SAN DIEGO - Antonio Gates got a knock on his door at 3:30 a.m. Monday, saw the orange glow in the sky, quickly dressed and got out.
He has no idea who brought the warning to his upscale suburb. The power was out and he didn’t get a good look.
Similar scenes were played out thousands of times as wildfires obliterated swaths of San Diego County. The Chargers were lucky — of the estimated 46 players, coaches and other personnel who evacuated, none lost their homes.
Not quite a week later, Gates and the San Diego Chargers helped bring a sense of normalcy to a region that’s been ravaged by deadly wildfires.
Urged on by a cheer of “Go, Chargers, go!” from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Chargers routed the Houston Texans 35-10 on Sunday. Philip Rivers threw three touchdown passes — two to Gates — and cornerback Antonio Cromartie had a monster game. 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,” said Gates, the All-Pro tight end. “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.”
Two days after the last evacuees left Qualcomm Stadium, the tailgaters and the NFL were back.
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.
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.
Merriman said he got the helmet from San Diego’s fire chief while riding around with firefighters after the team returned from Arizona.
“We were thanking them for life itself and thanking them for saving houses,” Gates said. “You could just feel the energy in the stadium today. You felt the energy for the ones who lost houses, you felt the energy for the ones who had to evacuate.”
“He kind of got everybody riled up,” Merriman said. “He needs to work on his coin flip. He just threw it straight up in the air and it came back down funny. We won, so he must have done something right and it provided some luck to us.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
San Diego (4-3) won its third straight game and popped above .500 for the first time since opening day.
Houston (3-5) mostly looked awful in losing its third straight. Quarterback Matt Schaub knocked out of the game when he was hit after throwing his second interception.
“It’s about as bad as it could be,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “We looked like a very tired, slow football team out there. Mentally tired or something because the mistakes we’re making each week are unacceptable.”
Houston committed five turnovers.
PFT: Tom Brady, who turns 36 in August, says he has "never felt better throwing the football" and his confidence is peaking.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
Latest from ProFootballTalk
Video: Football from NBC Sports
Next step towards total dominance for NFL
ProFootballTalk: The NFL and the NFLPA are reportedly close to finalizing a new offseason schedule that would move the scouting combine, draft and OTAs up a month. Mike Florio thinks this will help further the NFL’s dominance over the other sports in the American landscape.
Check out some of the NFL cheerleaders from across the league.
More on California wildfires
Victims begin to rebuild