The cursed 1994 Chargers

Linebacker Junior Seau is the eighth member of the 1994 Chargers team that has died before reaching...

Linebacker Junior Seau is the eighth member of the 1994 Chargers team that has died before reaching the age of 44. (BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters file photo)

JOHN KRYK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:40 PM ET

We often talk about "snakebitten" or "cursed" pro-sport franchises, usually in reference to some long string of fan-gutting defeats.

The early-'90s Buffalo Bills, for instance. Or baseball's Boston Red Sox before 2004. Or, in hockey, the Toronto Maple Leafs since 1967.

The 1994 San Diego Chargers, however, have endured real-life tragedies as opposed to scoreboard tragedies.

A lot of them.

Eight of the 54 players officially listed on that AFC championship team's roster have died. All before age 44.

The first, linebacker David Griggs, died by car crash not even five months after the Super Bowl.

The second, running back Rodney Culver, in a plane crash in 1996.

The third, linebacker Doug Miller, by lightning. He was struck twice while camping in 1998.

The fourth, centre Curtis Whitley, by drug overdose in 2008.

The fifth, sixth and seventh — DE Chris Mims in 2008, DT Shawn Lee in February 2011 and LB Lewis (Lew) Bush last December — by heart attacks.

The eighth by suicide just this week.

Linebacker Junior Seau, the best player on that team and a surefire Hall-of-Famer once he becomes eligible in 2015, used a handgun to shoot himself in the chest Wednesday in Oceanside, Calif., for reasons we might never know.

Understandably, the unlikely number of early deaths is not something the surviving Chargers are anxious to discuss. One, reached by QMI Agency on Friday, was still too upset to talk about any of it two days after Seau's shocking suicide.

The quarterback of that San Diego team, Stan Humphries, spoke with Sports Illustrated the other day. As proud as he is of the Chargers' AFC championship — the only one in team history — he said those good memories are now eclipsed by the bad.

"I sit around here every day," he said to SI's Dennis Dillon, "and it's amazing how many people have died off of that team."

We should touch on some of those good memories, too, because in January 1995 it seemed that these '94 Chargers would go down as one of the most famous — and fortunate — in San Diego team-sports history.

• • •

The Chargers were coming off an 8-8 campaign heading into the 1994-95 season. Expectations were not high.

The club's young motivational leader was Seau, then in only his fifth NFL season. Seau was so dynamic, energetic, fast and instinctive that the Chargers basically allowed him to freelance at inside linebacker.

San Diego finished the regular season 11-5 and won the AFC West.

In the divisional playoffs, the Chargers trailed 21-6 but stormed back to edge the Miami Dolphins, 22-21. Seau and co. completely shut down Dan Marino and the Dolphins offence in the second half.

In the AFC title game a week later, the Chargers upset the favoured Steelers in Pittsburgh, 17-13, to earn a berth in Super Bowl XXIX in Miami.

There, the "Cinderalla" Chargers would face one of the NFL's great juggernauts, a loaded San Francisco 49ers team that had smacked the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys in the NFC title game, 38-28.

The Chargers were 18-point underdogs. Hardly anybody believed they could upset the Niners, whose superstar roster included Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ricky Watters, Brent Jones and Deion Sanders.

When Young hit Rice on a 44-yard TD bomb in the third play of the game, the rout was on. Frisco stormed ahead 42-10 and won easily, 49-26.

In the game's waning moments, backup quarterback Gale Gilbert — suiting up for a record fifth consecutive Super Bowl after four with Buffalo, all losses — drove the Chargers into 49er territory.

Another meaningless touchdown would allow San Diego to beat the spread and swing countless millions of dollars between bettors. But the drive ended at the 35-yard line.

With so many people having bet that the mighty Niners would indeed cover the 18 points, Vegas sports books lost almost $400,000. Bookies everywhere cursed those damned Chargers.

• • •

The real tragedies began almost immediately afterward.

The first three were incredible flukes, all in the '90s.

Less than five months after the Super Bowl, starting linebacker Griggs' car slid off a ramp on Florida's Turnpike near Fort Lauderdale and slammed into a pole, killing the 28-year-old.

Three summers later, linebacker Miller was camping near the Colorado River with friend David Petterson when they got caught in a thunderstorm.

Miller was struck once by lightning. Petterson attempted to give him CPR, but Miller was struck again by lightning, this time fatally. He was 29.

The lightning somehow missed Petterson both times.

Two years before that, 26-year-old running back Culver and his wife Karen were among 110 people killed when a ValuJet plane crashed into the Everglades shortly after takeoff from Miami en route to Atlanta.

A decade went by before the next death. Centre Whitley had battled drug problems for years, including the use of crystal meth, when he overdosed in May 2008, aged 39.

Five months later, defensive end Mims was found dead in his LA apartment by a policeman conducting a welfare check; Mims weighed 456 pounds, aged 38.

A year ago February, defensive tackle Lee had double pneumonia when his heart failed.

Last December, linebacker Bush — who had replaced Griggs in the starting lineup in 1995 — died of an apparent heart attack just six days shy of his 42nd birthday.

Seau was 43, only two years removed from a 20-year NFL career.

By my count from sketchy obituary reports, at least seven children lost their fathers in these deaths. Five girls and two boys.

Two — Bree and Jada Culver — were orphaned when both their parents were killed in that ValuJet plane crash.

Don't talk to any of them about tragic sports losses involving games.

• • •

The calls have come far too often for the surviving 1994 Chargers.

“Not again,” running back Natrone Means told a San Diego newspaper. “It’s crazy, just crazy, that we’ve had so many guys who have fallen. I can’t make any sense of it. I’ve given up trying. You just hope you quit getting these random messages out of nowhere that another teammate has passed away."

He said that after the six death, Lee's, in February 2011.

THE 1994 SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

(According to Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League)

Johnnie Barnes, WR
Eric Bieniemy, RB
David Binn, TE
Stan Brock, OT
Lewis Bush, LB (deceased)
John Carney, PK
Darren Carrington, DB
Eric Castle, DB
Willie Clark, DB
Joe Cocozzo, OG
Andre Coleman, WR
Rodney Culver, RB (deceased)
Isaac Davis, OG
Rueben Davis, DE-DT
Dennis Gibson, LB
Gale Gilbert, QB
Darrien Gordon, DB
David Griggs, LB (deceased)
Courtney Hall, OG
Ronnie Harmon, RB
Dwayne Harper, DB
Rodney Harrison, DB
Steve Hendrickson, LB-TE
Stan Humphries, QB
Shawn Jefferson, WR
Raylee Johnson, DE-DT
Eric Jonassen, OT
John Kidd, P
Aaron Laing, TE
Shawn Lee, DT (deceased)
Tony Martin, WR
Deems May, TE
Natrone Means, RB
Joe Milinichik, OG-OT
Doug Miller, LB (deceased)
Les Miller, DT
Chris Mims, DE-DT (deceased)
Shannon Mitchell, TE
Leslie O'Neal, DE-LB
Vaughn Parker, OG-OT
John Parrella, DE-DT
Alfred Pupunu, TE
Stanley Richard, DB
Junior Seau, LB (deceased)
Mark Seay, WR
Harry Swayne, OT-DE
Cornell Thomas, DE
Sean Vanhorse, DB
Bryan Wagner, P
*Reggie White, DT
Curtis Whitley, C (deceased)
Blaise Winter, DE-DT
Duane Young, TE
Lonnie Young, DB

* Not the Reggie White of Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers fame


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