Mike Scifres was admitted to Children's Hospital in New Orleans on Dec. 16, 1981, his right leg swollen, immobile and covered in scabs. Fourteen months old and suffering from a severe case of eczema, he would scratch his legs until they bled, and when his mother put tube socks on his hands he would rub his sores with the soles of the corrective shoes he had to wear round the clock.
The dirt from the shoes eventually spread into the open sores, infecting Mike's leg and entering his bloodstream. When he was rushed to the hospital that day, doctors slathered the leg with a topical corticosteroid, wrapped and bandaged it, and pondered their options. "For a while," says Scifres (SY-fres), "they thought they might have to cut it off."
Today that leg is the linchpin of a special teams unit that takes over games like no other. When the Chargers beat the Colts in the wild-card round last season, all six of Scifres' punts were downed inside the 15-yard line, including three at or inside the five. He was overshadowed only by 5'6" return man--running back Darren Sproles, whose 328 all-purpose yards ranked third in postseason history.
San Diego is energized by quarterback Philip Rivers and his fleet of rangy receivers, but don't sleep on the specialists: Nate Kaeding, the most accurate kicker in history, who has nailed 69 straight field goals inside 40 yards; Kassim Osgood, who's made three Pro Bowls as a gunner; and David Binn, who might be the best long-snapper in history, if a metric for such a thing existed. "I've been here eight years," says special teams coach Steve Crosby. "I haven't seen him make a bad snap yet."
Binn's philosophy on punts and kickoffs—"People usually figure it's a good time to go buy a beer"—belies the Chargers' priorities. They spent a fifth-round pick on Scifres in 2003, a third-rounder on Kaeding in '04 and a fourth-rounder on Sproles in '05. Binn, in his 16th season, is the longest-tenured player on the team. Osgood signed as an undrafted receiver out of San Diego State in '03, and in his first training-camp practice a veteran who'd lined up across from him cautioned Osgood not to run so hard on kickoffs. "Unless you pay my rent," he told the vet, "shut up and get ready."
Osgood has fostered a culture in which cover guys compete for tackles and even the punter gets in a teammate's face. Against the Cowboys on Dec. 13, a Scifres kick bounced at the 10-yard line and went into the end zone. The play, coming at the end of the half, was of little consequence, but TV cameras caught Scifres screaming at the coverage unit. Osgood downed Scifres's first punt of the second half at the four; the next one, at the one. Both times he raised the ball over his head and pointed it at the punter.
Kaeding's right leg was never in danger like Scifres's was, except perhaps for the time he broke it during a potato sack race in the fourth grade. But his psyche was bruised as a rookie in January 2005 when he missed a 40-yarder in overtime in a playoff loss to the Jets. Shortly thereafter Kaeding began working with a new kind of kicking coach—actually a golf instructor named Derek Uyeda, who contended that swinging a leg was no different from swinging a golf club. This season Kaeding made the 52-yard game-winner against the Bengals in Week 15 to clinch the AFC West title.
As for Sproles, he would love to deliver a repeat performance of last year's playoff game against Indianapolis but knows what that entails: a nationally televised interview afterward. Though he has a degree in speech pathology and is a spokesman for the Stuttering Foundation of America, his own stutter is hard to control when a camera is in his face. "It's something I still work on," he says. "I have to stop and remind myself: Relax, don't rush, go slow."
Special teams are diverse by nature, but the group in San Diego is particularly eclectic. Osgood is a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Kaeding has written online movie reviews. And Crosby has a hippopotamus in his backyard, or so he claimed two years ago when he told his players that wildfires caused a hippo from the nearby San Diego Wild Animal Park to seek refuge in his pool. The players believed him, as did the national media, until the park said it never even had a hippopotamus. The Chargers' special teamers had been duped. It doesn't happen often.