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Qualcomm Stadium Leaves Legacy in the NFL


For San Diegans, their ancient football stadium has become nothing more than a concrete case of emotion.

With last week’s announcement that the Chargers are leaving San Diego after 56 years for a new life in Los Angeles, Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley is virtually tenant-free, now hosting just the San Diego State Aztecs and the occasional major concert. It is a far cry from the days of Jack Murphy Stadium, when the Chargers, Aztecs and San Diego Padres all shared the 70,000-seat facility.

But while Qualcomm Stadium had become a relic by NFL stadium standards, the history that accumulated inside its walls was among sports’ most impressive. From Super Bowls to World Series games to iconic moments like the “Holy Roller,” the stadium off Friars Road will always be viewed in San Diego with a certain reverence.

What is now known as Qualcomm Stadium opened its doors 50 years ago, in 1967, as San Diego Stadium, with its first tenant being the San Diego Chargers of the American Football League. They were joined a year later by the Triple-A baseball San Diego Padres, who in 1969 joined the majors as a charter member of the newly-formed National League West division.

The Chargers and Padres shared the stadium, which saw its original capacity of 50,000 grow to over 70,000 during its 50-year tenure, through the 2003 season, after which the Padres left for Petco Park.

But during those 24 years of cohabitation, along with San Diego State’s football program, the city of San Diego witnessed a wide array of compelling and historic sports events, moments, and superstars.

San Diego Stadium became Jack Murphy Stadium in 1981, named for the San Diego sportswriter who originally seeded the idea of the multi-purpose stadium for San Diego in the 1960s.

Three years earlier, the stadium hosted its first of two Major League Baseball All-Star Games, with the National League beating the American League, 7-3, behind a pair of RBIs from MVP (and future Padre) Steve Garvey.

That same year of 1978 saw the beginning of the “Air Coryell” era for the Chargers, with the team hiring Don Coryell as head coach. Under his imaginative offense – led by quarterback Dan Fouts and wide receiver Charlie Joiner and tight end Kellen Winslow – the Chargers became a perennial playoff team out of the NFC West and hosted the 1980 AFC Championship game, losing at Jack Murphy to the eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders.

But by far the most famous Raiders-Chargers game ever played in San Diego occurred on Sept. 10, 1978, when Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler initiated a game-winning play in the final seconds by intentionally fumbling the ball toward the goal line, where Raiders tight end Dave Casper scooped it up and fell in the end zone for the controversial touchdown. The play, forever known as the “Holy Roller,” led the NFL to revise its rules about advancing the ball on fumbles.

The 1980 game was one of three times the Chargers reached the AFC Championship, but the only one played in San Diego. The Chargers reached their only Super Bowl during the Qualcomm era in 1994, beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh to advance to Super Bowl XXIX.

But Qualcomm Stadium was no stranger to football’s biggest game, hosting the Super Bowl three times, in 1988, 1998 and 2003.

All three Super Bowls made history. The first San Diego Super Bowl, XXII, featured Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins, the first African American quarterback to start a Super Bowl game. Williams led the Redskins to a resounding 35-point second quarter against the Denver Broncos to erase an early 10-0 deficit, the largest lead ever overcome in a Super Bowl.

Denver returned to San Diego for Super Bowl XXXII, and this time emerged victorious, despite being 14-point underdogs to the defending champion Green Bay Packers. Although Terrell Davis dominated on the ground, the 31-24 victory was famous for being John Elway’s first Super Bowl triumph in four tries.

The final Super Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium came in 2003, when Jon Gruden – fired the year before by the Raiders – defeated them as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 48-21 rout.

Football at Qualcomm was not limited to the pros, as Marshall Faulk starred at San Diego State before embarking on a Hall of Fame career in the NFL. The Holiday Bowl began playing at San Diego Stadium in 1979 and was the site of BYU’s final victory of its 1983 national championship season, led by quarterback Steve Young. In 2005, the Poinsettia Bowl also began play at Qualcomm Stadium.

Not to be outdone, the Padres reached two World Series during their time in Mission Valley. The first time was in dramatic fashion in 1984, when they railed rallied for three straight victories over the Chicago Cubs at the Murph in the National League Championship Series. Garvey hit a dramatic walk-off homer in Game 4, then the Padres took the lead in the decisive Game 5 when a ground ball rolled through the legs of Cubs first baseman Leon Durham – who had replaced Bill Buckner at first base after Buckner was traded at midseason to the Boston Red Sox.

Tony Gwynn, who played his college ball at San Diego State, was the leader of that 1984 team and amaseds 3,000 hits in his Hall of Fame career, which included a second World Series appearance in 1998, when the New York Yankees won their first of three straight titles by winning Game 4 at Qualcomm for a series sweep.

Qualcomm hosted several other famous baseball moments, including Orel Hershiser setting the consecutive scoreless innings record in a 10-inning shutout to close out the 1988 season. Rickey Henderson collected his 3,000th hit as a member of the Padres in Gwynn’s final game in 2001.

Qualcomm also hosted the 1992 All-Star Game.

In early 2017, Chargers owner Dean Spanos, having unsuccessfully attempted to get a new stadium for the Chargers, announced his intention to move the team to Los Angeles for the 2017 season.

The announcement left the Qualcomm site in Mission Valley with an uncertain future, although San Diego State University has announced a plan to convert the stadium site into a new campus, complete with a smaller stadium to accommodate the Aztecs (and perhaps an MLS franchise).

Either way, the golden age of major professional sports at the Murph (or the Q) is now nothing more than a memory.

Image courtesy San Diego Chargers.

This article first appeared in the weekly Football Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Football Stadium Digest newsletter.

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August Publications