SAN DIEGO -- The outrage begins in a corner seventh-floor apartment overlooking Balboa Park. A man who takes two power naps a day speaks for nearly every lifelong Chargers fan when he says he will not root for the team if it moves 120 miles north to Los Angeles. He is the real face of the franchise now, a man who has lived but not died with Chargers since they arrived in 1961, a man who needs 20 hands to count all of his birthdays.
Do the math. Blake Talbot is 100 years old, and the San Diego Chargers are breaking his heart.
"At my age, I realize there's not much I can do about it," he says, sounding defeated. "I hated to see this happen 'cause I thought they belonged in San Diego. They were our team, like your high school's team. But you have to accept the facts in life. People will go where the money is, you know?"
All over this city, there is anger intersecting with good riddance. San Diego calls itself "America's Finest City," and just the notion that Carson or Inglewood is a greener pasture makes the citizens here roll their collective eyes. People who live in San Diego tend not to leave San Diego, where it's usually room temperature outside to go with the ocean breeze. But Chargers owner Dean Spanos wants to head up to the sprawl of L.A., where the fans can't even name four of his players, and the personification of what he'll leave behind is Talbot -- who attended the first regular-season Chargers game in San Diego on Sept. 17, 1961.
"The tickets were $5 or $6," he says. "The beer? Ten cents."
This may not be as high-profile as the Browns leaving Cleveland or the Colts bailing on Baltimore, but the Chargers -- when seen through the eyes of a 100-year-old man -- are just as much a civic treasure. Talbot first moved to San Diego in the late 1950s, back when the AFL was a pipe dream, a rumor. A native of tiny Waynesville, Missouri, he had served in the Navy during World War II -- so he liked right away that San Diego was a military town. Then, in 1961, he heard that the AFL's Los Angeles Chargers were moving down to San Diego. The thought of it sent his head spinning back to his youth. As a 16-year-old in 1932, he had once attended a New York Yankees-St. Louis Browns baseball game and been invited into the visiting Yankees clubhouse by a sportswriter friend. He made a beeline toward Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who dressed side by side, and heard the Babe ask Lou, "Did they score it a hit or an error when I mauled that ball at the first baseman?"
"An error," Gehrig said.
"Those SOBs; I have to put it over the fence to get a hit," Talbot heard Ruth say.
The Babe then gave the kid an autograph, all with a stogie between his lips, and from that moment on, Talbot was hooked on pro sports. So with San Diego now getting its first professional team, Talbot was all in. He was 46 years old and already had a successful career as a urologist. He had rolls of $20 bills in his pocket. Without care, he strolled over to the Chargers' offices to purchase season tickets in August of '61, ready to get some more autographs.
The Chargers didn't have any Babe Ruths, but before long they were facing Babe Parilli of the Boston Patriots in the 1963 AFL Championship Game at Balboa Stadium. San Diego quarterbacks Tobin Rote and John Hadl ended up putting up half a hundred on Boston. The final was 51-10, and Talbot -- who was there -- assumed there'd be championships for years to come.
Either way, he figured Lance Alworth alone -- the Chargers' fleet receiver who ran like a deer -- was worth the price of admission. Alworth's nickname was Bambi, and he was Talbot's new Babe Ruth. Talbot badly wanted to meet the receiver but never got an invite into the Chargers' locker room.
Not that he didn't have his chances. Once during the team's early years, Talbot says he was going out for a nightcap downtown when he bumped into Chargers head coach Sid Gillman at Pernicano's, a landmark Italian restaurant in Hillcrest. They exchanged pleasantries and a couple of stories about Alworth, but that was that. Talbot sensed Gillman, still the winningest coach in franchise history, was busy and never asked about meeting Bambi.
Before long, the team had moved into a new state-of-the-art stadium in Mission Valley, and Talbot's fall Sundays were filled with tailgate parties alongside his wife, Jean. What a huge parking lot this stadium had -- Talbot noticed row upon row upon row of barbecue pits. "That stadium was divine," Talbot says. "We were finally big league."
Alworth was gone after 1970, and Dan Fouts became the face of the team by '73. But the Chargers reached the postseason only four times during the Hall of Fame quarterback's 15-year career, largely because the defense could barely stop anyone. Talbot, however, kept renewing his season tickets -- because, if nothing else, even the losses were entertaining.
