Tonight, the Chargers take on the Seattle Seahawks in the opening preseason game of the 2013 Chargers season. As the excitement builds for another electrifying season, I submit to you my top 25 Charger players of all-time. In part one of my list, we began with Lorenzo Neal at number 50 and counted them down to Don Macek at 26. Now we get to the “cream of the crop” so to speak. As I contemplated my top 25, I took into account more than just on-field play. I also considered the impact these players had on the San Diego community and on the game of football itself. So without further ado, let’s get started…
25. Jim Lachey – T
Jim was a three time Pro Bowler and was named to the All-Pro first team three times as well. Though his tenure with the Chargers was brief, he made an immediate impact. Protecting Dan Fouts’ blind side for the last few years of Fouts’ career, Lachey was as steady as a rock. Jim played eleven years in the NFL and finished his career in 1995 as a Washington Redskin.
24. Woodrow Lowe – LB
Drafted out of Alabama in 1976, Lowe became a leader of a defense not well known for shutting people down. I know, you’re thinking “why include him then?” The fact of the matter was that Woodrow had very little help around him during his career. He was the kind of player who was always around the ball and had a motor that never quit. Like Billy Ray Smith, had Lowe played his career during a different decade with the Chargers, I believe that his stats would have been phenomenally great.
23. Doug Wilkerson – G
Doug spent fourteen seasons at offensive guard protecting Dan Fouts for the Chargers. This three time Pro-Bowler was a consistent, reliable blocker within the “Air Coryell” system. As modern day Chargers fans can attest, having pro-bowl caliber offensive lineman is not something to take lightly. Wilkerson’s durability is another factor in his landing in my top 25.
22. Ed White – G
White played opposite Wilkerson at offensive guard during the “Air Coryell” era. Unlike Wilkerson, White was not drafted by the Bolts but was acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings at the mid-point of his career. Fouts has gone on record as saying the signing of White was what really allowed “Air Coryell” to take flight. After spending nine seasons in Minnesota, Ed would play his final eight seasons with the Chargers. His impact cannot be overstated.
21. Stan Humphries – QB
Stan is the only quarterback, in the history of the Chargers, to lead the team to a Super Bowl berth. That fact alone guarantees Humphries a spot in Chargers history. Signed by then General Manager Bobby Beathard, Humphries joined the Bolts as a young, untested backup QB from the Redskins. His best season prior to becoming a Charger was in 1990 when he threw for 3 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. This was the quarterback that Beathard thought could put us over the top?! Well, to everyone’s surprise, Stan came in and “managed the game” as they say, leading the Bolts to the big dance in 1994. His numbers were never gaudy, but he had a knack of making the big play at the right time.
20. Gill Byrd – CB
Drafted 22nd overall out of San Jose State in 1983, Gill stepped in and locked down the left cornerback position for the Chargers for 11 seasons. Byrd racked up 42 career interceptions and voted All-Pro six times. In 1984, Gill returned two INTs back for touchdowns- one of which totaled 99 yards! Byrd was a ball-hawking player who impacted the games he played in.
19. John Jefferson – WR
J.J. played three amazing seasons in San Diego. He was the high-flying acrobat in the aerial circus that was “Air Coryell”. His skills perfectly complimented those of his teammates, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow, and lead to a passing attack rarely seen before or since. John’s wild catches and big play ability quickly made him a fan favorite in San Diego, but a contract dispute that could not be settled caused Jefferson to sign with the Packers in 1981. Despite the frustrating end to his time as a Charger, there is little doubt of the impact Jefferson had on the community and the organization.
18. Rodney Harrison – S
Drafted in the 5th round in 1994 out of Western Illinois, Rodney Harrison entered the Chargers organization with little fanfare. It didn’t take long for people to see that this young man meant business! He was a ferocious hitter in the defensive secondary, often receiving fines for his aggressive style of play. He specialized in run support but was incredibly gifted in coverage as well. He was often overheard in pregame warmups remarking on “how special it was to play in the NFL”. Despite his success, he remained grounded. Rodney was a two time Pro Bowler who spent 9 glorious seasons with the Bolts. He played the final six seasons of his career with the Patriots.
17. Ernie Ladd – DT
Ernie was a massive player who had unnatural strength for his time period. The Chargers drafted him out of Grambling State in 1961 and he made an immediate impact. He helped the Bolts reach the AFL Championship game in four of his five seasons- with a title in 1963. Ladd was an unblockable, disruptive force in the middle. After suffering a knee injury as a Kansas City Chief in 1968, Ernie gave up football and turned to professional wrestling.
