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Barbie vs. Oppenheimer: The Chargers Go Hollywood


Photo art by Kent Mitchell

I​n honor of Oscar Night and the celebration of both Barbie and Oppenheimer, we wanted to throw our own contribution into the blast radius and take in some of the glittery fallout.

 

Tonight the 96th Academy Awards ceremony will act as a coronation of the Barbenheimer phenomenon that briefly buoyed the hopes of the film industry still adrift on tumultuous post-pandemic seas.


Under siege from piracy, streaming services, labor unrest, vertical video reels—and their symbolic drain on our attention spans,—and the beached whale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you can understand why Hollywood is eager to relive last summer's triumph. The blockbuster pair (released on the same day in July) have grossed $2.4 billion globally and dominated the awards season, collecting a total of 21 Oscar nominations.


T​hough no one is saying that you need to align yourself in one camp or the other; Barbenheimer—an internet conflagration of memes made in marketing heaven that turned this false choice into an omnipresent punchline—is most compelling as a study in contrasts.


C​hristopher Nolan's film, Oppenheimer depicts the dawn of the nuclear age. The ghastly end to the Pacific conflict delivered by the twin bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan on August 6, 1945, and the internal combustion of the weapon's chief architect, Robert Oppenheimer.


G​reta Gerwig's Barbie revolves around the day-glow pop of Mattel's most celebrated toy and her existential journey from one social bubble (the Plasticine fictional realm of Barbie Land) to another (the real world), gasp. Her favorite accessory Ken is also in the film—and he remembered to bring his rollerblades.


O​ne is a destroyer of worlds burdened with a terrible purpose and the other is a well-dressed frenemy of third wave feminism.


W​hich got us thinking about the Chargers throughout the team's sixty-year history who best fit into the Oppenheimer/Barbie dialectic. You can't tell me that Ken does not own a powder blue jersey somewhere.


So, with apologies to Natrone Bomb Means, Leon Burns, Jeff Queen, Steve Rockethead Hendrickson, and Ken Whisenhunt, who did not make the list, here are the notable Chargers who either blew something up, or looked damn good doing it, and one guy who does both.



Tom Telesco Chargers General Manager (2013-2023)

Coupon Tom

The Chargers former general manager was fired the day after the team lost a fateful game to the Las Vegas Raiders; surrendering 63 points to a fourth-round rookie quarterback and an interim head coach. The embattled GM was protected for years by both the Chargers owners who valued continuity over results, and by the target placed on the back's of the under qualified, first-time head coaches that Telesco hired. The fans, and the media, will always sour on the head coach first.


The fact is Tom Telesco was gifted two generational quarterbacks and won only two playoff games in ten years.


Yes, he occasionally hit on impactful players that the team rewarded with second contracts —a  good indication whether or not a team is developing its own players—but his legacy will be as the architect of a paper champion. Coupon Tom built a top-heavy roster that glittered with big names, but came apart at the seams under injuries and bad luck. His team's surpassed their expected preseason win total only four times in his 11 year tenure.


For every success story, including Justin Herbert, Derwin James, and Joey Bosa, there were substantial misses, including Jerry Tillery, Max Tuerk, Forrest Lamp, Tre' McKitty, and Manti Te'o. Telesco traded up in the first round twice to select Kenneth Murray Jr. (2020) and Melvin Gordon III (2015). They never traded backwards in round one to accumulate more picks.


Under Telesco the team rarely made in-season moves to deal with injuries and for large swaths of both of their careers both Philip Rivers, and now Justin Herbert were under siege.


Tom, you were good at buffing out the cosmetic damage on Barbie's convertible every off season. You waxed that pink paint into a lustrous shine that made the Chargers into a sexy preseason pick annually. But the spit polish only goes so far when you ignore what's under the hood. You sir, are not Kenough.

O​ne ticket for Barbie, please.


 


Jim Harbaugh Chargers Head Coach

The NCAA made him a pariah—who wins a lot of games

It is difficult to get a read on new head coach Jim Harbaugh. Writers who spend any time with the man keep settling on the same word to describe his personality: Weird.


We all now know about his predilection for khaki pants, tucked-in sweatshirts, laser-sharp focus, and the odd pairing of milk with steaks. Measured by the analog currency of wins and losses that Harbaugh is worth every cent of the $16 million dollars that the Spanos family will pay him annually. Harbaugh wins. Full stop.


When a schlub needs a glow-up he can task the cast of Queer Eye. When a football organization needs one, they hire Jim Harbaugh.


From the day that they announced their intention to move the team from San Diego to Los Angeles on January 11, 2017, the Chargers have battled the perception that they were the grubby roommate unfit to inhabit the swanky new digs built by Rams owner Stan Kroenke. The team has slowly made inroads since, but Dean Spanos realized that winning is the only elixir to apathy.


