Remember the childlike San Diego Chargers joy?
The classic NFL highlight unfolds in slow motion. Quarterback Neil O’Donnell drops back on a blustery January day in Pittsburgh. In the wave of a Terrible Towel, some Steelers appear to get open. But San Diego linebacker Dennis Gibson arrives in the nick of time to deflect a short fourth-down pass in the end zone with 1:04 left. NBC’s Dick Enberg gets caught up in the AFC championship game thrill.
“And the San Diego Chargers flood the field …”
Those 1994 Chargers, led by former Citadel head coach Bobby Ross, remain San Diego’s only Super Bowl team, but football disappointment keeps giving way to tragedy. Junior Seau, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, on Wednesday became the eighth player on the Chargers’ Super Bowl roster to die young.
“Junior Seau meant an awful lot to me,” Ross said Thursday from his home in Richmond, Va. “It was just a privilege for me to have the opportunity to work with him. He was such a pleasure to work with. Just very, very special.”
Ross has been to funerals and hugged crying fathers.
He is 75 and suffering from skin cancer. The old coach should be getting cheery calls from ex-players, not phoning them with condolences about the loss of yet another teammate.
“Junior … I was shocked,” said Ross, who also served as head coach for Maryland, Georgia Tech, the Detroit Lions and Army. “I was getting ready to go work out and saw the news on TV. When something hits you like that, you have to go sit down and contemplate and wonder, ‘Is this really true?’ And it was, of course. It was particularly shocking to so many people because Junior was always so positive. He was a very upbeat type of human being. He had a smile on his face all the time. You just don’t relate that to something like this. My heart just goes out to his family.”
The Chargers, assembling before their Super Bowl XXIX loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Miami, posed for what has become one of the saddest team photos in sports history.
David Griggs was one of the first players to greet Gibson that afternoon in Pittsburgh after the biggest play in Chargers history. The former Virginia linebacker died after speeding off a South Florida expressway and into a light pole in 1995. He was 28.
“There’s really no correlation to all of this,” Ross said. “Just one thing after another. Very unlikely things.”
Running back Rodney Culver and his wife Karen were on the ValuJet Flight 592 bound from Miami to Atlanta when it crashed into the Everglades in 1996. All 110 passengers were killed. Culver was just 26.
“They left two beautiful daughters,” Ross said. “They had been on vacation and were anxious to get back home. They had tickets for a later flight but ran to catch this flight because they wanted to hurry and get home to their children. See what I mean? Things you would never think could happen.”
Linebacker Doug Miller was camping in the Rocky Mountains near Dotsero, Colo., in July of 1998. Retired from the NFL, he was pursuing a Masters degree in education when struck by lightning. As a friend applied CPR, Miller was hit by another bolt. Both strikes, according to the Garfield County Sheriff’s report, missed Miller’s friend.
“I remember talking to Doug’s father after it happened,” Ross said. “I mean, his father just couldn’t talk. You can imagine.”
Chris Mims, a troubled defensive end who played at the University of Tennessee, was found face down in the bathroom of a downtown Los Angeles apartment in 2008. Mims reportedly had become a recluse and ballooned to 456 pounds. He died of an enlarged heart.
Curtis Whitley, a former Clemson and Carolina Panthers offensive lineman, admitted having problems with alcohol and crystal methamphetamine. He was found dead of a drug overdose inside his trailer in Pecos County, Texas in 2008. It was later revealed that Whitley’s brain showed signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
“Curtis Whitley was not as big as some of the other guys in the NFL,” Ross said, “But, boy, was he smart and was he a good player. He just had some issues in his life that did not work out. I hated that he struggled so much later in his life because he had so much potential in other areas.”
Defensive tackle Shawn Lee had been suffering from pneumonia when he died of a heart attack in 2011.
“The funeral was just last year in Raleigh,” Ross said. “So sad. Shawn had been fighting diabetes.”
Linebacker Lew Bush died of a heart attack just last December, six days after turning 42.
“Eight players on one Super Bowl team,” Ross said.
He vividly remembers everything about the AFC Championship weekend.
“When we got to Pittsburgh, word got out that the Steelers had already reserved a banquet room to celebrate going to the Super Bowl,” he said. “Junior got wind of that and talked about that to our team. He was very emotional. He played a tremendous game but it was really pretty typical for him; he played every game well.”
Ross visited Charleston last October and saw The Citadel defeat VMI, his alma mater.
“It was so nice to see some of the players I coached at The Citadel,” Ross said. “There is nothing like having the opportunity as a coach to reconnect with players and find out what they’re doing.”
Sadly, inexplicably, there are fewer opportunities from the San Diego Chargers’ Super Bowl team.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff.