This year marks the 50th year anniversary of one of professional football’s most memorable and significant training camps. In 1963, the San Diego Chargers trained at a dude ranch named Rough Acres Ranch, near the small border town of Boulevard, CA.
Rough Acres Ranch is where the Chargers prepared for their franchise’s most successful season ever. It was also the site of professional football’s first widespread use of steroids.
It’s hard to believe all of this happened in the middle of nowhere. But that is exactly where the Chargers were in the summer of ’63.
The Rough Acres Ranch was located in the high altitude desert, about 60 miles east of San Diego. The closest the Chargers were to any civilization was Boulevard, a tiny census designated place a few miles away from their camp.
The training camp was brutal. The Chargers endured sweltering heat on grassless practice fields. They also had to fight off the occasional rattlesnake or tarantula. Dust storms would also fill their beds with sand.
At the Rough Acres Ranch there was only one telephone. There were two air-conditioned rooms, but one of those rooms was for head coach Sid Gillman, and the other was for QB Tobin Rote. Source: Jerry Magee of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Gillman was right. After a tough camp, the season was a breeze for the Chargers. They went 11-3, and defeated the Boston Patriots 51-10 in the AFL Championship Game. It’s the only league title the Chargers have ever won.
There was a dark side to the Chargers camp and their upcoming success. The Chargers instituted a strength program at Rough Acres Ranch, which included the use of team provided steroids [great ESPN article]. The players were taking 15 mg of Dianabol a day. Matt Chaney, the author of Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, said it was the first “systematic” use of steroids on a team. Lineman Walt Sweeney said players who didn’t take the pills could be fined an exhibition game paycheck.
Not only did the Chargers have to survive ungodly camp conditions, but years later some of the Chargers had to survive the lasting effects of taking the team provided steroids.
Additional Info and Links
- The Chargers training camp at Rough Acres Ranch, is the easternmost camp in their history. The rest of the Chargers training camps have been held near the Pacific coast.
- It was reported that the Chargers had found and killed at least seven rattlesnakes at Rough Acres Ranch¹. Rookie halfback Jessie Murdock found one rattlesnake when he was reaching down for a ping-pong ball. It scared him so much he said “I forgot how to play ping-pong for awhile”².
- In the September 16th, 1963 edition of Sports Illustrated. The training camp diary of Chargers lineman Ron Mix was published. You can read it here.
- Todd Tobias, from the blog Tales From The American Football League, posted a rare photo of the Chargers practicing at Rough Acres Ranch. Surrounding the practice field is a hill layered with boulders. In the photo you can also see that the practice fields were covered in sand and desert weeds.
Non-Linked Newspaper Sources
Myers, Bob from the Associated Press. (1963, April 3). Chargers Get New Grounds For Training. Florence (SC) Morning News, pp. 11. Retrieved July 17, 2012 from NewspaperARCHIVE.
¹ Hollingworth, Hank. (1963, August 13). Halas Needles Gillman. Long Beach (CA) Press Telegram, pp. 19. Retrieved July 17, 2012 from NewspaperARCHIVE.
² UPI. (1963, August 15). Chargers Practice Dotted With Perils. Aiken (SC) Standard and Review, pp. 10. Retrieved July 17, 2012 from NewspaperARCHIVE.