In 1978, the Chargers were up on the Raiders 20-14, although Oakland had driven to the San Diego 14-yard line with 10 seconds to go. Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler looked to throw into the end zone but instead was corralled by Chargers linebacker Woodrow Lowe. Before going down, Stabler flicked the ball forward, a faux fumble that was pushed ahead first by running back Pete Banaszak and then by tight end Dave Casper, who pounced on it in the end zone.
They named it the "Holy Roller," and Talbot had seen it all from his seat on the 48-yard line.
"Hated the Raiders," he says.
The 1980s brought him Kellen Winslow, who had 13 catches for 166 yards in a riveting 41-38 overtime playoff victory in Miami. The decade also brought him John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner and Louie Kelcher. It brought him a new owner named Alex Spanos. But it didn't bring him a Super Bowl.
The 1990s brought him Junior Seau and Natrone Means and, at last, the Chargers' first Super Bowl appearance in the 1994 season. But he was 79 years old by then and decided against flying to Miami for Super Bowl XXIX. Smart move. The Chargers were swallowed whole by Steve Young's San Francisco 49ers.
But he kept renewing his season tickets -- "I'm a loyal person," he says -- and Jean and their two children, Greg and Debra, are convinced it's what kept him young, kept him invigorated. "You know, we've done other things, like the theaters and the shows," Jean says. "But nothing -- nothing -- could compare with the Charger games. And as soon as the season was over, we'd start gettin' itchy in the summertime: 'Oh, you know, now they're in camp,' you know? And that would really start us goin'."
He kept renewing even though many of the friends he used to tailgate with had passed away. He kept renewing even though he was now in his 80s and 90s and didn't drive anymore. He would take the trolley, alongside the fans who were drunk and the fans who cursed and the fans who painted their faces and the fans who picked fights. But Blake and Jean Talbot would always be there, dressed to the nines, sitting on their 48-yard line year after year.
"We liked taking the trolley," says Jean, now 81. "And I have to say about the trolley, people were so kind to Blake. Because we thought we just -- well, you're in the crowd. And they would see him. And they would realize that this guy has made an effort to get to this game. And they would insist, sometimes, that, 'Back up. Let these people through.'
"Oh, I'm sure it really helped keep him going, because he could have been just sittin' here on Sunday afternoons doing nothing. And how much better to be out, running on, running to get on the trolley and walking there and -- and getting inside of the stadium. Those things are good exercise. And he wasn't about to stop."
But by 2013, the team had become stuck in a rut after a run of four consecutive division titles ended in 2009. Philip Rivers was Talbot's new Babe Ruth, but he still hadn't gotten his invite to the locker room. So he and Jean decided enough was enough; he gave the tickets to his daughter.
"Well, actually, a lot of it was my age," Talbot says. "It became more of an effort to go."
His last time at the stadium -- now called Qualcomm Stadium -- it seemed dilapidated. Where had the time gone? He'd seen it when it was brand-spanking new, and now Alex Spanos' son, Dean, was threatening to leave if the city couldn't build a new place for the team.
Talbot read about all the bad blood from his corner downtown apartment and surmised the team was gone. The Chargers hadn't won a championship since beating Babe Parilli in '63, but he was still convinced the Chargers -- along with the toddy he drank every night -- were his secrets to living to 100. He had finally reached triple digits this past Nov. 28, and although he claims he doesn't feel a day over 99, the Chargers' stadium mess was starting to turn him melancholy.
He shared his feelings with the local San Diego newspaper in December, and in the course of the interview, he told the Union-Tribune: "I always think of Bambi. He moved like a deer. He was always so graceful catching those balls. Before I die ... I'd like to meet him."
Then, a few days later, Talbot's personal assistant, Geri King, received a random phone call while grocery shopping. She picked up and heard a man say, "This is Bambi." The first thing she thought of was the Disney movie -- until Lance Alworth filled her in on who he was.
"I hated to see this happen 'cause I thought they belonged in San Diego. They were our team, like your high school's team. But you have to accept the facts in life. People will go where the money is, you know?"Blake Talbot, 100-year-old Chargers fan
Alworth had called to see if he could see Talbot, face-to-face, and then showed up at the corner apartment on Christmas Eve. He brought two presents: a jersey and a football.
"You know, you're my hero," the 100-year-old man told Alworth.
"Well, your hero has tears in his eyes," Alworth said as they shared a beer.
So now the Chargers are on the verge of saying goodbye to San Diego, goodbye to their 100-year-old fan. Again, it is anger intersected with good riddance. Talbot's not kidding when he says he won't root for them again. But he is at peace.
Lance Alworth gave him an autograph.