In San Diego, a peculiar town, last Sunday will be remembered as the day the Chargers misplaced their offense. Exactly what happened to it is a question that will be argued for quite awhile. Some say the Buffalo Bills rubbed out the Charger offense with a fanatical effort. Others think the Chargers erased themselves with one of their notorious el foldos. Whatever the truth may be, there simply was no Charger offense on the day it was needed the most, and the Bills—who are still agog at the ease of their 23-0 victory—are champions of the American Football League for the second year in a row.
For an insight into what an astonishing thing it was, listen to Joel Collier, the young defensive coach of Buffalo: "If anybody had told me we could shut out the Chargers I would have fallen over dead. San Diego has the best offense the American Football League has ever seen. All we were hoping we could do defensively was contain Lance Al-worth. We figured if we could do that we could hold San Diego to two touchdowns and a field goal, and then we could win if we scored 20 points. But to shut them out, why, that's fantastic."
Even more fantastic was the authority with which Buffalo did it, creating a feeling that if the teams played until Easter the Chargers would not come close enough to the Buffalo goal line to make their cheerleaders clear their throats. For an offense which had John Hadl, the league's leading passer, Paul Lowe, the most productive rusher in AFL history, and Alworth, the league's finest receiver, among its assets, that was not only embarrassing but inexplicable. "There's no way they can beat us," Alworth kept saying after the game. "There's just no way it can happen."
But of course it did. And nobody was happier than Jack Kemp, the Buffalo quarterback, who was voted the game's most valuable player. Kemp played for San Diego in championship games in 1960 and 1961—during the infant years of the league—and went to Buffalo on waivers in 1962. That season he had a broken middle finger on his right hand. Nearly every time the center slapped the ball back to him, Kemp's finger popped out of joint. He would hand off the ball, or pass it, and then jerk his finger back into place on his way to the huddle. The Charger coach and general manager, Sid Gillman, after informing a booster club that he did not think he could win with Kemp, placed him on waivers. The Bills claimed him for $100, and he has won two titles for them. This second one was his most satisfying, for he did it on the other fellow's turf.
Kemp was very edgy before the game. He had received an inspirational telegram from Cookie Gilchrist, the fullback Buffalo traded to Denver before the season opened, but he was not completely assured. Kemp knew he would have far fewer weapons to work with than his counterpart, Hadl. The two best Buffalo receivers—Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass—have been out with leg injuries since early in the season, and the Bills have not yet found a slick running back with the speed to go outside. So Buffalo was forced into an offensive plan that used two tight ends, Paul Costa and Ernie Warlick, for blocking strength, and two big backs, Wray Carlton and Billy Joe, to plumb the middle. The hope was that ball control and defense could win. The trouble with that hope was that San Diego had, at least statistically, the toughest rushing defense in the league and also the most dangerous offense.
The Buffalo players, however, were so aroused that one might have thought they were fighting for democracy rather than for the difference between the winners' share of $5,000 and the $3,000 that would go to the losers. The defensive unit was especially piqued. All week they had been reading about the wonderful San Diego offense. The players shouted back and forth a slogan which might be paraphrased as, "Take a look at this, Sid," meaning Gillman. They got the slogan from their punter, Paul Maguire, who had run past the San Diego bench and yelled such things after a long kick in last year's championship. The slogan rebounded off the walls in the Buffalo locker room as the Bills rushed out to the field at Balboa Stadium to make sure Gillman knew what they meant.
"We had tremendous motivation to prove that we are the best," Kemp said. "All season long we scratched, scrambled, dug and fought. We were determined not to get beat. We wanted to show them right here in San Diego. Beating San Diego in San Diego is the biggest thing in my life."
But in that peculiar town there is some question how seriously the populace considered the events that were of such emotional importance to the Bills. In almost any other city a ticket for a championship professional football game would have been something a man would fight for with bare knuckles. In San Diego several thousand tickets were still for sale at game time. Balboa Stadium holds 34,500, and the official paid attendance was 30,361—a figure that is humiliating for a sport that insists it is the most booming in America and for an area that is certain it has more virtues than any other part of the country.
One indisputable virtue is the weather. Sunday was a glorious day. The sun was bright, the sky was the color of a robin's egg, there was not enough wind to scrape two palm leaves together, and more than half the people in the stadium seemed to be wearing red Christmas sweaters. The climatic perfection probably was one reason the stadium was not full. Southern California is a place for participant sports—but not necessarily for sitting on the concrete benches of Balboa Stadium. Although the stadium itself is a pretty place to watch a football game, the people of southern California are spoiled in their comforts. "You couldn't expect a sellout," said Frank Boggs of the
San Diego Tribune. "It's been cold and rainy all week. It rained an eighth of an inch and the temperature got down to 53�. People aren't going to go out in weather like that."
Not only that. The Chargers were competing with themselves on television. Channel 4 in Los Angeles, which reaches most San Diego homes, carried the championship, and thousands stayed home to watch Baltimore and Green Bay in the NFL playoff, knowing they could switch over to their own league without having to hunt for a parking place.