It was in the 5th grade when I won my school spelling bee. I was always good at spelling, with a natural ability to understand grammar and remember phonetic structure, so winning the spelling bee was not the most difficult of challenges. With that win under my belt, I was rewarded with the opportunity to advance to the county spelling bee (hang in there Chargers fans, I’ll get to the point).
The Big Bee (as we called it on the spelling circuit) was the first time that I felt any pressure to perform. It sounds ridiculous to say that about a spelling bee in an age where every word that I type is spell-checked instantaneously with each peck of the keys, and when my iPhone auto-completes most words before I even have a chance to misspell them, but it’s true. In front of a crowd of bored teachers and proud parents, in a lineup full of strange kids who could have been programmed to be champion spellers using Soviet-era, Ivan Drago training programs for all that I knew, I suddenly felt pressure to do what had come naturally to me my whole life: just spelling a freaking word correctly.
I was not much of a performer at that stage in life. I really had no desire to bring the aim of the spotlight upon myself. In fact, winning the school spelling bee was a conscious decision that I had to make at the time, because I briefly considered throwing the whole thing just to avoid having to deal with the increased attention winning brought with it. Unfortunately, I remember the winning word being too easy to screw up. It wasn’t a word like crouton, which you could easily throw an ‘a’ into without looking like a moron. It was an easy word like triple or empty. Thus, I was stuck spelling the final word correctly and winning the whole thing, and I now found myself on stage at the Big Bee waiting for championship level words and their respective definitions and usages to be rattled off.
As we began the spelling bee, each kid received a practice word, something to help us get our 10-year old nerves out of the way. On my turn I spelled my practice word correctly, but because I spelled too quickly, with mumbled letters running together in a mad race to the finish line, the judges deemed that the word was spelled incorrectly. I was 0-1 and immediately f-l-u-s-t-e-r-e-d. But that word didn’t really count, and I had a shot at redemption when the Big Bee officially began.
I was the 3rd student up in the first round. The two students before me spelled their words correctly (I could be wrong, but I remember their words being too easy, words like m-u-d and c-a-t), so my desire to not be the first person eliminated added additional pressure to that of the stares from my parents and rest of the crowd.
When the emcee announced my word, it seemed like the level of difficulty unexpectedly jumped up dramatically. My word was something like bivouacking- to take shelter, often temporarily. “During our long hike, we were bivouacking during the sporadic rainfall.” Bivouacking. As my eyes widened and the room began to spin, I fought to maintain consciousness, let alone remember the ridiculous word I was asked to spell. I cleared my throat, choking on sounds I could barely mutter, and mumbled my feeble attempt at spelling the word correctly. And I failed miserably. Just like that, I was the first kid eliminated from the spelling bee. And with a word like bivouacking, four or five more kids were eliminated right after me, but I had stopped paying attention at that point. So much talent, so much natural ability, and just like that it was over, and I had lost in embarrassing fashion.
Some of you may have already figured out where this is going, but in case you haven’t, let me try to explain. The Chargers, those hard-working, naturally gifted students of the gridiron playing in a spelling bee of X’s and O’s, have been competing like they were born to win it all, only to mumble and fumble and choke and ultimately implode when the stakes were at their highest. Sometimes it was bad timing or bad luck. More often than not it was a combination of individual meltdowns that collectively ruined their championship dreams.
Since Philip Rivers took over for future Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, we have seen some of the best teams to grace a football field, all while wearing lightning bolts on their sleeves. Yet, based on the empty trophy case off of Murphy Canyon Drive, we have also seen some of the most disappointing losses.
In 2006, River’s first year starting behind center, the Chargers had league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and a running game that could not be stopped, and a top-ten defense that led the league in sacks. Their 14-2 record was the best in the league, making their divisional-round defeat to the Patriots after costly fumbles, a muffed punt return, a long-yet-missed field goal, and avoidable unsportsman-like conduct penalties even more painful. The Chargers were the better team that season, but the Patriots were the better team on that Sunday.
In 2007, with a new coach, and after the beginning of an iron-man like streak of slow starts, the Chargers won their final six games and entered the playoffs with a full head of steam. Playoff victories over the Titans and Colts left the Bolts battered and bruised, their quarterback missing the use of his ACL, and additional injuries hampering their Pro Bowl tight-end, running back, and outside linebacker, among others. Somehow they made the AFC Championship game competitive against the undefeated Patriots, but the team playing at 75% did not have enough healthy bodies to overcome the eventual Super Bowl losers.
The 2008 version of the Chargers gave us a lackluster effort at best with a signature slow start, but the rest of the division chipped in to hand the Bolts a playoff berth with just an 8-8 record. Despite their flaws, they managed to beat the Colts in the playoffs before getting run-over by the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers.
The 2009 season was to be the culmination of the Chargers’ experience and determination after years of bitter losses and playoff failures. In this their 50th anniversary season, the Chargers went 13-3 and entered the playoffs as the number-2 seed facing the upstart New York Jets. After more crucial turnovers, stupid penalties, and three, yes, three missed field goals, the Chargers thunderous bolt into the playoffs departed like a mumbled whine.
Last season is hardly worth mentioning. The same roster that carried the league’s top ranked offense and defense did not carry enough talent to maintain an even mediocre special teams unit. While the failures of previous years could be blamed on the head coach, the 2010 collapse should be blamed squarely on the GM.
Since the Chargers first and only championship in 1963 (before the Raiders, Chiefs, and Broncos ever sniffed a championship game, mind you), they have proven to be a team that shrinks when the game means the most. Through heartbreaking losses in the 1980’s to an embarrassing showing in their lone Super Bowl in 1995, and throughout the sustained accomplishment of the Rivers era, the Chargers have failed to live up to expectations. OK, to their credit, no one outside of San Diego expected that they had a chance against the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX, but that’s beside the point. For Chargers fans who aren’t old enough to remember 1963, the Chargers have been a team of high hopes with an inability to perform at the end.
I wish that I could say that I followed my spelling bee defeat with a long string of inspiring Big Bee victories, establishing myself as a true dynasty of the spelling circuit. That would be a great segue into a Super Bowl prediction for the Chargers. But I can’t say that at all. I never found my way into another spelling bee, and never had a chance to redeem myself. Championship opportunities are rare and fleeting. You have to take advantage of each opportunity because you are not guaranteed another, as the 2010 Chargers learned.
Luckily I’m mostly over my 5th grade disappointments, but as for the Chargers, their disappointments are fresh and should still leave a definitive ache in their collective hearts. This team has been good enough to win it all, very recently and on more than one occasion. Like the Saints following the 2010 season, they have a potent offense with a nearly unstoppable quarterback. Like the Giants following the 2008 season, they have an opportunistic defense that can raise its level of performance to that of its competition.
With a perennially top-ranked offense and a hungry defense, the 2011 Chargers should have more than enough talent to win it all. With age, and injuries, and player turnover, there is no guarantee that the Chargers will be championship contenders much longer. This is the year to prove to the league that they are for real, and not just a championship team on paper. This is the year to prove to the fans that their loyalty will be rewarded. And you never know; this year could be their last legitimate shot at a ring. This is the time to start strong, to finish stronger, to play smart, and to win it all. This is their time.
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