It was a salute to the champions. Then Philip Rivers spoke and it became a salute to San Diego.
Few evenings are more enjoyable than the annual Salute to the Champions dinner, which enshrines the latest class into the Breitbard Hall of Fame.
Three athletic greats with San Diego roots were enshrined on Tuesday: former Chargers center Nick Hardwick, ex-basketball star Candice Wiggins and Johnny Ritchey, the first African American player in the Pacific Coast league when playing for the Padres.
But there was more.
Bob Breitbard, the keen sportsman who founded the Hall of Champions, loved to spread the sugar around in the form of recognition. While easy to pat a well-known on the back, Breitbard was just as concerned about the amateur and prep stars, of which there are so many in San Diego County.
That’s why before Hardwick and his class were introduced teenagers from all sports had their turn on the stage.
With state and CIF San Diego Section titles are on their resumes, those given a fist bump were: Torrey Pines boys golf, Cathedral Catholic football, boys cross country and girls volleyball and others.
Others honored included Cardiff’s Kraig Chiles (soccer) and the World Team Tennis San Diego Aviators, who play their home matches at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa.
Then Rivers seized the stage. He did so while accepting a plaque he was giving as well.
“It’s always an honor when you receive an award, especially from my hometown city,’’ Rivers said.
His message was as clear as the Los Angeles air is murky.
Like everyone not named Dean Spanos, Rivers recognized how special a place our locale is. Saying “adios” isn’t easy.
That’s why Rivers’ voice cracked. That’s why his upper lip quivered. That’s why his eyes were misty and, to be sure, there were no onions on anyone’s plate.
But others felt tears welling, too.
Here was an NFL star explaining how difficult it is to uproot his family, career and point it some 100 miles north. The Chargers are moving, but Rivers, an Alabama native, made it clear what remains in his blood.
“I hope you’ll always see me as a San Diego Charger,’’ he stressed.
Hardwick followed Rivers.
“Now you know what it’s like to have him in the huddle,’’ said Hardwick, a former center.
Hardwick was the center-of-attention on Tuesday. But he shared the spotlight with one of his closest friends, a quarterback whose sincerity never misses its mark.
Rivers, with eight kids at home and San Diego no longer his professional home, could have skipped the event. Then again, that wouldn’t sit right with the classy Rivers.
“Out of respect to the Hall of Champions and knowing what it means — this is the 71st one,’’ Rivers said. “I never take any honor for granted. I’m here for my award but more importantly for Nick.’’
Rivers was here, as well, for those upset that he’s leaving.
“I certainly appreciate San Diego’s passion — the people in the community and their support,’’ he said. “And I would like to think they appreciated the passion I played with and the approach that I have. Over time that (bond) forms.’’
It’s one that started slowly, with Rivers in a contract dispute with the Chargers and him not being positive what San Diego was about.
“I would have never hand-picked San Diego, to be honest,’’ Rivers said. “I knew nothing about this part of the country. But I am certainly thankful that I did get to spend 13 years here.
“I’m even more humbled by how many people, since the move was announced, at the store or whatever have said, ‘Thanks for all you have done and we hate to see you go.’’’
With the crowd hanging on every word from Rivers, it was obvious they didn’t want to see him exit.
“I’ll be around,’’ Rivers said. “At least for the next five months.’’
Follow Jay Paris @jparis_sports. Read his book, “Game of My Life Chagers,’’ which is available at book stores and at amazon.com.