Former Chargers say thanks to San Diego for five decades of loyalty

During his time with the Chargers, fullback Lorenzo Neal, right, helped pave the way for star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, left. AP Photo/Denis Poroy

SAN DIEGO -- Lorenzo Neal greeted the well-wisher -- a middle-aged man wearing a powder-blue shirt with a lightning bolt on his chest -- with a laugh and his trademark smile.

A bulldozer of a fullback who helped pave the way for Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson in his prime, Neal's presence helped dull the pain for San Diego fans still upset with the Los Angeles Chargers for heading north to L.A.

"When you think about the 56-year stint of the Chargers being here, it's tough on the fans, and it's tough on the players," Neal said. "It sounds weird to say 'L.A. Chargers.' It just doesn't have that ring to it.

"I'm still calling them San Diego. And watch how many times in the [announcing] booth when the Chargers are playing they still say San Diego Chargers. I think of any team relocating, the L.A. Chargers are going to be the one where they say San Diego the most. So it's bittersweet, but it's still fun to see the fans still come out in droves to support the Chargers' brand and support the players."

Neal was among several former Chargers on hand at an event hosted by Del Mar racetrack over the weekend. The event was intended to serve as a thank you to the fans in San Diego, some of whom have supported the team more than five decades. Players from every decade of the team's time in San Diego were present, including offensive lineman Ron Mix, receiver Charlie Joiner, linebacker Billy Ray Smith, special teams standout Kassim Osgood and Neal.

Fans of the team in San Diego are understandably still bitter -- one fan lamented that owner Dean Spanos wasn't on hand so he could voice his displeasure with the Chargers' move to Los Angeles in person.

However, Smith was impressed with the hundreds of fans who showed up to thank the players for their commitment to the city over the years -- as well as for autographs. Smith said it will take time for the wounds to heal.

"If it kind of stops it for a while, just a second [that's good], but this is a long-term thing," Smith said. "You're going to wake up months and years down the line, unless something happens and another team comes, and that's what kills me."

Osgood and his family still live in San Diego.

"For the players, for us it's personal," Osgood said. "So all the fans that supported us year in and year out, that means something for us, so we wanted to make sure that they know it's not all business. That there's still some sort of human element involved in it."

Whether the Chargers are in Los Angeles or San Diego, Neal said players will always have a connection with the fans.

"At the end of the day, the players that are in the Chargers' uniform, they make the Chargers along with the fan base," Neal said. "The No. 21 is just a number, but LT [Tomlinson] made the No. 21 great for the Chargers' brand. Philip Rivers made the No. 17 great. And fans still love those players."