SAN DIEGO (AP)—Antonio Gates got a knock on his door at 3:30 a.m. Monday, saw the orange glow in the sky, quickly dressed and got out.
He has no idea who brought the warning to his upscale suburb. The power was out and he didn’t get a good look.
Similar scenes were played out thousands of times as wildfires obliterated swaths of San Diego County. The Chargers were lucky—of the estimated 46 players, coaches and other personnel who evacuated, none lost their homes.
Not quite a week later, Gates and the San Diego Chargers helped bring a sense of normalcy to a region that’s been ravaged by deadly wildfires.
Urged on by a cheer of “Go, Chargers, go!” from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Chargers routed the Houston Texans 35-10 on Sunday. Philip Rivers threw three touchdown passes—two to Gates—and cornerback Antonio Cromartie had a monster game. Cromartie recovered a fumble for a touchdown and had two interceptions, one of which he returned 70 yards for another TD.
“It was kind of like a win for the San Diego Chargers, but at the same time it was a win for San Diego itself,” said Gates, the All-Pro tight end. “Football was secondary compared to the things that were going on in San Diego. We were just glad we could come up with a win to uplift this city.”
Two days after the last evacuees left Qualcomm Stadium, the tailgaters and the NFL were back.
When the wind-whipped fires first started sweeping San Diego County a week earlier, no one thought this game could be played here. Not with more than 10,000 evacuees taking shelter at the big concrete stadium and the air fouled by smoke.
The team left the smoky air behind and spent three days practicing in Arizona.
Qualcomm wasn’t intended to be a long-term shelter, so Mayor Jerry Sanders on Thursday gave the all-clear for the game. By the next day, the NFL agreed.
Before Kris Brown’s opening kickoff sailed through the smoky air, two dozen firefighters, police and National Guard members were introduced on the field and received a standing ovation.
Four San Diego firefighters, including one carrying an American flag, led the Chargers onto the field for pregame introductions. Linebacker Shawne Merriman, the last of the starting 11 to be introduced, held up a red fireman’s helmet with his left hand, then set it on the ground.
Merriman said he got the helmet from San Diego’s fire chief while riding around with firefighters after the team returned from Arizona.
“We were thanking them for life itself and thanking them for saving houses,” Gates said. “You could just feel the energy in the stadium today. You felt the energy for the ones who lost houses, you felt the energy for the ones who had to evacuate.”
Schwarzenegger presided over the coin toss, which the Chargers won, thanked firefighters and then urged on the hometown team.
“He kind of got everybody riled up,” Merriman said. “He needs to work on his coin flip. He just threw it straight up in the air and it came back down funny. We won, so he must have done something right and it provided some luck to us.”
San Diego (4-3) won its third straight game and popped above .500 for the first time since opening day.
Houston (3-5) mostly looked awful in losing its third straight. Quarterback Matt Schaub knocked out of the game when he was hit after throwing his second interception.
“It’s about as bad as it could be,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “We looked like a very tired, slow football team out there. Mentally tired or something because the mistakes we’re making each week are unacceptable.”
Houston committed five turnovers.
The Chargers gave their fans a lot to cheer about, scoring 35 points in a span of 18 minutes, 18 seconds in the first half.
Gates had TD catches of 49 and 31 yards.
Cromartie’s first TD came when Bryan Pittman snapped the ball over punter Matt Turk’s head and it rolled into the end zone. Turk stumbled trying to recover and Cromartie jumped on it for a 14-0 lead. It was the first NFL TD for the second-year pro, who was San Diego’s first-round draft pick in 2006.
Turk bolted from the locker room afterward, telling reporters, “Bye guys.”
“It’s a nightmare for a specialist like myself,” Pittman said. “It did have velocity, but not when it’s 10 feet in the air like that.”
Cromartie came up big again when he picked off a pass that was tipped by Merriman. Cromartie stayed on his feet, worked his way across the field and finished off his TD run down the left sideline.
Cromartie intercepted Schaub again just five plays later. That set up Rivers’ 14-yard touchdown pass to Chris Chambers, the wide receiver’s first score since joining the Chargers in a bye-week trade with Miami.
Schaub was leveled by linebacker Stephen Cooper, who was called for two personal fouls, a hit to the head and unnecessary roughness. The first penalty was declined. Schaub was replaced the next series by Sage Rosenfels. Rosenfels threw a 28-yard TD pass to Joel Dresseen in the fourth quarter.
With his family out of town, Rivers donated the seats in his luxury box to families and relatives of four state firefighters who injured doing their jobs. … Chargers LB Shaun Phillips strained his groin and cornerback Quentin Jammer hurt his right hamstring.