Marc Sessler was assigned to cover the Los Angeles Chargers' first regular-season game at StubHub Center. Here is his account of a unique NFL experience in Carson, California.
I arrive in the early Californian morning.
No sun yet. Just grey-blue bubbles of cloud cover hovering above StubHub Center.
A house typically reserved for tennis showdowns and soccer -- the Galaxy hosted Toronto FC in an MLS game just last night -- StubHub will serve as a magnet for those who love pro football over the next three seasons, while the Chargers and Rams await launch of their new, $2.6 billion home in Inglewood.
I say farewell to my Uber driver outside StubHub, making my way along the still-quiet boulevard that surrounds the stadium. This area of Carson is dotted with single-story bungalows, strip malls, L.A. County Fire Station 116, billboard noise for "Blade Runner 2049," and endless beige apartment buildings around the leafy campus of California State University, Dominguez Hills.
I casually follow a serious-faced bomb squad walking toward the stadium, one led by a feisty trio of canines as Carson begins its first true NFL Sunday.
The tailgate experience is where StubHub begins to separate itself as something unique to the NFL. In the wide lots surrounding the stadium, organized lines of vehicles begin to cluster. Instead of feeling like a massive crush of humanity, this parking-lot celebration has the feel of a close-knit club of Chargers faithful.
"Everyone's real friendly. It's more like a party. It's more personal with everybody," says longtime season-ticket holder Tracey Aguirre.
I find Sarah Gillis and her pals under a tent. Another tried-and-true Chargers fan, she tells me: "I love the venue here. ... I'm cool being here for three years. It's very clean and up close and personal."
As I enter StubHub with my fellow early birds, we're greeted at the southeast gate by the Thunderbolts Drumline, a cadre of 20-plus men and women religiously pounding out rhythmic madness in the lead-up to kickoff.
I pass by clumps of football lovers sitting together at neatly-kept tables outside My Father's Barbecue, an in-stadium vendor serving Angus beef brisket sandwiches, pulled pork, loaded BBQ fries and Arctic-cold Bud Lights. Traveling deeper into StubHub's elegant food patio, manageable lines are forming for beef French dip, burritos, tater tots and Cajun shrimp po' boys. A staffer floats by with a massive chocolate cake. Men in matching Marino jerseys sip beers while a nearby trio of devastating blondes share nachos, casually watching the Pats hammer the Saints. I pass a gaggle of Los Angeles County Sheriff's officers taking selfies. Everyone is feeling it.
I wander up a flight of stairs to the American Express Stadium Club, a long, sprawling, glorious room with ornate, wood-carved tables and soothing four-top booths stationed beside endless glass overlooking the south end zone.
"I played college football at Cornell. I was a defensive back there, so for me, I'm so excited because I can watch the plays unfold in a different way. In terms of studying the game, it's a great perspective at StubHub," said Greco, who definitely buried the lede by next revealing that he's longtime friends with new Kansas City general manager Brett Veach, who will be here next Sunday when the Chiefs hit town.
Twenty-three minutes before kickoff, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber's "Despacito" douses the house. I make my way onto the field to watch a prerecorded "Fight for L.A." pump-up piece on the videoboard that lists Los Angeles enclaves one by one -- Fight for Carson! Fight for Koreatown! -- in another reminder that the team's base in San Diego is no longer the geographical beating heart of this franchise. Los Angeles is a mecca flush with dream-seeking transplants, but also lifetime locals who need to witness a winner before they sign up -- perhaps one reason I see dense pockets of aqua-clad Dolphins fans nestled among the Chargers faithful.
Those Dolphins loyalists rise to their feet in a vocal frenzy as Miami's roster pours out onto the field. I make quick eye contact with a street-clothes-wearing Ryan Tannehill. Seconds later, you find out this is, indeed, a Chargers home game when the Bolts come blasting out of the tunnel in a fury.
We have arrived.
I find it odd to be at an NFL game with bright-yellow signage celebrating past U.S. Open champions, MLS Cup titlists, MLS Supporters Shield Winners and something called the CONCACAF Championship. Still, there's no beating the sightlines here. Before the game, I sat in 20-plus seats around the house and found them all to be exceptional.
"I think, in a lot of ways, StubHub can provide an experience that you can't find anywhere else in the NFL, in terms of intimacy," Chargers president of football operations John Spanos told me last week. "People have thrown out the expression that there's not a bad seat in the house. I know that's a phrase that gets used a lot, but that literally is the case at StubHub."
Said Spanos: "When we selected StubHub as a place to play, it was done with the fans in mind. ... It's a really well-kept stadium."
Chargers president of business operations A.G. Spanos told me the team worked closely with the league to bring the locker rooms up to NFL standards, while tripling the size of the press box, adding restrooms and fitting StubHub with newly added digital boards that are easily visible from any seat. Fans also have the chance to watch games from roughly 60 suites throughout the structure that range in capacity from small, private parties up to 50-plus people.
It's an enjoyably juiced-up crowd by now. I'm hanging in a second-story, end-zone bleacher section and quietly nerding out as I chat briefly with a Chargers employee tasked with taping Coaches Film. I wander off to find a backyard-type picnic area with flower beds, benches, comfy chairs and a rash of food trucks offering barbecue, grilled cheese, jambalaya, garlic lobster fries and Filipino fusion. The lines move quickly and you see all types hanging out: rich men in suits, a young couple French kissing in the beer line, some guy wearing a Doug Flutie Chargers jersey, packs of amped-up bros, sweet families of four and a steady stream of SoCal minxstresses.
Back upstairs, the place booms as Philip Rivers hits Keenan Allen on a 24-yard completion to the Miami 4-yard line. Four snaps later, Bolts back Melvin Gordon blasts his way into the end zone for the 10-3 lead.
During halftime I meet Rj Ferreira, a listener of the Around the NFL Podcast who somehow spots me scribbling nonsense in a spiral-bound notebook in the shadows of Section 135.
"It's a crazy environment here. I've been to a lot of football games, but this whole soccer stadium feel is ridiculous," Ferreira tells me. "My god, anyone who follows the Chargers closely in this tight-knit community, which the Chargers have, we're right here with them. I feel like I'm rooting them on from like 15 feet away."
To Ferreira's point, I spoke with the team's radio play-by-play man, Matt "Money" Smith, who told me he doesn't even need to use binoculars during games at StubHub.
Watching Joey Bosa up close is an experience. He's titanic and rowdy in a way that few athletes will ever be, but he can't alone stop Jay Cutler from flinging a beautiful scoring strike to wideout Kenny Stills, a turn of events that ties the game at 10-10.
As I continue to walk, I experience something I've never seen at an NFL game: I'm passing by waves of familiar faces, people I saw at the tailgate, fans I walked by an hour ago and the same cops, over and over. Even the bomb squad dudes. In that sense, this smaller gridiron home does indeed have the feel of a community.
Tweeting photos of StubHub, I heard from plenty of San Diego-based fans voicing their displeasure over the move. I get it. I grew up a Browns fan, and my heart was shattered when Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore. San Diego has a right to feel stung, but Sunday also included fans who refused to walk away.
"I think, at the end of the day, you kind of realize, it's kind of on [the team], but it's kind of also on the city of San Diego," said longtime Chargers supporter Jermanie Jones. "Just having been a season-ticket holder for 14 years, you see how dilapidated Qualcomm Stadium is. And this is the NFL -- it's a big business. ... So, I understood the move.
The game becomes a fever dream from here. I grab my bag from the press box and follow a gang of reporters to the locker room. During our voyage, Parkey nails a 54-yard field goal to put the Dolphins up 19-17 with 1:05 left in the show. My fellow scribes and I are equally in the dark as Los Angeles burns down the field in the game's final seconds to set up Younghoe Koo's 44-yard field-goal attempt with just nine seconds left. The noise from beyond tells us something wild has occurred, but I don't see it with my own eyes. When we find out Koo pushed the boot wide right, it makes sense of the sight of Dolphins wideout Jarvis Landry screaming at the top of his lungs and bopping wildly as he enters the tunnel.
Soon, I'm in the locker room standing next to Ingram, the fantastic Chargers pass rusher, who is kind enough to speak about the stadium experience after a soul-pounding loss, saying: "It was good. It was a warm atmosphere. I definitely loved it, but we gotta get a 'W' for StubHub."
Hanging out quietly by his locker, Bosa -- who played before massive, six-figure crowds at Ohio State -- tells me concisely: "It was cool. I enjoyed it."
Rivers told reporters that he "felt like it was an into-it crowd," before commenting on the steady noise coming from Miami's fan base, a contingent that made its presence felt.
"It's always been a little bit of something you battle; we battled down in San Diego. I think, just honestly, the weather and climate amends to that. If I was somewhere else -- a fan picking a road game to go to -- this would be the destination," Rivers said. "We always had to battle that a little bit. When you haven't won as many, we gotta battle that a little more."
Rivers already comprehends the reality of playing in Los Angeles. The town adores its winners without any time for much else. Crank out that first victory -- followed by a handful more -- and Chargers fans, old and new, will make it clear every Sunday whose home field this is.