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NFL Wild Card: Tripping down to San Diego

A journey to see the Colts with a hero and friend, trash fans, homophobic comments galore and a whale of a game.

By Jim Buzinski
Outsports.com


The bulk of my notes will be on my trip to San Diego to see the Chargers play the Colts, along with some photos of some of my favorite Colts. First, my picks for the Divisional Round. Having gone 1-3 in the wild card round, you can take them for what they are worth.

AFC

Baltimore at Tennessee:
The playoffs are all about matchups and the visiting Ravens match up well with the Titans. Both teams can run the ball and both teams play terrific defense. The Ravens thrive on turnovers since rookie QB Joe Flacco has been inconsistent in mounting sustained drives. My sense is that veteran Titans QB Kerry Collins won’t screw things up. Low for a low-scoring affair in doubt into the fourth quarter. Titans 16, Ravens 10.

San Diego at Pittsburgh: The early forecast for the game calls for temperatures in the 20s and snow flurries, conditions that help the Steelers. The Chargers need to play better than they did in their wild card win against the Colts, especially Phillip Rivers and his pass blockers (the Colts had four sacks). On offense, the Steelers get a break in a soft Chargers pass defense, which will help Ben Roethlisberger. The wild card is Big Ben’s health, two weeks after a concussion. I like the Steelers at home in mid-winter. Steelers 23, Chargers 14.

NFC

Arizona at Carolina:
I see this as the weekend’s biggest blowout. The Cardinals are 0-5 in the Eastern time zone this season, including a 27-23 loss at Carolina. The Panthers are a better team than they were then, especially running the ball, while the Cardinals faded down the stretch. I see a lot of DeAngelo Williams carries and a defense that forces a couple of Kurt Warner turnovers. Panthers 34, Cardinals 13.

Philadelphia at New York: A divisional matchup, so no surprises. The Eagles won at New York late in the season and these teams almost always play close games. I have zero feeling for this game, but I think the Giants pass rusher will contain Donovan McNabb and enough running by Brandon Jacobs and company to pull out a tough one. Giants 17, Eagles 13.


WR Anthony Gonzalez
Tight end Dallas Clark
Quarterback Peyton Manning

Kicker Adam Vinatieri

From left, Howard Mudd, me, Bill Polian and Dave Kopay

Heading down the coast: I am great friends with Dave Kopay, whose coming out story after his NFL career ended in 1975 has inspired countless gay men and lesbians struggling with their sexuality. While with the San Francisco 49ers, Dave played with Howard Mudd, an All-Pro offensive lineman; he has been the Colts offensive line coach since 1998, the man charged with keeping Peyton Manning upright. Howard invited Dave to the Colts playoff game in San Diego and Dave asked me along as his guest. Other than the ending (a 23-17 Colts’ loss in overtime), I had a grand time. Some snapshots from a memorable day:

--Dave and I had a police escort to the game, my first ever. There were two Colts team buses, filled with players, coaches and staff, followed by the two of us in my Toyota Avalon and its rainbow sticker (that that, Tony Dungy!) and six CHP motorcycle cops, lights flashing as we headed the mile-plus from the team hotel to the stadium. It was cool to see all traffic stop as we rolled along into the stadium entrance and I got the best and safest parking spot ever, 10 feet from the team buses, surrounded by cops and security.

--We both had field passes for the pregame and spent it on the Colts bench talking with Howard and watching both teams warm up and run their drills.

A great moment was when Colts general manager Bill Polian came up to Dave, shook his hand heartily and told him how honored he was to meet him. You could have knocked Dave over with a boa; he was so genuinely surprised and pleased. Dave is a true hero and it's always heartening when people from diverse backgrounds acknowledge that. There are few bigger names in NFL circles than Bill Polian, and yet he was the one honored to meet Dave.

Polian then regaled us with some fun anecdotes about the Colts’ last contract talks with Peyton Manning, and Polian, Howard and Dave swapped NFL war stories. People really let their hair down when they talk in private (as a guest and not a media member this day, I will keep the stuff I heard in confidence. None of it was news-making or Earth-shattering, but NFL people never talk this openly to anyone with a pen or microphone).