The team with the best looking uniforms, the dandiest social media team, and the circus freak passing angles of Justin Herbert does not move the needle in LA. Only trophies do that.


You can't get the Queer Eye makeover for those.


Harbaugh leaves the University of Michigan having delivered on the promise to return the school to past glory. The Wolverines went undefeated while winning the program's first national championship since 1997—and first undisputed national championship since 1948—beating Washington in the 2024 College Football Playoff National Championship.


That the victory came with suspicion, slander, suspensions, and no shortage of sanctimoniousness from rivals is all a part of the Jim Harbaugh experience.


The Big Ten made the unprecedented decision to suspend Harbaugh for the final three games of the regular season under the vague violations of the league's sportsmanship policy. Their investigation, revolving around a sign-stealing scandal involving former staff member Connor Stalions, is undergoing. Harbaugh was permitted to coach the team during the week but barred from the sidelines during play.


The half-measured punishment left more questions than answers as the NCAA continues to chase its own tail in this new era of hypocrisy.


With his security clearance revoked Robert Oppenheimer was essentially sanctioned from the restricted information necessary to continue working in his field. The hysteria surrounding his loose affiliation with members of the Communist Party were weaponized to tar his reputation and diminish his accomplishments.


History (and the Nolan film) have taught us that the Atomic Energy Commission's decision to punish Oppenheimer was a both a political and a personal attack. The Biden Administration officially reversed the government's decision in 2022. Mea culpa. We murdered your reputation.


The Chargers new coach emerged from his scandal with a line of NFL owners eager to write him a large new paycheck. Oppenheimer was not so fortunate. What competitive major college football program isn't trying to steal signals? Seriously, this is the opposite of Communism. Will Harbaugh (and his staff) eventually be exonerated like Oppenheimer was? The Michigan Man is not sticking around to find out.


Only time will tell if Jim Harbaugh can deliver on his stated goals of winning multiple championships. Slow down Jim. One would melt our brains. For the moment though, he is the perfect administrator for the job. Just like Robert Oppenheimer was.

O​ne ticket for Oppenheimer, please.


Phot art by Dion Mucciacito
 

S​id Gillman Chargers Head Coach (1960-1969, 1971)

T​he architect of the modern game

You can almost hear Bill Parcells reciting a line from Oppenheimer, but in a different context. "You've given them the power to destroy themselves."


Not that long ago risk-averse coaches still quoted the axiom, "There are three things that can happen when you pass the ball, and two of them are bad."


Football philosophy has only recently warmed to the idea of putting the ball in the air, but you can hear Sid Gillman bragging about it back in the sixties.


A​s both a pioneer of the forward pass and a standard-bearer for the upstart American Football League, Sid Gillman's innovations gave the Chargers immediate credibility; the team played in five of the first six American Football League Championship games.

J​ust as Robert Oppenheimer collected the brightest nuclear physicists to the remote Army base in Los Alamos, New Mexico for the Manhattan Project, Gillman's first coaching staff looks more like a proto-Mount Rushmore in hindsight: Chuck Noll, Joe Madro, Jack Faulkner, and a young receivers coach named Al Davis. Three of the five members of the 1960 Chargers staff have busts in Canton, Ohio at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


F​or training camp in 1963, Gillman decided that the team chemistry would be best served by isolating them in a remote desert facility away from the hustle and bustle of Southern California. If Gillman's rundown dude ranch was the Chargers Los Alamos, then you could argue that the 1963 AFL Championship was his Trinity Test. 


T​he Boston Patriots defense which gave up only 265 yards per game (best in the AFL) had played the Chargers close, losing 7-6 earlier that season. So Gillman poured himself into the film and devised a new game plan to take advantage of the Boston's aggressive linebackers.


B​y putting a man in motion to divert the Patriot blitzers and running counters and wham blocks at the teeth of their defensive line the Chargers incinerated the best defense in the league.


Keith Lincoln exploded for 206 yards rushing, 123 yards receiving, and two touchdowns and established a postseason record for scrimmage yards in pro football history. Lincoln out gained the entire Patriots offense which only had 261 yards.


The Chargers gained 610 yards; another postseason offensive record that stood for nearly 50 years.


There wasn't a button Gillman pressed that day that didn't work. The team razed the Patriots defense route to a 51-10 victory.

O​ne ticket for Oppenheimer, please.

 

D​ickie Post Chargers Running Back (1967-1970)

Sound the bugle for the clotheshorse!

