Heading into the stadium about an hour before game time feels special, because watching the players warm up isn't something you can see on TV. The teams are on separate ends of the field, running around and getting in game shape. The quarterbacks at first stretch their arms with some slow tosses, then start firing bullets to their receivers from short distances, maybe 10 or 15 yards.
It's about 15 minutes before kickoff and less than half the stadium is full. In support of Veterans Day, a wonderful ceremony is taking place at midfield. Soldiers who survived the attack at Pearl Harbor are being honored, and as the fans get to their seats and realize what's going on, the applause for each honoree grows louder. By the time the ceremony is finished and the national anthem is sung, Qualcomm seems to be bursting at the seams.
The crowd is a sea of Chargers blue. Some jerseys are powder blue from the team's early history, while most are the darker shade from the current incarnation. The Chargers' defensive unit is introduced by the public address announcer, fireworks are set off and kickoff is imminent.
The Chargers get the ball first and can't put a drive together. Play is sloppy, with five penalties in the first six minutes. The wind seems to be an issue, and quarterback Philip Rivers has a hard time hitting receivers.
Quickly after, the Chiefs -- 15-point underdogs -- march downfield and score a TD. Chargers fans suddenly turn on the home team and the stadium fills with boos. Moments earlier, Qualcomm was overflowing with enthusiasm and unity, yet after one score by the opposition the supporters quickly turn. Things have gotten ugly, and rather quickly.
Rivers continues to have a hard time in the red zone, and the Chargers have to settle for a couple of field goals. Halftime arrives with the Chiefs leading 13-6.
Most fans leave their seats during intermission; I head to the Chargers' team store to see which types of merchandise are hot sellers. The place is so crowded you'd think they were giving items away for free. Far from it. Jerseys go for a minimum of $100, and most shirts start at around $40. This is what marketers would refer to as a captive audience.
Based on how quickly people are whipping out their credit cards, there don't seem to be many misgivings about the team's play here. It's Chargers fever indeed, and the fans seem to believe whoever ends up with the most paraphernalia wins.
As the third quarter begins, many folks haven't returned to their seats. Finally, the Chargers score a TD on a short pass to tie the game and the naysayers are silenced.
The San Diego offense is cooking now, and the Chargers score to go ahead 20-13 with three minutes left in the game. The defense has to hold on to avoid an embarrassing defeat and the fans are the loudest they've been, with the players on the field and sideline encouraging them to increase the volume.
Chiefs newbie quarterback Tyler Thigpen doesn't seem too fazed, and after a horrible pass-interference call at the Chargers' 1-yard line, fires a strike to future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez for a score. In a gutsy move, Kansas City coach Herm Edwards decides to go for a two-point conversion. The Chargers have been burned by last-second scores this season by Carolina and Denver, and the faithful on hand won't be able to withstand a third.
The defense comes through, though, and knocks down Thigpen's pass. The crowd gives out a loud roar -- or is that a boisterous sigh of relief? -- as the game ends. At the same time, while the Chargers are congratulating each other on the field, fans tear out of their seats and rush to their cars. With the second-largest parking lot in the NFL -- and only a handful of exits -- nobody wants to sit trapped in their auto for hours before even getting to the nearby freeway.
Perhaps the exodus presents an opportunity for more celebration as the fans spill out of Qualcomm. But after a long day in from L.A., it is time for us to split. Luckily we make a quick escape, dodging jubilant fans along the way, and are back on Interstate 5 in only a few minutes.
By the time we arrive back in L.A. at around 7 p.m. it's been a joyous 12 hours talking football, making new friends and seeing a memorable game.
I'll watch the highlights later, but what I'd rather do is find some way to get a hold of those barbecued ribs again. I'd even suffer through a few more Rivers interceptions just for a few bites, though I wonder if they'd taste as good at home without the company of a few thousand fellow tailgaters.
Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety in Los Angeles. He can be reached at stuart.Levine@variety.com.PREVIOUS PAGE