/Morrall Baltimore Colts too that era a similar cross to bear.

    I look back on several of those San Diego Chargers teams and wonder ‘why’? Their defense took enough hits via lost players mid/late 1960’s (Ladd, Faison, Farr, Warren & Westmoreland et al) to have perhaps been a culprit, but doesn’t account for why, even with those players, they tanked 1964-1969. The year 1967 sticks out to me: the Chargers stood 8-1-1 including a romp over the defending AFL Champion Chiefs… San Diego then lost four in a row to end the season, no post for them (even the 2-9 Dolphins beat SD – by 17 points.)

    If the Chargers didn’t then have Alworth and the best looking uniforms in all of sport, they truly might be more so a footnote in pro football history… sobering thoughts but realistic, my opine.

  4. Tim T says:

    I cannot get it to link..but I may have a signed Bily Shaw photo..a shot of the calm lockerroom prior to that game with the Chargers..I think it was a Robert Smith photo…Tom, send me an e-mail and I’ll copy and paste it back to you..for Buzz to see and confirm ? thanks..great writer that Buzz.

  5. Buzz:

    As a Buffalo Bills fan, I thank you for a perspective on the 1965 championshio game that I never had before. You made me feel I was in the Bills’ locker room, and it brought back memories that were long covered with cobwebs.

    And, as a fan of a team that lost four consecutive Super Bowls, I ask that you not be too hard on the Chargers. They were one of the class teams of the early AFL. THeir coach, their wide recever, and their uniforms made the NFL sycophants, and, more importantly Professional Football fans everywhere sit up and take notice that a new order had begun. Then, as now, only one team each year wins “all the marbles”.

    To paraphrase Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “tis better to have played the championship game and lost, than never to have played at all!”

    http://bit.ly/1965AFLChampions

  6. I’ll comment more later, but right now I want say: EXCELLENT article, Buzz. Please write some more.

    • Buzz Ponce says:

      Thank you, Matt. The 1960’s Chargers are a treasure-trove of stories. There may be a few more I can try to capture in written form. Appreciate your comments!

  7. billd says:

    I was at the game. Like Buzz wrote, even though it was 7-0 Bills at the half, I could sense the Chargers were doomed. The Bills had a great defense. Old pros like George Flint, Bo Roberson, Wray Carlton and Ernie Warlick stepped up big time for the Bills..along with Billy Joe filling Cookie’s shoes. I’m sure Gillman lit a fire under Kemp. Good article.

  8. John Spoulos says:

    I bet Bills fans wish their team had that magic now. They spent a fortune on a defense that went south on them. At least they tried, but I guess it proves its hard to buy a championship

  9. A turning point? Yes. The 1965 AFL Championship Game marked the end of the greatest era of San Diego Chargers history.

    A curse? No. For starters, the Chargers have one championship, which is more than can be said for one fourth of the present-day NFL.

    In addition, other teams, like the Detroit Lions (last won in 1957) and Cleveland Browns (last won in 1964), are also suffering through championship droughts, and I believe the Chargers have fared better in the last 50 years than the Lions and Browns have.

    I have great memories of the Air Coryell Chargers from 1979 to 1985. They were the first team to score 400-plus points on a regular basis: 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1985, plus 288 points in a 9-game 1982 season. I remember Wes Chandler’s 1,000-yards receiving in 1982 while playing only 8 games. I remember in 1979, the Bolts blasted the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers in the regular season, 35-7. In the 1981 playoffs, there was Kellen Winslow’s legendary performance in Miami that led to a 41-38 victory.

    The 1985 Chargers led the league in scoring with 467 points–more points than the unforgettable ’85 Bears scored. 1985 was the year Lionel “Little Train” James became the first running back (along with the 49ers’ Roger Craig) to post 1,000 yards receiving in a single season.

    I can easily go into more detail. I think Todd, Buzz, and any Chargers fan would agree: Fouts, Winslow, Jefferson, Chandler, Joiner, Muncie, James Brooks, and the Little Train–those were some exciting seasons. The flip side is that the Air Coryell Chargers underachieved. The 1979, ’80, ’81, and ’82 teams came up short in the playoffs. The ’85 team finished 8-8 while the Bears had one of the truly legendary seasons of all time.

    My point is that the Chargers have brought a great deal of fun, innovation, and excitement to the game of football. I agree with Ange Coniglio–we shouldn’t too hard on the Chargers. The lightning bolt is not cursed. The lightning bolt is a symbol of one of the more fun and exciting teams in pro football history.

    • Buzz Ponce says:

      You make some great points, Matt. And to call the Chargers cursed, is a little over-the-top, I admit. They’ve been an exciting team to watch throughout many of their 52 years. But that ’65 game is haunting, nevertheless; they should have won the game, going away. My description of the team being cursed is hyperbole, no question. But still, it’s an interesting mystery: how did they lose that game and why haven’t they reached the promised land in all of their later years?

  10. jeff says:

    Loved the description of the Bills defensive game plan. Was this the game where Booker Edgerson caught Lance Alworth from behind to prevent a touchdown?

  11. Buzz Ponce says:

    Great question about Booker chasing down Lance. Wish I had the answer, but it’s too many years gone by for me. My bet is that someone out there knows the story. Anyone?

  12. Jimax says:

    Great article with wonderful insight into the demeanor of each team going into the game. I hope to see more from this excellent storyteller. The “curse” theory is, of course, far-fetched, but interesting. At any rate, if a team must have a curse, better one that keeps them from winning titles than one the baseball Angels claim, where their players die at a much higher rate and younger than can be logically explained.

  13. James Millsap says:

    I don’t disagree with the positive statements of Bolts fans (I am a huge Chargers diehard), but I for one have always felt, since first starting to watch them in my childhood (Air Coryell era), that they were indeed cursed…that 1979 playoff loss to the Oilers, with Vernon Perry picking 4 off of stolen signals plus a classic Charger place kicker in the playoffs disaster…the 1980 AFC title game loss where the Raiders got momentum off of a tipped pass that ended up in Raymond Chester’s hands…freezing in Cincy the next year…drawing David Woodley’s one great day as a pro QB the next…the losses in 2004 and 2006 with yet more placekicking mishaps…the 2007 freezer in NE…the 2009 collapse against the Jets…at least 4 of those teams were #1 seeds who flamed out, three times in one and done fashion…

    But I still love ’em…the players, the memories, the unis…not always ownership, and not always GM functions, but the Bolts players, absolutely!

  14. Christopher Peck says:

    Finally had a chance to read this. Great stuff, Buzz! Thank you. I don’t remember watching this game (7 years old then), but the only thing I wish is that I could go back to halftime and tell Gillman to Run The Damn Ball! Stick with Lowe & Lincoln if they shut down Alworth! Lincoln ran only 4 times for 16 yards! (Just another frustrated Chargers fan)

    • Buzz Ponce says:

      Thanks for the positive comments, Chris. And I agree that Sid should have called a better game. But in his defense, I think (not sure; Todd would probably know) Lincoln was not at 100% for that game — hamstring problem or some such thing. But it was — and remains — an over-the-top frustrating game that may have changed the course of the team for many years.

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