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After 38 Years The Annual Chargers Blood Drive Is Gone, But Not The Need For Blood

Former First Lady of California Maria Shriver gives blood at the Town and Cou...

Credit: San Diego Blood Bank

Above: Former First Lady of California Maria Shriver gives blood at the Town and County Hotel during a Chargers Blood Drive in 2004.

In January of 2017 when the Chargers announced they were leaving San Diego, the San Diego Blood Bank needed to act fast.

“When the community found out, that is when we found out,” said San Diego Blood Bank CEO David Wellis. “But we had internal discussions all along the way as to what if, and if something like that happened, we would have to continue.”

For nearly 40 years, the San Diego Blood Bank relied on the donations from Chargers Blood Drives to get through the holiday season.

“The holidays are a critical time of the year because blood donations go down," Wellis said. "It goes down for a couple of reasons: one our high schools and colleges are closed, people go on vacation, they get busy, blood donations kind of fall off.”

Over the years, the two organizations teamed up to collect 77,000 pints of blood.

"If you know that one pint of blood can save three lives, we’ve saved over 220,000 lives just with this one single day blood drive," Wellis said.

Wellis added the team-sponsored drives grew to become a staple in the community.

"It was really special," Wellis said. "I mean it really kind of became a hallmark event here around Thanksgiving time. It was always Tuesday of Thanksgiving week.”

Photo credit: San Diego Blood Bank

San Diego Chargers legendary running back Ladainian Tomlinson shakes hands with a female blood donor during a Chargers Blood Drive in this undated photo.

Now for the first time since 1979, there will not be a November blood drive.

“This, unfortunately, is one of the fallouts of their decision to leave,” said former Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke. He joined the NFL team in 1977.

"I had some success my first year," Benirschke said. "And as we started the second season with great enthusiasm, I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and began to deal with an illness that was very difficult.”

Benirschke played through what he said was excruciating pain, getting sicker as time went on. His illness reached a tipping point in 1979.

“I remember we opened in Seattle, I kicked four field goals and everyone’s ecstatic we’re on the way," Benirschke said. "And I remember sitting in front of my locker crying because I know there’s no way I’m going to be able to survive 15 more games and the truth was I didn’t. Three games later we were flying home from a game against New England and I collapsed on the plane.”

Benirschke went through multiple surgeries over the next seven weeks, ultimately needing 78 pints of blood. That is when the Charger's Blood Drive was born.

"Right after being released from the care of my parents, I remember watching the news one night and there was this informal blood drive put together to replace the blood that I had used,” Benirschke said.

After that first year in 1979, every following Charger's Blood Drive was held at The Town and Country Hotel in Mission Valley. It was a place where people could help save lives, and meet their sports heroes.

Photo credit: San Diego Blood Bank

"Chargers Annual Blood Drive" banner hangs from the convention center at the Town and Country Hotel in Mission Valley in this undated photograph.

"I think the most special part of it was when the players would actually walk among the donors as they were donating blood," Wellis said. "We really used this as an opportunity to show how the team cared about our community.”

The Chargers Blood Drives were always held the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. This was intentional so players had the option to attend.

"Part of it was they recognized the obligation they had to the community and the opportunity to connect with the fans who came out every game and supported them," Benirschke said. "There was a very tender connection around this...you have got to give the Chargers credit for making sure that it kept going.”

The last couple years was a time of uncertainty, though — as the Chargers mulled moving to Los Angeles.

"There’s no doubt the last couple years of the blood drives were a little bit awkward, there was some tension," Benirschke said. "The team was uncertain about where it was going to be, the fans loved the team and loved the players and felt like they weren’t really part of the decision.”

"I was a Chargers fan," Jayne Hiemann said. "When I first got here you had the Chargers, you had Dan Fouts, the ‘Fearsome Foursome.’

Hiemann is the San Diego Blood Bank's top female donor at nearly 104 gallons of blood.

"I always used to joke it takes longer to fill out the paperwork than to do the donation," she said.

Heimann has been donating blood since 1977, two years before the first Charger's Blood Drive.

"Whether you have a drive or don’t have a drive, to me it’s no difference," Heimann said. "I’m doing this to benefit other people. I get a benefit myself to make sure I’m still good and healthy, but it’s not about me, it’s not about the drive, it’s about helping others."

The San Diego Blood Bank announced a replacement for the Chargers drive over the summer, one that does not include an NFL team.

"The winter blood drive is now called is now called San Diego Cares: It’s In Our Blood," said Wellis. "Dec. 16, same location, Town and Country. But what’s different this year is we’re being much more inclusive in the sports teams that will be represented. And so everyone’s coming. So we’ve got the Padres and the Gulls, and the Sockers and the Xolos and the Toreros."

Even though a new blood drive kicks off next month, it is technically still the 39th consecutive year, right?

"It’s an interesting question. Is this the 39th year of the drive, or the first? I’m not sure I can answer that question," Benirschke said.

Wellis did; he said the annual count will restart in December.

"This is completely being rebranded," said Wellis. "There’s a little motivation too from the community of let's make this bigger and better than it was before.”

A spokeswoman from the Los Angeles Chargers confirmed they are not holding a team-sponsored blood drive this season, but plan to continue supporting the San Diego Blood Bank.

Video by Kw5zpq2fmbw

The annual Chargers Blood Drive took place during a critical holiday season when blood donations are typically down. However, just because the NFL team has left, does not mean the need for blood is gone.

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