16. John Hadl – QB
The Chargers selected Hadl in the 3rd round of the 1962 AFL draft in hopes that he’d choose them over the other team that drafted him, the Detroit Lions, who picked him in the first round of the NFL draft. Apparently, San Diego looked more appealing as he joined the team and started at QB for the next eleven seasons. Though his career stats are up and down throughout his tenure as a Bolt, Hadl and head coach Sid Gillman are largely credited with revolutionizing the passing game in the NFL. Hadl developed a special connection with wide receiver Lance Alworth which resulted in many long touchdown receptions. He was a six time Pro Bowler and was the QB for the Chargers one and only Championship in 1963.
15. Fred Dean – DE
Fred Dean, now a hall of famer, was drafted out of Louisiana Tech in 1975. He earned the nickname “Mean Fred Dean” due to his highly aggressive pass rushing ability. Fred terrorized quarterbacks to the tune of nearly 100 sacks according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After seven stellar seasons in San Diego, Dean was traded to the 49ers where he finished his remarkable career.
14. Louie Kelcher – DT
Big Louie joined the Chargers in 1975 and teamed with Fred Dean and Gary Johnson to create one of the most formidable defensive lines in the NFL. Kelcher earned Pro Bowl recognition three times for his dominating run-stuffing ability. After battling through injuries at various points in his career, Louie returned to deafening crowds chanting “Loooooooooouie”. Kelcher, a fan favorite, was inducted in the Chargers Hall of Fame in 2003.
13. Gary Johnson – DT
A four time Pro Bowler, Gary “Big Hands” Johnson struck fear into the hearts of opponents between 1975 and 1984 for the Chargers. He teamed with Dean and Kelcher to form a terrible trio of torture for opposing offensive coordinators. In 1980 he led the league with 17.5 sacks. His intensity was intimidating and his aggressiveness was unrelenting. He played his last two seasons with the 49ers.
12. Leslie O’Neal – DE
With the 8th overall pick in the 1986 draft, the Chargers drafted O’Neal out of Oklahoma State. In college, his specialty was pressuring the quarterback. In the NFL, his specialty was sacking the quarterback. He earned AP Defensive Rookie of the year amassing 12.5 sacks, 2 INTs and 3 forced fumbles. Talk about making a splash! In nine seasons with the Bolts, Leslie topped 12 sacks in seven of them. He recorded 17 sacks in 1992. He was a pass rushing phenom who performed consistently year after year after year.
11. Antonio Gates – TE
Antonio Gates was a basketball player at Kent State University when the Chargers took notice of him. He had a football player’s build with the agility of a basketball power forward. In 2003, the Chargers signed Gates to a free agent contract. Now, heading into his 11th season, Gates is considered to be one of the greats to ever play TE in the NFL. His fluid route running ability combined with his ability to “get position” of defenders allow Antonio to use his soft hands to make catch after remarkable catch. To date he has accounted for 8,321 yards receiving and 83 touchdowns. Astounding!
10. Keith Lincoln – RB
This five time Pro Bowler was practically unstoppable in the early days of the Chargers. He teamed with QB John Hadl and WR Lance Alworth to create a dynamic triple threat that helped propel the Chargers to four AFL Championship game appearances. Lincoln was a slashing type runner who could beat you with his cutting ability. Keith was also a very capable receiver as well.
9. Earl Faison – DE
Despite the lack of hard statistics on sack totals being kept in the early 60s, watching game film of Earl Faison will let you know immediately what a beast this man was. Whether it was rushing the quarterback, smothering running backs or intercepting passes, Faison was wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. One of the key members of the “Fearsome Foursome,” Earl did his part in helping the Chargers win the AFL Championship game in 1963. Faison’s play was a very early indication on how important a pass rusher is to successful defense.
8. Ron Mix – T
Ron Mix was selected to the Chargers Hall of Fame in 1978 and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame one year later. He was a Charger from the moment the organization started in 1960 and played ten amazing seasons for the Bolts. He was as steady as they come and could be relied upon to create running lanes for the likes of Paul Lowe, Keith Lincoln, Speedy Duncan and Dickie Post. He was selected as an AFL All-Star nine times. Without a doubt, the greatest offensive tackle the Chargers have ever had.
7. Paul Lowe – RB
Lowe was the original “lightning in a bottle” running back for the newly formed Los Angeles Chargers in 1960. Paul was fast, could break tackles and could reverse his field better than anyone in the league. He was also blessed with tremendous field vision which allowed him to break off a sweep and cut back to daylight. His speed meant that if he got into the secondary, it was over. Paul Lowe had the kind of ability that would’ve made him successful today! Not many backs from that era can make that claim.