R​ichard Marvin Post was selected by Sid Gillman in the fourth round of the 1967 NFL Draft. Assistant coach Bum Phillips lobbied for Post who had run for over 1,000 yards his senior year at the University of Houston. Undersized for the pros, Post began training camp by switching positions to receiver. His teammates called the 5'9", 190-pound Post "Mouse."


The week before the season opener the starting running back Paul Lowe pulled his hamstring. When backup Jim Allison was knocked out of the game coach Sid Gillman had no choice but to play Mouse.


Born in California before moving to Oklahoma as a boy, Post instantly took to the Chargers wide-open offense and the Maude fashion movement. Transitioning from the clean-shaven rookie from Oklahoma into a bohemian clothes horse, you can spot Post in the full bloom the cultural revolution; mutton chops, shaggy mane, and mustached.


P​ost won AFL Rookie of the Year running sweeps and catching screen passes in a swanky new Mission Valley stadium that sports writer Jack Murphy helped lobby for and was later renamed after him.

O​n the field Post was a darting jackrabbit who could change direction in an instant. Off the field Post opened his own clothing store that sold beatnik fits that must be seen to be believed. Bell bottoms, scarfs, paisley prints, Pilgrim hats, belt buckles so big that could double as ash trays, turtlenecks, beaded jewelry, kaftans, Cuban-heeled ankle-high boots, suede jackets with sleeves made of fringe.


NFL Films captured Post, the garment merchant, in a candid moment of enthusiasm in 1970 as a buddy shows off a new Native American look. He beams with sincerity and you can imagine many a customer leaving with that feeling that they could absolutely pull off the look.


H​is self-confessed "nervous style" of running would wear him out by halftime, and his body gave out after a five year career, but the jittery highlights that he left are as entertaining as any predating Barry Sanders.


For a brief moment during the Age of Aquarius, wherever Dickie Post was going, you wanted to see him go.

O​ne ticket for Barbie, please.

 

J​ohn Jefferson Chargers Receiver (1978-1980)

Y​ou dropped a bomb on me

John Jefferson had 199 catches for 3,431 yards and scored 36 touchdowns in 45 games for the San Diego Chargers before a contract imbroglio cost him his seat on Air Coryell, but in the three short years he spent catching passes from Dan Fouts he was electric.


G​ifted with the ability to track the ball and contort his body to make the circus catch, Jefferson was a highlight reel staple in the last days of disco as coach Don Coryell's patented passing game set fire to the record books. Jefferson was the first man in NFL history to begin his career with 1,000 yards receiving in his first three seasons and led the league in touchdown catches twice.


T​eamed with the reliable possession receiver Charlie Joiner and tight end Kellen Winslow, the Chargers offense attacked opponents from anywhere on the field. No blade of grass was safe.


A​fter Jefferson was poked in the eyes his rookie year he started wearing plastic goggles that added to the Chargers' futurist aesthetic. Every time Jefferson launched himself into the end zone to catch a pass over his head—at angles other men would not even have seen the ball—fans felt like they were stealing a glimpse into how the game might be played someday soon.

O​ne ticket for Oppenheimer, please.

 

R​odney Harrison Chargers Safety (1994-2002)

T​he Hitman

When Ernest Walton and John Cockcroft built a high-voltage accelerator to split the atom in 1932 it marked the beginning of a new field of subatomic research. The tremendous amount of energy released from fission changed the course of history.


When Rodney H​arrison used his own accelerator to split the particles of ball from the particles of the receiver his research was labeled as being "dirty."


Any summation of Rodney Harrison's career is framed around how quickly he would be suspended and fined out of the modern game. The highlight reel of the hits Harrison routinely made would now be accompanied by a large red stamp that reads: BANNED—a fact that explains the tepid reception he's received from Hall of Fame voters who will make Harrison wait another year despite naming him a finalist for the first time last year.


Is it wrong to dismiss his career based on three decades of rule changes that have tilted the game towards the goal of scoring more points and keeping the players from being permanently impaired? Yes.



How many incompletions was Harrison responsible for based on his proximity alone? How many players developed alligator arms the week they played against the Chargers? We can never know.


I​n 1998 Harrison posted his best season as a Charger on a defense that held opponents to a league low 263 yards a game. His 114 tackles (89 solo), 4 sacks, and 3 interceptions earned Harrison 1st Team All Pro honors.


Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis joined Harrison as the only players in NFL history with 30 career interceptions and 30 sacks. Lewis is in the Hall of Fame. Harrison should be.

O​ne ticket for Oppenheimer, please.

 

A​ntonio Garay Chargers Defensive Tackle (2009-2012)

Livin' large in a little car

T​he Chargers had huge shoes to fill.


