The tragedies of the 1994 Chargers
Had the sky not opened up over the mountains and taken him, maybe Doug Miller would've spent the past week trying to connect with everyone. Miller was always the guy, even before cell phones and emails, who tried to keep in touch with his teammates.
Handsome and free-spirited, he rode around on his Harley-Davidson, his chiselled biceps protruding from his biker vest. Miller was appreciative and conscientious. He once was dispatched to make an appearance at birthday party for an older gentleman who was a San Diego Chargers fan. He stayed for the whole party, talked with everybody, and sent the guy a birthday card every year.
Miller lockered next to Junior Seau, who taught him how to be a pro. Seau wore jersey No. 55; Miller No. 54. They were linebackers, which was about the only thing they had in common. Miller would never be a Southern California god like Seau. He was a seventh-round unknown from South Dakota State who earned his paychecks on special teams. But none of that mattered. The 45 men on that 1994 San Diego Chargers Super Bowl team were inseparably tight, and each one of them knew they served a greater purpose.
Miller was so proud of that season that he used to wear his commemorative Super Bowl XXIX sweat suit in public. His friends used to tease him about that. They didn't understand what that team meant to him. Miller lasted three years in the NFL before a knee injury ended his career. And when he died in 1998, it was newsworthy not because of the tackles he'd made, but because of the way his life ended.
He was struck by lightning. Twice.
The eerie coincidence that a Charger, a man who wore a lightning bolt on his helmet and died from two lightning strikes, wasn't lost on the people of San Diego. Nor was the fact that in the 3½ years after the '94 Super Bowl, three players from that Chargers team died. First there was linebacker David Griggs. In June 1995, Griggs was killed after his Lexus skidded off a South Florida expressway ramp and into a pole. He was a short drive away from where the Chargers had played in the Super Bowl months before. He was 28. Then came Rodney Culver, who went on a cruise with his wife, Karen, in 1996, and left early because they missed their kids. The couple perished when ValuJet Flight 592 crashed into the Florida Everglades. Rodney Culver was 26.
Four more teammates died from 2008 to 2011, two from heart attacks, one from an enlarged heart, another from a drug overdose. All of them were under the age of 45. All of those left behind kept hoping that the phone calls and the bad news would finally stop.
They didn't. Last week, Seau was found dead in his Oceanside, Calif., home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The face of the team was added to the Chargers' somber list.
"So many good people ... I'd rather look at it that way. I'd rather look at it as all eight were good people who had good intentions for the world around them and themselves. It's amazing to me. It's just mind-blowing how many guys we've lost in weird ways from that team."
In Arizona, Miller's mother, Colleen Miller, was sitting at her computer last Wednesday when she saw the news of Seau's death. It brought back sad memories. Every time a Charger dies, this happens. But for a moment, it also took her to a much better time -- of Seau mentoring Miller, of young men with their whole lives ahead of them.
"My daughter came in from the airport the morning after Doug died ... and I can remember going to pick her up and looking out at the street at all these people who were going to work and doing these mundane things. I thought, 'I wonder how many people are like me, they're in a car and just thinking their life is over?' And that's how I felt for a while. Not that my life was over. That's a little dramatic. But how could this happen?"
On a rainy January day in 1995, roughly 70,000 people packed into San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium to greet the Chargers after their upset victory at Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship. San Diego did not win the Super Bowl that season; the Chargers lost 49-26 to the San Francisco 49ers two weeks later in Miami.
But the city stayed in love with that '94 team. It was the first and only San Diego squad to make it to the Super Bowl, and the roster was filled with young and likable faces who weren't expected to finish in the upper half of their division, much less end up playing in late January.
They cared for each other, cracked jokes and played video games together, and they hung out in groups long after practice was over.
"It was the National Football League," said former Chargers defensive lineman John Parrella, "and guys were still having fun in practice. I was a new player, and they treated me like I knew these guys my whole life. It was a big family."
