The '94 Chargers' Tragic Toll

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008

High on a cemetery hillside, far above the growl of a Los Angeles freeway, sits the freshly covered grave of former San Diego Charger Chris Mims. It is set to the side of a small chapel and surrounded by trees. Those who have visited find it a happy place. And maybe this comforts them. In life he was always the one who laughed the loudest.

When word spread on Oct. 15 that Los Angeles police had found Mims dead on the floor of his downtown apartment that morning, a familiar dread rippled through the community of former Chargers players. Not Mims. Not the one with the roaring voice that bounced merrily off locker room walls. The one whose fruitless attempts to shed weight led them to call him "the Fat Doctor."

Natrone Means, the running back, called tight end Deems May and said, "We lost the Fat Doctor."

There have been too many of these calls, too many somber e-mails, too many funerals. Once, as players, they had been a part of a Chargers team that upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game in January 1995 and went to the only Super Bowl in the franchise's history. Now, nearly 14 years later, five of them are dead.

Five men from a 53-player roster, all gone in their 20s and 30s. Marjorie Rosenberg, a professor of actuarial science and biostatistics at the University of Wisconsin, calculated the odds of something like this happening at less than 1 percent.

"I couldn't imagine one team having five guys from one calendar season just die unless it's a team crash or something," May said. "I bet you couldn't find a small business with 53 people and have five people die."

It began only weeks after Super Bowl XXIX, a 49-26 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Miami, starting with the linebacker's car that skidded across a Florida highway. Then came the running back killed in the plane crash, the linebacker who was hit by lightning and the center who was found dead in his trailer home a day after his 39th birthday.

And now Mims.

"I guess it's just a part of life you have to deal with," said Stan Humphries, the quarterback.

From his home in New York, Courtney Hall, who was the team's starting center, sighed into the phone. "It's just ridiculous the way it's been happening. You have 53 guys and 10 percent of the team passes away? Before the age of 40? The numbers just don't make sense. Is this a curse or something? I just hope I'm not next."

'Everything Came Together'

It was remarkable how well they got along that season. "To this day I don't know if there is a team in one single year that was as close as that one," said Bill Johnston, who has been the Chargers' director of public relations for 19 years.

When practice ended, nobody went home. Instead they pulled tables together, ordered out for beer and chicken wings and played dominoes until 8 or 9 in the evening. They gave each other nicknames. Means was "Piggy," Stanley Richard "the Sheriff." Shawn Jefferson went by "Skeeter." Duane Young was simply "House."

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company