The last time the Patriots had a playoff game in San Diego, they were hit by a 51-10 thunderbolt
In the annals of New England sports, the 1963 American Football League Eastern Division champion Boston Patriots are one of the forgotten teams. Their improbable journey to the AFL championship game was a saga as suitable for NFL Films as it was for a movie script by Mel Brooks or Robert Altman. These Patriots were a team of characters with character.
When the 2006 Patriots head to San Diego to continue their playoff run, it will be the franchise's first postseason matchup with the Chargers since Jan. 5, 1964, a game that also was played on the West Coast. This year's edition is hoping for much better results, as their ancestors were blown out 43 years ago, 51-10, in the AFL championship game.
The 1963 Patriots punched their ticket to San Diego via Buffalo, where, on Dec. 28, they played a tie-breaking divisional playoff game on the rock-hard surface of snowy War Memorial Stadium.
Patriots defensive end Larry Eisenhauer once described the Buffalo stadium as a relic of the '40s -- the 1840s. In conditions that heavily favored the Bills, the Patriots were better prepared than their hosts, as star back Larry Garron, wearing baseball spikes, scored two touchdowns on Babe Parilli passes and Gino Cappelletti, making a series of quick third-down changes of a sneaker for a cleat on his plant foot, booted four field goals for a 26-8 upset.
When the squad gathered at Logan Airport a couple of days later for the trip westward to meet the Chargers in the fourth AFL title game, it had every reason to feel hopeful. It was the Patriots' third trip to San Diego in the five months since training camp. Despite a 50-17 shellacking in their second preseason game, the Patriots had played the Chargers tough in the other two losses, a 17-13 defeat in San Diego and a 7-6 squeaker that represented the only loss in their new home at Fenway Park.
"Just to be there was awesome for us," Eisenhauer recalled, "I remember how beautiful the weather was, with [owner] Billy Sullivan patting us all on the back, shouting at us, so proud, so happy."
Prior to the game, the Patriots made the most of their stay at the glamorous Stardust Hotel. As Eisenhauer tells it, "San Diego was our favorite away city and the Stardust was clearly our favorite hotel. One of the distinctive features of the place was a bar in which patrons were treated to an underwater ballet performed by young women doing a form of synchronized swimming behind a glass wall.
"A group of us, that included my dad, had just come from a swim in the outdoor pool. We were pretty chilly, as the temperature was unusually cold for San Diego. Having been to the hotel a few times, I knew a way my dad and I could warm up -- by going to the roof and diving into the hotel's heated pool."
The heated pool contained the swimming ballerinas, and soon more than a couple of Patriots were gagging on their cocktail peanuts as their teammate mooned them. Before long, several of them, including defensive back Ron Hall, joined the fun before police were summoned.
Too bad the title game wasn't as entertaining as the aquatic show that preceded it. In fact, it was virtually over before it started. Before many of the 30-odd thousand fans had found their seats at Balboa Stadium, their Chargers had taken a 14-0 lead over the Patriots. Following the game, Boston defensive captain Tom Addison told Globe reporter Will McDonough, "I've never been on my knees so much in my life. I got knocked down on every [expletive] play."
The Chargers were the greatest passing team in a league whose very identity was based on "going long," but the early lead was achieved on a 2-yard quarterback sneak by Tobin Rote followed shortly by a 67-yard gallop by back Keith Lincoln. As the game progressed, it only got worse.
Lincoln's performance is recognized as one of the greatest single games in pro football history, as he achieved 349 yards of total offense: 206 rushing, 123 receiving, and he threw a 20-yard pass. The Patriots were not prepared for such heroics, as only weeks earlier, in the game at Fenway Park, Lincoln gained only 32 yards.
His fellow running back, Paul Lowe, contributed 94 rushing yards and a touchdown, and future Hall of Fame receiver Lance Alworth scored on a 48-yard pass as the Chargers more than lived up to their 11-3 regular-season record.
Eisenhauer says he still sees the Chargers backs coming at him in his dreams, pitchout after pitchout.
"We immortalized Keith Lincoln," he says dryly. "They were shot out of cannons and we were running on a treadmill. We were proud to be there but not proud of our performance."
The Phil Bissell cartoon spread across the Globe's sports page the next day showed a dazed Pat Patriot pierced by the Charger lightning bolt as his drum, inscribed with "the spirit of '76," flies through the air over his head.
Cappelletti felt the Patriots "crashed" after the Buffalo game.
"What with the travel back and forth to Buffalo, then the trip to San Diego, I feel we were at a point where we weren't able to perform like we did normally," he said.
It probably wouldn't have mattered if the Patriots had come off a month's vacation. For Chargers coach Sid Gillman would leave nothing to chance in the biggest game of his career.
In Jeff Miller's superb AFL history, "Going Long," he quotes McDonough, who shares the startling revelation that the Chargers had planted spies dressed as Navy employees at the Patriots' practice field at the San Diego Naval base. It wasn't enough that the Chargers led the league in victories, offense, and defense -- they also led the league in surveillance and went into the title game knowing the Patriots playbook nearly as well as their own.
Gillman not only wanted to destroy the Patriots for league supremacy but he also craved the national attention afforded by the NBC telecast (hosted by the inimitable Curt Gowdy and Paul Christman). Never had the fledgling league had more of a bully pulpit from which to proclaim the superiority of its product.
Like almost everybody associated with the AFL, Gillman had both a deep disdain for the NFL and a burning desire to prove himself after being rejected by that league.
Gillman's feelings toward the NFL were shared by scores of fans turned off by the gambling suspensions handed down to NFL stars Alex Karras and Paul Hornung. And the NFL had recently shamed itself (especially in Boston) by playing games within 48 hours of the assassination of President Kennedy. (In contrast, the AFL wisely sat out the weekend.)
The Super Bowl and the ultimate merger of the two leagues came in just a couple of years, but it was too late for Gillman and his magnificent team. However, the West Coast offense he created and made a staple of the AFL still has many league loyalists claiming that the NFL ultimately merged into the AFL and not vice versa.
And now that the Patriots again will visit San Diego as playoff underdogs, it is important to remember the enthusiasm and healthy irreverence with which they competed so many years ago.
McDonough remembered the spirit of that 1963 Patriots team in one of his favorite anecdotes. It seems he was sitting next to defensive end Bob Dee on the flight back from San Diego when the pilot came on the intercom and told the passengers, "We're going over Albany, N.Y., as we make our approach to Boston." Dee, looking out the window, said to McDonough, "Look at the jets off our right wing, three of 'em, Massachusetts Air National Guard. I bet the governor sent them up here to shoot us down.
"And I don't blame them."
Richard Johnson is curator of The Sports Museum at TD Banknorth Garden and author of 15 books, including "Red Sox Century" with Glenn Stout.