The identity of the team was forged back in 1992, in coach Bobby Ross' first season. The Chargers started off 0-4 that year, and rumors swirled that Ross was already on the verge of being fired. He was too rah-rah, too much of a college coach, and some players, former Chargers linebacker Gary Plummer said, laughed at Ross behind his back. But then came that fourth loss, and the new coach had seen enough. He told the players that he knew only one way to turn things around, and that was to work hard. He told them they could either get on board or get out.
They jumped on board, and Seau played a huge part in developing the team's chemistry. He was in his early 20s and already a superstar -- Miller used to call him a freak of nature -- and Seau would wow guys by casually throwing around 180-pound dumbbells. But he was also the one spotting his teammates in the weight room.
He had a charisma that made his teammates want to play hard for him.
"Junior was Superman," Winter said. "He was able to leap over buildings in a single bound. I wasn't. I would fall over a tall blade of grass. But he never made me feel awkward.
"In the National Football League and every team in America, you have the elite, you have the in-between, you have the ones slightly below average and the ones who are only going to be around for a day or two. Junior made every one of those different levels feel as if you were at his level."
The 1992 Chargers became the first team to start 0-4 and make the postseason, and after a playoff loss to Miami, a promise was made in the locker room that this wasn't the end. They would make it to the Super Bowl.
It took two years and numerous close calls to do it. The '94 season started with Stanley Richard's 99-yard interception return in a comeback win against Denver, and nearly ended when the Chargers were in a 21-6 third-quarter hole against the Dolphins in the divisional playoffs. San Diego rallied that day to eke out a 22-21 victory.
The Chargers were heavy underdogs the next week against Pittsburgh. But every man in that locker room knew they were going to win that day, Parrella said.
The party they came home to after that game was completely spontaneous, just 70,000 people who wanted to say thank you. After they lost in the Super Bowl, more than 100,000 fans filled the streets of downtown San Diego for a parade for their Chargers. It was the last time they'd all celebrate together.
For years, Dave Peterson did not want to talk about what happened on July 21, 1998. He'd known Doug Miller since they were kids playing YMCA basketball, when things such as rivalries and teenage baseball games seemed so much bigger. Peterson saw Miller die. He administered CPR to Miller for more than 45 minutes, refusing to give up on a friend, but knowing at the end that it was futile.
They had so many good times together, as rivals from different South Dakota towns, as teammates at South Dakota State. Peterson was one of the guys who used to razz Miller about his Super Bowl warm-ups, which he wore once on a trip to Wisconsin. "I had to remind him where he was," Peterson said, "in Packerland, where nobody gives a sh--."
People in South Dakota looked up to Miller the same way Miller looked up to Seau, Peterson said. Back then, it was rare for a guy from South Dakota State to make it to the NFL. Over the course of three years, Miller went from being awed by the league to knowing he belonged there. And then came the knee injury, and Miller had to adjust.
He went back to school, earned his Master's degree and got into college coaching. Peterson became a real estate agent. In 1998, they were both headed for California to start new jobs, and they decided to go camping in Colorado on the way.
The sun was shining; the scenery was breathtaking. They saw waterfalls and Pyrenees dogs herding sheep. It was peaceful and surreal.
"It was totally unexpected," Peterson said. "You couldn't make a film and put it all together. It would seem fake."
Then it started to sprinkle, then hail, and Peterson saw a big flash and heard a boom. He saw Miller get spun around. Peterson ran to his side, started performing CPR, and got Miller breathing just before another bolt of lightning hit. It traveled across the ground, then through Miller and Peterson. It threw Peterson off Miller. Peterson was fine. His friend was gone.
For 14 years, he's struggled to make sense of it, why he lived and Miller didn't.
"You know, I wish I could say I was this raging success," Peterson said, "and I'm here and I'm helping all these people and doing all these great things. ... As far as meaning in life, I don't know what that is yet. I'm trying.
"I've got two great kids, and they know all about Doug and it comes up more often than not. Hopefully, I get some kind of message to the right people or meaning that does some good."
