It was one of those late August evenings in San Francisco where the first hint of autumn chill reminded everyone that summer doesn’t last forever. A stiff breeze off the water was present as usual, but there was a thick fog filling the bowl of Kezar Stadium that refused to budge. It was hard to know if it was the weather that kept people away, or if it was simple disinterest, but just 6,521 curiosity-seekers came out to watch the Chargers play the Raiders in the first meeting of these California rivals.
The Chargers started things off with a long, slow march that ended in a 15-yard field goal by halfback Henry Wallace, one of his team’s placekicking hopefuls. The Raiders soon evened things up with Larry Barnes‘ successful 29-yard effort.
Almost immediately, the Raiders got a chance to add to their tally. Cornerback Joe Cannavino recovered Royce Womble‘s fumble at the Los Angeles 24. The Oakland offense took over with a short field in front of them, but it took six plays to get home, the touchdown coming on a four-yard pass from Tom Flores to Brad Myers just before the end of the first period.
Stung into action, the Chargers offense regrouped and scored on a 43-yard touchdown toss and run from Jack Kemp to Paul Lowe. With the game now tied at ten, the defenses gained the upper hand, putting a lid on ball movement until just before the half, when the Raiders broke the stalemate. Starting from his own 20 and with one eye on the clock, Flores fired passes to his backs and tight end, marching the ball to the Charger six, where Billy Lott put his team back on top on a sweep around the left end. The half ended with Oakland ahead 17-10.
The second half began with a critical call by the officials. On a third-and-13 from the Charger nine, Kemp threw to Womble, but Oakland defensive back Eddie Macon arrived at the same time as the ball and they both went down in a heap, fighting for possession. When the dust cleared, the officials ruled that Womble had caught it, despite vigorous protests from Raider players and coaches that Macon had made the interception. With no higher court to hear an appeal, the drive continued, but the Chargers couldn’t score. Neither could the Raiders. Dick Harris picked off a Flores pass at the Los Angeles 39 and returned it all the way to the Oakland one. From there, Howie Ferguson scored easily and the game was knotted once more.
The Raiders couldn’t move the ball on their next drive and the Chargers attacked the Oakland defense with renewed vigor. Kemp put together a balanced drive that kept the Raiders off-balance and it was Ferguson in the end zone again, this time on a ten-yard scamper.
Down 24-17 after three quarters, the Raider defense came up with the stops they needed, but their offense simply couldn’t move the ball until almost too late. With the two-minute warning rapidly approaching, Flores began to connect on pass after pass, as he had toward the end of the first half. It looked like they were headed in for the tying score, but a pass to Alan Goldstein near the Los Angeles goal line resulted in contested possession between Goldstein and Harris in a play strongly reminiscent of the Womble/Macon fracas in the third quarter. The Chargers again came out on top when officials awarded the ball to Harris, accompanied by wild howls of disbelief from the black-clad Oaklanders.
Plead as they might, the call remained unchanged and the Chargers ran out the clock to win the game.
Afterward, Chargers head coach Sid Gillman acknowledged the controversy. “We were very lucky,” he said, “We had no right to win the game.”
Raiders head coach Eddie Erdelatz didn’t quite go that far, at least not out loud, but did agree that the Womble play was key, calling it the “turning point in the game. We were charged up and might have gone in from the 50. But as it was, they intercepted on our next series and got a TD of their own. I don’t question the decision, but I don’t understand it either.”
Despite the result, he was pleased with the play of his charges. “I said from the start the Chargers have the best personnel in the league and you saw it tonight. But we are coming along real well. Flores called a great game and he hung in there tough even though he was taking a pretty good beating from the Charger line. They’re big and tough, big as anything in the NFL.”
Erdelatz was just as quick to admit his own team’s mistakes, saying, “We dropped quite a few passes. It’s just one of those things. We did a lot of passing because they were pretty hard to move up front. It’s tough we dropped so many, but we’re learning. I’m proud of them. We’re fighting. All I can ask is their best and that’s what they’re giving.”
He also made sure his players knew how he felt in a quick talk in the locker room. “I want you to walk with your heads where they belong,” he exhorted, “You’re a scrappy outfit. So help me, it’ll pay off. We’re going to come back and we’re going to come back strong.”
Much of the postgame talk, though, was about the Goldstein/Harris play. “I had the ball,” argued Goldstein, “If Macon stole the ball from that guy (Womble) earlier, then it should have been called the same way last time.”
Following up, Erdelatz said if the Raiders had scored on their last drive, he’d have gone for two. “I had already sent the play in,” he explained, making good on a promise from earlier in the preseason that he would never go for a tie.
The win kept the Chargers unbeaten at 3-0, with a full two weeks off until their final exhibition game, against the Broncos in Los Angeles. The Raiders, now at 1-2, faced a grueling stretch in which they would immediately head east to play two games in the next nine days with the first coming in Buffalo on the 24th. Erdelatz candidly allowed that he hadn’t yet put in any work prepping for the Bills. “We’ve been so busy getting stuff on the Chargers that we haven’t had time to do more than look just one game ahead,” he said.
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