Hundreds of faces, some the most notable in sports media, sat at decorated dinner tables Wednesday in a downtown San Diego hotel ballroom.
Beyond the NFL commentators bantering on-stage and ESPN's Chris Berman tossing to a “San Diego Super Chargers” sing-along, the star-studded evening of entertainment was, at its core, about hope.
Loved ones fighting the incurable.
A city and team fighting for something feared unbuildable.
A Q-and-A session with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who touched upon the San Diego Chargers stadium project, was among the highlights to the principally heavy-hearted Celebration of Hope Gala, an annual fundraiser toward fighting Huntington's Disease.
For about the past decade, the Chargers have joined the Huntington's Disease Society of America local chapter in an off-the-field war against the cruel opponent, which has stricken Ramona Johnston, wife of Bill Johnston, director of team public relations.
Goodell flew from New York to attend the event, fielding questions from the media before chatting on-stage with Berman, the night's emcee.
The media peppered the commissioner from all sides about a scheduled Thursday meeting with San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders. He described such gatherings with NFL city leaders as "not unusual, but it’s always important.”
The plan is "just to get an update from the mayor on what’s happening on the stadium front," Goodell said, adding that the hope, as with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, is to build a site competitive with most other NFL stadiums.outside California.
If successful, Goodell painted the result, pressed by Berman's suggestion that San Diego become a regular Super Bowl host.
"There's no question about it; that's an easy answer," Goodell said to a resounding cheer. "This community knows how to put on a big event. The hospitality, the passion they have for football, there is no question in my mind."
In an open session, one audience member shared a fear this future Chargers home might lie outside city limits, such as Los Angeles.
"The plan is to make the Chargers successful here," Goodell said. "The Spanos family has worked tirelessly to do that, to find a solution here. They want to be in San Diego, I know the fans want to be here, and I can tell you, the NFL wants to be here, and we're going to keep working on it."
Like those on a cure.
Johnston gave an emotional speech before a video of various HD-affected family testimonials. The presentations left the audience of 400-or-so paid guests, which included Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin, Rich Eisen, Steve Mariucci, John Carney and Rolf Benirschke, blinking off and patting away tears, the sound of sniffles rustling an otherwise silent auditorium.
Johnston characterized HD as "just a horrible, horrible disease," killing brain cells and basic motor skills, such as the ability to walk, speak or chew food. The most common cause of death in HD patients is pneumonia, he said.
The second is suicide.
"Mentally, physically, the brain is who you are in so many ways," Johnston said. "This disease robs of who you are."
Ramona was lifted onto the stage to the loudest standing ovation of the night.
She couldn't walk across the room, but her smile filled it.
“My little girl,” Johnston said. “If Mona could talk right now, she would just say 'thank you.' Thank you for being here, and tell the world about this disease. Tell anyone you can tell because you're here to make a difference, and you are making a difference."
Donations to HDSA San Diego can be submitted online.