In some ways, Peterson feels fortunate to have been with Miller that day. Before the storm came, and they passed through the beauty of the Flat Tops, Miller told his friend something that twentysomething guys just don't say.
He said, "This would be a great place to die."
Nearly 10 years passed before another call came. On May 11, 2008, Mother's Day, Curtis Whitley, the center for the '94 Chargers, was found dead in Texas from a drug overdose. He was 39. Mims, a defensive lineman, died a few months later of an enlarged heart. He was 38. The Washington Post ran a story that December about the tragic oddity of one team losing five players. Writer Les Carpenter talked to a professor of actuarial science and biostatistics and asked her what the odds were of that happening. She said less than 1 percent.
Last year, two more defensive players -- Lee and Lew Bush -- died of heart attacks. Lee was 44; Bush was 42.
"[When Miller died], people were already talking about the snake bitten San Diego Chargers," Plummer said.
"It's just one of those things that obviously has to be coincidental. This isn't a case of seven members from the same team getting Lou Gehrig's disease. It's a series of tragedies that don't have any concrete connection, just the connection of being on that '94 team."
Plummer was not on that '94 team. After seven years in San Diego, he went to San Francisco in 1994, where he won a Super Bowl ring. Plummer is quick to point out that there was another loss from the Chargers' '94 family.
Rachelle Andersen, a Chargers cheerleader, died of a brain aneurysm in July 1995. Andersen was 21 and was a Charger girl for just one season. 1994.
Plummer has been to three funerals for former teammates, and he considered himself a good friend of Miller's. He was waiting to work out with him in California in 1998 when he learned of his death. He does not think about Miller getting struck by lightning anymore. When you lose a teammate, he said, you go through shock and sadness, but as time goes on, you remember the good things about a person.
Plummer saw Seau a few weeks ago at a charity golf function. Seau glad-handed and laughed and called at least four people "buddy." The last week has been devastatingly hard for Plummer, but talking about it is somewhat cathartic. He wants to talk because he hopes it will help others.
The days after retirement can be depressing for an NFL player, Plummer said. He does not claim to know what Seau was thinking in the last days of his life. He just wishes his friend would've let go of his defenses and reached out for help.
"He was fabulous in front of a camera," Plummer said. "He was great in front of a crowd. All he did was turn on that switch.
"This notion of why he didn't seek help was real simple. He was too proud. He didn't have the mindset to seek help because all you're taught when you're playing football is to not show weakness. You have to feel like you're an invincible human being to play the game."
Every summer, Colleen Miller helps organize a 5K run as a fundraiser in her son's honor. It has not raised millions of dollars like Seau's charitable fundraisers have; Miller wasn't around long enough to carry that kind of cache. But former teammates and state rivals come to Sturgis, S.D., every year to run, drink Bloody Mary's and raise money for youth programs in Miller's hometown.
Peterson takes his boys to the 5Ks. He used to push them on strollers; now they run. Colleen looks at the kids and wonders what could have been. Doug's friends are grown men now, graying men. They tell stories of old times, and it helps keep the memory of Doug Miller alive.
Perhaps this year, Colleen will tell one story. Perhaps she'll tell them of the time she met Junior Seau. They were in an elevator together, along with Colleen's mom, who knew nothing about football. She talked about how her grandson played for the Chargers, and had no clue who Seau was. But he was gracious. He smiled and shook their hands and told them it was nice to meet them. Seau always flipped that switch on for the fans.
Colleen Miller is not a religious person and does not deeply ponder the meaning of the tragedies that have befallen the 1994 Chargers. She will only call it "bizarre." She said a parent can never get over losing a child. But at some point, you try to at least live with it.
"I guess my feeling is ... it was his time," she said. "That's about all you can say. If there is a higher being, maybe they know more about it.
"He had his whole life, he was vibrant, he was funny, he had a good time. He was doing what he wanted to do. Maybe that's all you need."