T​he lynchpin of their defensive line nose tackle Jamal Williams tore his triceps muscle and was released a few months later. Williams, one of the strongest players in football, had been a foundational piece of the team's 3-4 defense for most of the decade and was named to the team's 50th Anniversary Team in 2009.


T​he fact that the Chargers had the league's best defense the year after losing Williams is almost as shocking as the practice squad player who took his place.


A​ntonio Garay was a 6th round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2003 who had kicked around—and been kicked around— before finally seizing his opportunity in 2010. Starting his first NFL game just weeks away from his 31st birthday Garay's journey is nearly as iconoclastic as his choices as a fashionista.


S​porting the freshest coiffure in sports Garay (and his masterful barber SERGIO MILLAN, better known to clientele as "El Capitan") would turn his head into a weekly cipher. Patriotism. Breast Cancer Awareness. Halloween. Even an odd Alvin and the Chipmunks looking tribute to former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau.


At home games when Garay would reach the sidelines and remove his helmet you could not help but to take notice.


"With someone like Antonio, it can take two hours to create," said Millan to East County Sports back in 2010. "After cutting his hair, you need to bleach it, inscribe the design, then add color -- it can be quite an undertaking."

G​aray was simultaneously seizing his chance to take notice him with his helmet on too; posting 5.5 sacks, 48 tackles, and 9 TFLs (tackles for loss) in 2010. Just for context, Jamal Williams career highs in each were: 4 sacks (2004), 69 tackles (2006), and 10 TFLs (2000, 2002).


A​s if being a 6'4" 320 pound human with a Daquiri Ice hair color wasn't enough notoriety for Garay, fans came to recognize him around town for the tiny car he poured himself into. Hard to miss him in his red Smart Car convertible with the Hello Kitty emblem on the sides.


H​ere was a man comfortable in his own skin, even though he had to be uncomfortable in his car.

O​ne ticket for Barbie, please.

 

D​erwin James Jr. Chargers Safety (2018-Present)

This P​ooh Bear doesn't like shirts

D​erwin James is an Oppenheimer playing in a league of Kens.


Based on the frequency for which James bares his midriff though, you can't deny that he also has an inner Ken. If your abs held the super heroic ability to photograph with the contours of an abacus you'd probably be on the hunt for crop tops too. John Romita Jr. does not draw Spider-Man with abs as nice as Derwin's.


J​ames wasn't always sculpted like Michelangelo's David. His family dubbed him "Pooh Bear" as a toddler because he was so serene and, um, round.


Professionally, J​ames announced himself in his first game breaking up a Patrick Mahomes pass 40 yards downfield. Two plays later he was in the backfield wrapping up Mahomes for a sack. Since then, he has been named an All-Pro in three of the five seasons that he has played.


P​laying the position with a ferocity that has been adjudicated out of the game sometimes James does things so intense that the modern fans jump to the conclusion that it must be illegal. Ask Travis Kelce.


I​n 2022 Kelce caught a pass and eluded two Chargers as he headed towards the end zone. James caught him on the 2-yard line. He squared his hips as though he was about to hoist a tackling sled and wrapped Kelce up around his waist. Yards away from scoring, Kelce made the mistake of lunging forward.


I​f the two men had been trying to reenact the lift sequence from Dirty Dancing in a backyard pool it might not have looked as awkward as this, but the improvisation in Arrowhead Stadium had no opportunity to be rehearsed or workshopped, so James stands Kelce up, ending his trajectory.


T​he whistle cannot be blown until the offensive player's knees, hips, or elbows touch the ground. Hostilities cannot be ceased as long as the ball carrier is still live. Kelce, all 6'5", and 250 pounds, needed to come back to earth; Physical laws demanded it.


J​ames threw the future Hall of Famer into the grass like an eagle dropping a field mouse from a cliff. It happened with such abruptness that you were not sure initially what to look at. Did Kelce fumble? Should James expect to be suspended? Are there rules against rag-dolling? Can humans bounce off grass? Should they?


The embodiment of the lightning on his uniform, James makes plays that take your breath away—and looks damn good doing it.

O​ne ticket for Oppenheimer and Barbie, please.


 

Dominic Mucciacito, the Managing Editor of Rivers Lake Yacht Club, has followed the Chargers franchise since moving to San Diego in 1989. Blending an eye for theater, cinema, style, and with a deep-seated affection for the collected works of Steve Sabol, he weaves contemporary subjects into an anecdotal tapestry of history.

His cultural writing and features—which focus primarily on the intersections of myth-making, anthropology, football history and philosophy—appear here and in the Los Angeles Journal. Dominic is currently writing a nonfiction book called “Salty Dogs” about the 2004-2005 San Diego Chargers. He grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, before moving to San Diego and now resides in Hollywood, California.







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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Brilliant!

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