The C word (character) often is difficult to notice in professional sports, perhaps because we are so conditioned to accept the S word (selfish) when describing athletes. Things such as heart and effort and accountability aren’t how we usually first depict those with tens of millions attached to their bank accounts for playing a game.
The San Diego Chargers did their best to alter that view the past month.
The NFL needs a seeded playoff tournament more than the housing market needs an upward trend, but the flawed current system is what we have today, and that means an 8-8 team can win its division and host a postseason game. It also means the New England Patriots can finish 11-5 and be home watching. It makes as much sense as Rod Blagojevich’s hair.
San Diego, though, earned its date against Indianapolis on Saturday because its players did the one thing most believe should be habitual for those at this level: They never stopped competing. Even at 4-8, they didn’t reach for a shovel or begin making vacation plans.
In other words, they were everything the Dallas Cowboys weren’t in Philadelphia on Sunday.
I never understood the assumption that because someone is a professional athlete and enjoys all related wealth and celebrity, he should be expected to own the work ethic of a Ukrainian miner. The same goes for college players on scholarships.
It’s a nice theory. It would be fantastic to think every athlete who gets paid an exorbitant amount of money or receives an education (or both) to play approaches his sport with such passion, no matter a team’s record or the individual’s circumstance within it.
It would also be nice if every mail carrier believed in timely delivery and every mechanic in double-checking all bolts and every juror in fair and impartial deliberations.
You can’t patent the human spirit. You can’t expect everyone to own the same level of desire when approaching a specific task. We are all wired differently. How we would like pro athletes to act and what reality has shown time and again are diverse truths.
But the Chargers in becoming the first team in history to go from 4-8 to the playoffs did so with a resolve not found on all cities of the NFL map. Talent is one thing. San Diego always had enough of that to make the playoffs.
Fortitude is a completely different animal to own.
“(Finishing 8-8) is not ideal, but we’ll take it,” said running back LaDainian Tomlinson. “It’s good to be in this position, no doubt. There was a point there where you were really starting to wonder if you were going to get in because Denver just had to win one game. Every week you were hoping, ‘Man, I hope they don’t win. I hope they don’t win.’
“I think everybody was talking about a Super Bowl before we even played our first game. I think guys were looking forward instead of taking care of Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4 and building up to that.”
Sure, things had to happen for the Chargers to live this moment. Crazy things. Historic things, specifically the flop Denver took in losing its final three games.
But while waiting to see if the Broncos had it in them to muster such a preposterous collapse, San Diego players were presented a choice: Fight or fold.
Not every team, and certainly not every player in this league, would have responded as the Chargers did. Not every individual overcomes adversity through such decisiveness.
There is something to be said about how the Chargers played the regular season’s final month. It sort of gives you hope more pro athletes than not really do own a miner’s work ethic.
“To make the playoffs is the big deal,” said Chargers coach Norv Turner. “To win your division is a big deal. I know what the skeptics say in terms of the record, but I think every division is different and every division has to handle the situation, the schedule, who you’re playing, where you’re playing, the circumstances involved, and we were able to do that.
“The thing that gives us hope is we’ve been there. This group has been in the playoffs. They’ve had success in the playoffs. They’ve had heartbreak in the playoffs. We’re a talented team. We are playing our best. We know it’s a real challenge, but our guys look forward to getting ready for that challenge.”
Don’t forget the part about character.
It’s why teams like the Chargers are still alive, and others aren’t.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.