SAN DIEGO (AP) — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger flipped the coin, thanked the firefighters and yelled, “Go, Chargers, go!”
Did they ever, helping bring a sense of normalcy to a region that’s been ravaged by deadly wildfires.
Two days after the last evacuees left Qualcomm Stadium, the tailgaters and the NFL were back. The Chargers routed the Houston Texans, 35-10, behind Philip Rivers’ three touchdown passes — two went to All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates — and a monster game by cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
Cromartie recovered a fumble for a touchdown and had two interceptions, one of which he returned 70 yards for another TD.
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.
Some 46 players, coaches and others in the Chargers organization had to evacuate their homes — including Rivers, Gates and coach Norv Turner. 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.
San Diego (4-3) won its third straight game and popped above .500 for the first time since opening day. Houston (3-5) lost its third straight and had quarterback Matt Schaub knocked out of the game when he was hit after throwing his second interception.
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.
A wide-open Gates had a 49-yard touchdown catch to finish San Diego’s second possession.
At the end of Houston’s next possession, 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 touchdown for the second-year pro, who was San Diego’s first-round draft pick in 2006.
Following Brown’s 40-yard field goal, Rivers hit Gates again, this time on a 31-yarder. Gates stretched to get the ball across the goal line as he was tackled.
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 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.