--I got close enough to snap pictures of some of my favorite Colt players. I was never was able to get any good shots of safety Matt Giordano, easily the hottest Colt.

--I also wound up just feet away from Chargers punter Mike Scifres, warming up, who had maybe the best playoff game ever for a punter (a 51.5-yard net average with six punts inside the 20) and was the game’s MVP in my mind. Had I known he would be so crucial, I might have innocently walked by and “accidentally” tripped him.

--Our seats were in the visiting team section, i.e. nosebleed country, but the high view was terrific for seeing the action unfold (my binoculars were a great plus). The drawback was that we were 15 feet from the main stadium speakers and between series, music blared out so much that I got hoarse from yelling. What is about stadiums that natural crowd noise is never enough?

--The majority of Chargers fans were (how can I put this gently?) trash. Loud, rude, obnoxious, vulgar, drunk from before the game to well after; it really was a low-class group that belies San Diego’s “laid-back” rep. Nothing was directed at us, but the overall tone was more surly and chippy than high-spirited. I would have hated to see it after had the Chargers lost.

One guy told me there were a lot fewer women at the game than normal since many season ticket holders did not but playoff tickets, and it was a heavily young male crowd; mix in a lot of booze and you have an ugly atmosphere. We were lucky in that the small group of young guys and women around us were cool and friendly, so not everyone fit my above description, but the bulk of Chargers fans were definitely low class.

--I was shocked at all the anti-gay language used as a general epithet (none was directed at Dave or myself). Gay, queer, faggot, various references to sucking dick and other male-to-male sex acts were thrown around by people coming into the stadium, waiting in line for the restroom, in the concession stands during the game and in the postgame scrum. Maybe this doesn’t surprise some people, but I was taken aback about frequently it was uttered. It seems like a lot of these guys (and it was overwhelmly men) are fixated on homosexual acts; maybe it's something that fascinates them, so they figure using it as a loud public taunt will chase away the feelings.

One woman after the game, giddy from booze and the Chargers’ win, kept chanting: “Peyton’s not the MVP, he’s gay.” As we were walking behind her, after hearing this for the 10th time, I said aloud, “I wish!” but she was too self-absorbed to even hear it.

--As for the game, it’s not nearly a great experience as watching it on TV, where you can get multiple replays and commentary, easily walk to your fridge and not wait 30 minutes to piss. Without the connection to Dave or the pre- and post-game access, I doubt I would ever want to pay to see a playoff game; not that I'm complaining since it was a special day.

--The game was a thriller, won in OT by the Chargers. The key to the Colts’ loss was Scifres’ punting, Darren Sproles all-around effort for the Bolts and the Colts’ inability to run the ball (22 carries, 64 yards). As someone so eloquently put it after: “The Colts couldn’t run the ball the length of my dick and my dick isn’t that big.”

--We had post-game access to the area near the team buses, where family and friends of the Colts waited. It had the feel of a group of refugees awaiting deportation, with low-key conversations and few smiles; understandable after such a tough loss. Howard, though, greeted Dave and I amicably, which showed me the depth of warm feeling he has for Dave, the best man at his wedding. I also got a brief chance to tell Gonzalez he was my favorite Colt and that he played a excellent game (six catches, 97 yards).

--Post-post-game we spent at the hotel bar with Dom Anile, a longtime Colts assistant GM and now a team consultant. Dom had some great stories to tell about his 26 years in the NFL, but since we frown on printing the F-word on Outsports, the sanitized version wouldn’t be as much fun to read. I did get to try on Dom’s Super Bowl ring from the 2006 season, a really nice piece of bling that looked right at home on his finger.

--Given the terrific interaction with the Colts people (especially Howard) and spending time with Dave, the loss wasn’t nearly as painful as it would have been watching it on TV and wanting to toss my shoes at the screen. The next time, though, I want a rewrite on the ending.