COSTA MESA, Calif. — For Melvin Gordon, it no doubt was a sign.
He had been to this casino before, but never had the Los Angeles Chargers’ running back seen this many blue, white and yellow jerseys inside the establishment. And in that moment, Gordon believed it was a portend of better days, a signal that the Chargers are no longer an NFL afterthought.
Ask the 25-year-old and he’ll tell you point-blank: The Bolts bandwagon is legit now.
“Oh, it’s in full effect. For sure,” Melvin told Yahoo Sports, referring to his trip to Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California, just three days after the Chargers’ dramatic 29-28 prime-time win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I went in and there were like 30 Chargers jerseys in there. So I was like, ‘OK. We’re making noise.’ I saw more jerseys than I ever have in my entire life.”
In some ways, it was validation for Gordon — even though no one recognized him as the Chargers’ leading rusher the past four seasons.
“They thought I was just a guy in there trying to gamble,” Gordon said matter-of-factly. “I was like, ‘Man, they’re a lot of Chargers jerseys on in here’ and people were like, ‘Yeah, man, they’re doing pretty good.’ They didn’t know who I was.”
Not that he minds, though. (“I don’t because I get tired of taking pictures sometimes,” he admitted.)
What matters more to Gordon is that football fans are taking notice of the Chargers (11-3) who, despite practicing in isolation in Orange County — alternating between two fields that aren’t even 100 yards — are currently one of the best teams in the NFL. And players sense the bandwagon getting fuller now.
Just as Keenan Allen predicted.
“We knew it was going to happen,” the sixth-year receiver told Yahoo Sports following Thursday’s final practice before they face the Baltimore Ravens at StubHub Center. “That’s what we wanted to happen, though. Obviously, they were feeling some type of way when we left, so that’s what we had to do: We had to win to get them back.”
Allen smiled again and said: “They’re obviously going to come back.”
The team’s relocation last year from San Diego to the Los Angeles area has presented plenty of logistical challenges for players and coaches alike. But inside the Chargers’ locker room — which is oddly nestled within an office park that includes a public coffee shop frequented by non-Chargers employees — players insist they’re unfazed by the less-than-30,000-seat soccer stadium they play in or the fact that legions of road fans routinely invade StubHub.
With two weeks left in the season, the Chargers have their sights set on earning home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Even though, “home-field” is a relative term around these parts.
“It’s our field. It’s our locker. It’s our showers. It’s our hot tub,” said rookie safety Derwin James, who was selected to the Pro Bowl earlier this week. “It smells like home to us. We might not feel it with our fans all the time, but we know that’s our field.
“When we go out, we know those seats are blue. We see that Chargers bolt, we’re in L.A., we don’t have to travel nowhere. So in this locker room, we know it’s a home game.”
The Chargers, who had a league-high seven players selected to the Pro Bowl, clinched a playoff berth with their recent victory at Kansas City (11-3). But to ensure they win the AFC West title over the Chiefs, the Chargers know they’ll likely need to defeat the Ravens and the Denver Broncos in Week 17.
And, should they advance to the AFC championship game as the higher seed, the Chargers will host the game at StubHub too.
But is playing at home really an advantage?
“I feel like every game has been an away game. That’s why we’re so good on the road,” Gordon said, flashing an all-knowing grin. “Obviously, it would be dope if we had home-field advantage, cause we’ll have some fans there.”
After a brief pause, the running back’s face lit up.
“We haven’t been to the playoffs in a while, so it might be a crazy turnout,” he said, somewhat giddy.
Head coach Anthony Lynn believes the key to the Chargers’ 6-1 road record (second only to New Orleans’ 7-1) is the players’ ability to eliminate distractions. “Sometimes road crowds can galvanize a team,” Lynn added. “They’re a tough and resilient group, and I think it just fits our style.”
James, in particular, is adept at adapting to less-than-ideal circumstances.
During a quiet moment at his locker, the young defensive back detailed his experience growing up in Haines City, Florida, “a small, country town” where everyone knows their neighbors and “you deal with what you got.”
“Where I’m from, we don’t believe in nice things,” James told Yahoo Sports. “There’s one Walmart in my city. Two McDonald’s. You can’t go around in life asking, ‘Why he got this?’ ‘Why they got that?’ ‘Why their locker room look like that?’ You can’t do that. You’ve got to deal with the hand that you’re dealt.
“I’m from Polk County. So it don’t matter where we’re playing. It don’t matter how many lockers we’ve got. It don’t matter how big they are.”
James said his first introduction to the raucous road fans at StubHub was in Week 4 against the San Francisco 49ers. The rookie’s eyes grew wide as he retold the story of seeing so many non-Chargers fans in the building.
“But after awhile when you’re playing, you don’t even think about it,” said the Defensive Rookie of the Year contender. “You’ve just got to block out the noise. We used it as fuel to the fire. We really just stick together, keep playing ball and keep getting Ws.
“And eventually people are going to start respecting us.”
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