Since their inception in 1960, the Los Angeles (and formerly San Diego) Chargers have been unable to win a Super Bowl, but boasted some of the NFL’s all-time greatest players. So many, in fact, that that Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts and revolutionary head coach Don Coryell didn’t make this list, even though they are entirely deserving.
With that said, here are the five biggest legends in Chargers history.
5. LaDainian Tomlinson, running back
One of the best RBs of the 2000’s, Tomlinson was selected fifth overall in 2001, and spent nine of his 11 NFL seasons in San Diego. He rushed for 1,000 or more yards in eight consecutive seasons, and set the NFL record for single-season touchdowns in 2006 with an incredible 28, topping the 27 Shaun Alexander had scored the year before.
In total with the Chargers, Tomlinson ran for 12,490 yards and 138 touchdowns, while adding 3,955 yards and 17 scores through the air. He even threw seven TDs on halfback options. He made five Pro Bowls, three All-Pro teams, and won MVP in 2006. Tomlinson’s list of team and NFL records is absolutely exhausting, so you’ll need to refer to his Wikipedia page for those. Tomlinson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017, his first year of eligibility.
4. Junior Seau, linebacker
The fifth overall pick in 1990, Seau played 13 of his 20 NFL seasons in San Diego. His 1,847 tackles place him seventh all-time, and he holds numerous team records. Seau officially retired following the 2009 season, and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2015.
Unfortunately, Seau took his own life in May of 2012. His brain was donated to research, and it was revealed that he had suffered from CTE, and this finding kicked off the lawsuits and widespread awareness regarding the disease.
Seau was a San Diego icon, and his foundation, launched in 1992, helps to support children and young adults by tackling issues like child abuse, substance abuse, and juvenile delinquency. That’s what he’ll be remembered for, in addition to his excellent career, and for being partially responsible for the increased awareness about the harmful effects of football on the brain.
3. Antonio Gates, tight end
After playing basketball (not football) at Kent State, Gates was signed by San Diego after trying out for the team. Hardly guaranteed a roster spot, Gates became a Pro Bowler and All-Pro by his second year in the league. He spent his entire 16-year career with the Chargers, totaling 955 grabs for 11,841 yards and 116 touchdowns.
He owns the team records for catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns, and leads all NFL TEs in receiving scores. 89 of those 116 were thrown by Philip Rivers, which is the most for a pair in history. He should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he is first eligible in 2024. Not bad for an undrafted free agent.
2. Kellen Winslow, tight end
Another legendary TE, Winslow was taken 13th overall in 1979, but a knee injury limited him to only 25 grabs over seven games. He was worth the wait, as he set the TE record for receptions in a season with 89, on his way to his first of three consecutive All-Pro selections and four straight Pro Bowls. In 109 games over nine seasons, Winslow caught 541 passes for 6,741 yards and 45 scores.
In the 1981 Divisional Round, the Chargers beat the Miami Dolphins 41-38. Winslow finished the game with 13 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, and also blocked a last-second Dolphins field goal attempt to keep the game tied and sent into overtime. Winslow dealt with a pinched nerve, dehydration, severe cramping, and had to get stitches on his mouth. He was unable to walk off the field under his own power at the end of the game, leading to this iconic picture that nearly every NFL fan has seen.
In 1984, Winslow was continuing to dominate, but suffered a devastating knee injury in Week 7. He managed to come back from the injury, but was not the same player, and retired after the 1987 campaign. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1995, and it’s sobering to imagine what he could have done had he not been hurt.
1. Philip Rivers, quarterback
It’s ironic that the ultimate Charger wasn’t even who the team wanted in the first place. Infamously, San Diego selected Eli Manning first overall in 2004, but he refused to play for them, and the Chargers ended up swapping rookie QBs with the New York Giants, who had taken North Carolina State’s Philip Rivers with pick No. four. After sitting and learning for two seasons, Rivers made the Pro Bowl in his first season as a starter (2006), and has started every single game since, fighting through different injuries.
He went 123-101 as a starter, throwing for 59,271 yards and 397 touchdowns. He made the playoffs six times over his 14 seasons as a starter, falling just short of a Super Bowl berth in 2007. Rivers was let go following the 2019 campaign, and the team drafted his replacement, Oregon’s Justin Herbert. Now at the age of 38, Rivers will try to win a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, but he’ll always be a Charger no matter what.