It was only the Chargers’ Rookie Orientation Camp on a mid-May weekend. The draft picks and the free agents assembled to drill in just helmets, jerseys and shorts under the critical eyes of head coach Marty Schottenheimer and his staff.
But never underestimate what it means to a local athlete – even one who is 24-years-old and about to celebrate his second wedding anniversary – to pull on the hometown jersey of the pro team he grew up with as a kid.
Just listen to Taylor Schmidt, the Escondido High alumnus and two-year starter at center and guard for San Diego State. Schmidt didn’t try to fake a detached macho-athlete persona.
“It’s exciting – it’s a dream come true,” he said on the practice field, enjoying the moment. “But at the same time I know I’m not on the team.”
The Chargers invited Schmidt unsigned for a tryout when he reported Saturday, Sunday and Monday for rookie camp at Chargers Park. He knew he was among the NFL’s longest of long shots before the camp finished and the Chargers elected not to sign him.
Two weeks earlier, he had waited for a phone call after the NFL draft finished on April 30 hoping for a chance to sign as a free agent before he settled for a tryout. Now he has to hope another team will take a look at him.
“It’s discouraging,” Schmidt said. “I know a lot of people put all their eggs in one basket, and that’s not something I’m doing. But at the same time it’s great to have a chance to play pro football, especially in your hometown. I wouldn’t want other teams to know this, but I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else.”
Schmidt has known some success in his athletic career. A two-year starter for Division I-A football program puts him in rare company no matter what you think of the Mountain West Conference or the Aztecs.
He’s known the thrill of winning an individual state high school wrestling title before a sellout crowd of 6,000-plus when he was the CIF state heavyweight champion as a senior at Escondido. There’s no tougher title to win in high school sports than a California state championship in wrestling or track and field because those two “old school” sports still have only one division for all schools in the nation’s most populous state.
“Yeah, put that in the story I’m a wrestler,” Schmidt said, recognizing some coaches appreciate the leverage skills a wrestling background brings to football.
Schmidt’s youthful enthusiasm for pulling on a Chargers jersey reminded me of how so many people misunderstand San Diego as a sports town. I can remember when I first came to San Diego in 1978 and I was surprised so many kids were fans of other teams in other cities. You didn’t see Padres and Chargers jerseys and hats around town.
But the teams were hopelessly bad back then. Things have changed since Air Coryell took flight with the Chargers’ first of three straight AFC West titles in 1979 and since the Padres first National League pennant and World Series trip in 1984.
When the 1994 Chargers returned from the Super Bowl in Miami after a blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers, they were greeted with a parade.
When the 1998 Padres were swept by the New York Yankees, Padres fans wouldn’t go home after the fourth loss until the players returned from the clubhouse to the field for a final ovation.
In other so-called passionate sports town they riot when their teams win a championship and respond with vitriol when they lose. In Boston, they still talk about fans wandering the streets like zombies after Billy Buckner’s booted ground ball cost the Red Sox a World Series title in 1986 as if it’s a badge of honor.
Which kind of city is a better sports town? You want to hear something frightening? Listen to a sports talk radio station in a city back East after their team fails to produce in the big game.
Since so many San Diego sports fans are from somewhere else, they’re not giving their heart to the Chargers, Padres or San Diego State Aztecs until they win. They’ve already made that mistake as a Chicago Cubs fan or a Cleveland Browns fan and endured too much heart break. San Diego sports fans may bleed less than fans in other cities, but they watch the game with a smarter and more appreciative eye.
Yes, Chargers and Padres fans may remain quiet at times, allowing opponents of a new football stadium in San Diego a louder voice than they could muster in Cleveland or Philadelphia. But San Diego’s fans who want a new football stadium for the Chargers and Aztecs are out there.
They’re quietly waiting for someone in city or county government who has the vision and leadership to take charge on a new stadium, but rest assured they’ll turn out if the new stadium is downtown, Chula Vista, National City or Oceanside.
And if Taylor Schmidt doesn’t beat the odds to earn an NFL job, he’ll no doubt be out there among the fans. Even if he has to buy his next Chargers jersey.