6. Charlie Joiner – WR
He started his career with the Houston Oilers where he spent four seasons with limited success. He then played four seasons in Cincinnati with minimal success. In 1976, going into his 9th NFL season, Charlie Joiner became a Charger. As he puts it, “That’s when my career really began.” In “Air Coryell” with Dan Fouts slinging the ball, Charlie found his perfect offensive scheme. From that year on, 1,000 yard seasons became the norm rather than the exception. Dan Fouts refers to Joiner as “the best route runner he has ever thrown to.” What always stood out to me was Charlie’s ability to come through with the big catches on third down. I’ve always referred to him as Mr. Reliable…and he was.
5. Kellen Winslow – TE
This man changed the position. He was the first real hybrid TE that could also play outside as a wide receiver. He was too quick for linebackers to cover and too big for cornerbacks to cover. He was a mismatch wherever he was! Winslow had unbelievablely soft hands for a tight end as well. He rarely dropped passes. He was a game-changer. Kellen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995 after a career that saw him earn five Pro Bowl nods. He is best known for his Herculean effort against the Miami Dolphins in the divisional playoffs in 1982. He accounted for 166 yards on 13 receptions, 1 touchdown and a blocked field goal in the Bolts’ 41-38 overtime victory. Epic.
4. Lance Alworth – WR
In nine seasons with the Chargers, Lance Alworth eclipsed 1,000 yards seven times. In 1965 he amassed 1,602 yards in just 14 games. He had double-digit touchdowns in five different seasons. Remarkable statistics. What set Alworth apart, though, was his penchant for the long pass reception. The “bomb” if you will. Nobody was better at getting behind defenders than “Bambi”. He really didn’t look the part either. He was a small guy with short legs. When he blew by you though, all you could see was those short legs prancing down the field into the endzone. Lance finished his illustrious career with 10,266 yards and 85 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978…and no one will ever again wear the number 19 for the Chargers.
3. LaDainian Tomlinson – RB
Chants of “L.T. L.T. L.T.!!” still ring in my ears when I think back to the remarkable career of LaDainian Tomlinson. The stars aligned perfectly for this young man and the Chargers organization in 2001 when the Chargers traded down from #1 to #5 in the draft and picked L.T. Pairing the young runner with an old school head coach like Marty Schottenheimer was a match made in Heaven. ”Martyball” fueled Tomlinson’s motor and off he went! Tomlinson earned five Pro Bowl nods and was named NFL MVP in 2006. He finished his career with 13,684 yards rushing, 4,772 yards receiving and 169 total touchdowns (rushing, receiving and passing). He was clearly one of the best running backs to have ever played the game.
2. Dan Fouts – QB
Let me just start off by saying that Fouts could easily be number one on my list on any given day. His impact of the Chargers organization and pro football in general is unmistakable. Dan Fouts was more than a quarterback…he was a field general. He was demanding and tough on his teammates, but also knew when to give the occasional pep talk. He could stand in the pocket and deliver beautiful passes- even while the defense was swarming around him. He could take a hit and shake it off, as playing multiple games with a broken nose can attest. But most of all, Dan Fouts could throw gorgeous deep passes. He was the pilot of the famed “Air Coryell” and he made things go. During his reign as Chargers quarterback, there wasn’t a more exciting team to watch in the NFL. Though he fell short of playing in the Super Bowl, his numers speak for themselves: 43,040 yards passing; 254 touchdowns; career QB rating of 80.2; six Pro Bowls and inductions into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
1. Junior Seau – LB
In my mind, the greatest San Diego Charger of all time. He was a beast on the field and a pillar of the San Diego community. During his playing days, when people thought of the San Diego Chargers, they thought of Junior Seau doing his punch-out celebration after destroying somebody in their own backfield. He was, and still is, the Chargers. One of my favorite memories of Junior was listening to him celebrate after the Bolts drafted him in 1990. He was SO excited to be a Charger! Growing up in southern California made him a hometown hero that he relished, but also took very seriously as well. Junior was constantly giving back to the community through youth groups and camps. He was renowned for personally greeting fans before the games and thanking them for coming out. A monster on the field, but a gentle giant off. Junior played an astounding 20 seasons in the NFL, the first 13 as the emotional leader of the Charger defense. His untimely death in 2012 left a void in the San Diego community that may never be filled. Like Alworth and Fouts, Seau had his number retired, assuring that no one beside Junior Seau will ever wear 55 again.
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts and recollections about any of the players on my list. Please share in the space below! Until next time… GO BOLTS!!