The first threats arrived shortly after the ball hit the Jacksonville turf, the Chargers’ rookie bowing under the weight of disappointing an entire franchise and its fan base.
By the time Austin Ekeler reached his phone in the defeated visitors’ locker room, the social-media vitriol had exploded, not unlike a virus spreading. His fourth-quarter fumble spawned third-degree intensity.
“People were telling me to off myself,” Ekeler, now in his seventh season, recalled. “I was like, ‘Ah, OK.’ I learned really quick that there’s a lot of knuckleheads out there.”
A lot of passionate, maniacal and deeply invested knuckleheads, yes. Few things in sports ignite emotion quite like football does, especially the NFL version.
Every week, fans willingly climb into a roller coaster that promises both unhinged joy and spirit-crippling sorrow — sometimes from one snap to the next. The field is only 100 yards long, but the trip can cover the distance between heaven and hell.
In the middle stand the players, the professionals who have to maintain a healthy balance or risk misplacing their senses.
The Chargers have started 2-4, a record that defies logic and expectation and has the team’s most ardent supporters peering over the edge. Entering a Sunday night date with Chicago at SoFi Stadium, the emotion is oozing lava hot.
“Of course we want to win. That’s all that ultimately matters. But we don’t get emotional in the result,” Ekeler said. “If it’s a win or a loss, guess what? We still have to move forward because there’s a season to play through.
“We can’t be super emotional and turn this into a reality TV show about our feelings. As fans, you can be pissed off and calling your buddies and saying, ‘Did you see that garbage?!’
“We’re not doing that. We’re coming in here and getting it dialed in and trying to win the next game. I really appreciate the passionate fans. They’re what has made this game. But we really have to tune that all out.”
Among the most memorable images of the Chargers’ uneven start has been the contorted, tortured face of a fan named Merrianne Do, a woman so thoroughly all in on the team that some people still think she’s acting.
Meanwhile, players have to keep their composure while wrapping a pair of two-game losing streaks around a two-game winning streak that feels like it happened six months ago.
“Everyone’s very passionate and very frustrated,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “But you can’t be too emotional in this game because that will take over. You gotta stay in that middle ground and trust your preparation.”
No one, least of all the Chargers, thought they’d be in this position, facing a must-win game before Halloween.
Entering Week 8, only two teams — New England and Denver — are below the Chargers in the AFC standings. A group forecast to be a playoff contender instead is closer to securing a top 2024 draft pick.
Citing the caliber of his players and assistants, coach Brandon Staley said he possesses “all the confidence in the world” that the Chargers still can recover in time to make their five December games matter.
“I’ve been out there on the field for six games, and I know the types of games that they have been,” Staley said. “I’ve also been a head coach in the NFL for three years. So I know the quality that you need in order to win, and I know that we have it.”
Yet, here the Chargers are, preparing for an opponent that appears strangely dangerous after opening the season with four losses. The Bears have won two of their last three games while emerging as an underdog story.
Among the opponents Bagent beat last year were Edinboro, Kutztown and Millersville. Next, he has the Chargers in a prime-time meeting that, for the home team, brings with it the possibility of national embarrassment.
How’s that for a ticking bomb of emotion? A loss could push fans off the same cliff upon which the Chargers’ hopes teeter.
“It’s about not riding the wave,” Kendricks said. “We need to keep working, trust what we’re doing and start pulling out these games in crucial situations.”
A season that began with the most fantastic of possibilities has turned very real, very fast. And when the expectations tower over the performance, life speeds up in the NFL. So, for the record, the date was Oct. 23 when Staley was first asked about the possibility of losing his job.
Former Chargers running backs coach Alfredo Roberts liked to refer to things swirling around the team but outside the building as “perfume.” Ekeler remembers his point.
“You can smell the perfume, know it’s there, but don’t ever taste it,” Ekeler said. “Don’t ever go too far and taste the perfume. It’s just a fragrance. It’s there. But you can push through it.”
Pushing through the smell, the stink, is exactly where the Chargers are as they welcome Chicago with one hope — that their season doesn’t become their stench.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.