We have discussed the possibilities of “Pre-Super Bowl Games” in the past. In fact, very soon we will be featuring a special series of articles on such a match up by noted AFL author and historian, Dave Steidel. In this piece, Buzz Ponce, author of Finding Frank, explores a potential match-up between the ’63 Bears and Chargers, always a favorite subject!!
When the San Diego Chargers belatedly honored the team’s only championship on December 1 in half-time ceremonies at Qualcomm Stadium, it marked not only an anniversary date, but also raised a bold and brash question: Could the champions of the upstart American Football League in 1963, the Chargers, beat the champs of the venerated National Football League—the storied Monsters of the Midway—the Chicago Bears?
As recounted in the recent book, Finding Frank: Full Circle in a Life Cut Short, the 1963 San Diego Chargers—resplendent in their classic powder blue jerseys and luminously helmeted gold bolts—were the toast of the town. After spending their summer training camp at an outpost 60 miles east of San Diego called Rough Acres—complete with rattlesnakes and barren sod for a field—the team breezed through the regular season with an 11-3 record. The Chargers then soundly thumped the Boston Patriots 51-10 in the American Football League’s championship game in Balboa Stadium.
Those Chargers were a swaggering outfit that thrilled fans with high scoring, explosive games years prior to when quarterback Dan Fouts and head coach Don Coryell led the Chargers in the more heralded, so-called Air Coryell era.
In this pre-ESPN era that lacked the professorial investigative scrutiny given today’s game, many thought the ‘63 Chargers were indeed the superior team in all of football and would have bested the Bears if given the opportunity.
At the time, there were many football experts that chimed in with opinions including Otto Graham, the Hall of Famer and former Cleveland Browns quarterback. In the aftermath of San Diego’s win over the Patriots, Graham believed the Chargers were the preeminent team in football that year. As he said in an article entitled The AFL’s First Super Team by sports journalist Ed Gruver, “If the Chargers could play the best in the NFL, I’d have to pick the Chargers.”
In the same article, no less an authority than the late filmmaker Steve Sabol, then president of NFL Films who had viewed extensive footage of every great professional football team, offered this opinion: “I think Sid Gillman’s Chargers would’ve done very well against the NFL champion Bears,” Sabol said. “I think that (Chargers) team could’ve won. It would’ve been a very interesting matchup between a space-age offense and a stone-age defense.”
Gruver also quotes the late veteran football writer Larry Felser. “The ’63 Chargers were a rousing offensive team that included two future pro football Hall of Famers, wide receiver Lance Alworth and tackle Ron Mix, plus a pair of superb running backs in Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe, and a skilled quarterback in Tobin Rote.
“The Bears were strictly a defensive team. It was a good defense, but it didn’t have Dick Butkus yet. The offense was far from top-quality, and the quarterback was journeyman Bill Wade. Gale Sayers hadn’t arrived yet, either.”
So it would have been an epic battle indeed, one that the Chargers could have actually won. If so, imagine the ramifications: In a classic David vs Goliath battle, small, provincial San Diego in the looked-down-upon American Football League, whipping the Chicago Bears of George Halas lore.
Instead, San Diegans are left with a team from 50 years ago that holds the keys to the city’s only championship. A team that was so audacious for its day, that the coach and general manager—Gillman—insisted that their championship rings have inscribed on them not AFL Champions, but World Champions. A nice, in-your-face jab at the NFL.
Let’s hope by adding the 1963 Chargers to the team’s Ring of Honor at Qualcomm in December, the shine returns to San Diego.