SAN DIEGO - 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 has 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 (Florida State).
Cromartie recovered a fumble for a touchdown and had two interceptions, one of which he returned 70 yards for another TD.
'It was kind of like a win for the San Diego Chargers, but at the same time it was a win for San Diego itself,' Gates said. 'Football was secondary compared to the things that were going on in San Diego. We were just glad we could come up with a win to uplift this city.'
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.
Schaub was taken to a hospital for evaluation, Coach Gary Kubiak said.
Houston0307-10San Diego142100-35 First Quarter
SD-Gates 49 pass from Rivers (Kaeding kick), 5:49.
SD-Cromartie fumble recovery in end zone (Kaeding kick), 3:38.
Hou-FG K.Brown 40, 14:07.
SD-Gates 31 pass from Rivers (Kaeding kick), 12:00.
SD-Cromartie 70 interception return (Kaeding kick), 9:52.
SD-Chambers 14 pass from Rivers (Kaeding kick), 2:31.
Hou-Dreessen 28 pass from Rosenfels (K.Brown kick), 4:40.
HouSDFirst downs2211Total Net Yards367237Rushes-yards29-11528-109Passing252 Punt Returns
Time of Possession
RUSHING-Houston, Echemandu 10-62, Dayne 17-47, Rosenfels 1-6, Turk 1-0. San Diego, Tomlinson 17-90, Turner 4-10, Rivers 4-5, Neal 2-2, Sproles 1-2.
PASSING-Houston, Schaub 11-18-2-77, Rosenfels 17-27-2-176. San Diego, Rivers 7-11-0-130.
RECEIVING-Houston, Walter 7-77, J.Jones 5-51, Daniels 4-35, Anderson 3-25, Leach 3-17, Echemandu 2-11, Dreessen 1-28, Davis 1-6, Putzier 1-5, Dayne 1-(minus 2). San Diego, Gates 3-92, Chambers 2-35, Manumaleuna 1-2, Tomlinson 1-1.