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Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2007 | We can look up the value of a pro sports franchise in dollars by reading Forbes’ annual reports, and the numbers are staggering.

But what about the worth of a pro sports franchise as a civic treasure to its community in a trying time?

How important was the Chargers’ 35-10 win over the Houston Texans at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday, a week after devastating wildfires first began to sweep throughout San Diego County?

“It didn’t fix the problems, but it eased the pain for a couple of hours,” said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. “The way the game was, with big plays by (Antonio) Gates, (Antonio) Cromartie and (Chris) Chambers, it made it an exciting game to watch.”

Compare the front pages of the Los Angeles Times, a newspaper serving a Southern California community ravaged by wildfires, to San Diego’s two daily print newspapers, the Union-Tribune and North County Times , and our online newspaper, voiceofsandiego.org.

All three in San Diego described with photos and words the relief San Diegans felt with the opportunity to lose themselves in a diversion from real life. The Chargers represented a civic treasure for football fans and non-fans alike.

But Los Angeles doesn’t have a pro football team. The Times’ front page had a story about investigating arson and a photo of three people holding hands as they prayed in the ashes of what used to be a church in Malibu.

Nothing wrong with reporting the news, but where were the signs of rebirth?

Without a pro football team to rally around on a Sunday, people in the L.A. area were left to their own inner strength to deal with the devastating events. Sunday was just another day.

The Chargers offered that feeling of turning the page and moving forward with invigoration that can’t be measured in dollars. Priceless, as the popular credit card commercial says.

The Times even printed a column that said the game shouldn’t have played, and it was only staged for the NFL’s selfish financial interests. That’s what you would expect from an out-of-town newspaper, which, if it had never abandoned its San Diego County edition, might have understood how the community felt.

“Everybody has different opinions,” said Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. “Some people say the game shouldn’t have been played some say we needed the game to help us recover and start the rebuilding process. We felt, this whole organization, that playing this game would be best for San Diego County. They love football here, and it brings back the feeling of getting back to normal.”

The Chargers stepped aside to let fans celebrate the firefighters first and the players second during pre-game introductions. Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman wore a firefighter helmet to show his appreciation.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, wearing a blue-and-gold Chargers jacket, led the pre-game ceremony honoring the firefighters. A thundering roar that was more than a football cheer was unleashed when Arnold said, “Go, Chaw-gers, go!”

More than 60,000 fans gathered at the stadium, which had served as an evacuation center for as many as 10,000 displaced denizens during the week, and tens of thousands more watched on television.

When Qualcomm Stadium opened as San Diego Stadium as a modern multi-purpose facility in 1967, “evacuation center” wasn’t one of the multi-purpose uses the architects were supposed to include in the design.

But for a week Qualcomm was more than a home for Chargers, San Diego State football, the Holiday Bowl, the Poinsettia Bowl and the CIF San Diego Section football champion ships.

“Qualcomm was probably as full of Chargers fans as it’s ever been,” Rivers said. “Usually you have fans from the opposing team. I think it shows that sports in general and a professional sports team in town is something to get excited about. It shows you how much a team can mean to a town when it’s going through tough times and how it create a little joy for a couple of hours.”

As aging Qualcomm continues to rot, maybe some day the city of San Diego will wake up to the civic treasure it has in the Chargers, not to mention the economic impact worth millions to the city economy.

If we’re going to continue to live with the continued threat of wildfires in this age of global warming, maybe a new stadium should includes pavilions that can double as shelters in emergencies and as tailgating venues in sporting times.

Last week, you couldn’t put a price tag on the value of both Qualcomm and its primary tenant as civic treasures.

“When we were practicing in Arizona last week and watching the news, we saw how the place we play football was the home for 10,000 people without any other place to go,” said defensive end Luis Castillo. “There are so many people in San Diego that deserve credit for getting through last week, and this game was a special win for all of San Diego.”

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and he writes occasional features for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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