Press Box: After one last Dome trip, NFL allegiance to shift from team of my youth

Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune. Click here for PDF version.

When I was 5 years old, the Green Bay Packers played the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI, and my uncle asked me a question.

“Who would you root for if the Rams ever played the Packers in the Super Bowl?”

You see, the Rams were my hometown team, but I was also a proud owner of a small foam cheesehead thanks to my dad’s Wisconsin roots. In need of an answer, I looked to my dad, who, of course, gave me the easy cop-out.

“The Rams would never play the Packers in the Super Bowl,” he told me, “because both teams play in the NFC.”

But if it came down to it, the Rams — who in those days didn’t look like they’d ever play an AFC team in the Super Bowl, either — would have been my pick.

The Rams were the team whose poor quarterback play made me so mad I tried to convince my dad after a round of backyard catch he should replace Tony Banks. It was the Rams’ offseason signings in 1999 that I scrutinized with my neighbor — him barely 9 years old, me almost 8 — before sagely proclaiming the Rams had accrued enough talent to win it all that year.

Above all, I was from St. Louis, and the Rams played in St. Louis. As generous to me as the Packers were in my formative years of football fandom, the Rams were the team I would ride with, good or bad.

But tomorrow the answer to my uncle’s question changes.

Nothing’s yet official, but the Rams’ relocation — a fate to which I’ve been resigned since about 2006 — seems imminent, all but certain to happen after this season. I suppose I will technically be a Rams fan until the end of the year, but it doesn’t look like the 2015 Rams will require much rooting from here on out.

Today, I’ll do it once more. I will be one of the lucky few shuffling down to the Edward Jones Dome to watch the 4-7 Rams try not to embarrass themselves against the division-leading Arizona Cardinals. I wanted to get to a St. Louis Rams game this season, knowing it would likely be my last chance. Clearly, I should have done it sooner, when the Rams were more successfully tricking people into thinking this season might be different.

Though, it’s somewhat fitting that I’ll be watching the Rams play Arizona. The Cardinals were the last team to leave St. Louis for relocation and, if I remember correctly, they were the first team I saw the Rams play against in person.

In my memories of that game, there was something surreal about The Dome — then sponsored by Trans World Airlines. It was much bigger inside than I had expected, but the on-field play also felt more intimate. They were right there. I don’t even think the Rams were any good yet, but I remember there being a tangible energy to that environment.

I’ll be in that same stadium today, but I’m not sure the energy will. Some of that can be chalked up to me no longer having the wide eyes of a 7-year-old boy, sure, but much of the change is real. The stands are now emptier and the team colors are darker and irreparably burdened with the fact no winning was done in them. (Mercifully, the Rams will be wearing their gorgeous throwbacks today.)

The outside of The Dome now bears a different corporation’s name, and the inside is lit like a funeral home — an all-too-pertinent observation as I deliver the eulogy for my Rams fandom.

Unfortunately, I’ve been to enough funerals, including one for the uncle who first put me on the spot, to know you’re supposed to focus on the good times while grieving. And now that you’ve gotten your “well, it should be a short column, then” joke out of the way, I’d like to do just that.

I’ll be a Packers fan after today, but I’ll never forget the Rams’ 1999 season. I’ll always remember the obvious stuff, like Isaac Bruce scoring a 77-yard touchdown to begin the first-ever playoff football game in St. Louis. And I’ll never forget when Bruce, my favorite player, scored again, this time from 73 yards out, to take the final lead in Super Bowl XXXIV — a lead preserved, I’ll never forget, by Mike Jones at the 1-yard line as time expired.

But I’ll also always remember Dick Vermeil’s tearful proclamation that “we will rally around Kurt Warner, and we’ll play good football,” just like I’ll never forget how the Rams beat the 49ers that year for the first time since I was born. And then they did it again.

And I’ll especially remember the NFC Championship game that season, when my best friend and I lost the signal on his rabbit-eared bedroom TV as the game wound down.

We took my trusty yellow Rams foam noodle and smacked it against the side of the TV, as you did in those days, to break through the static just in time to see Ricky Proehl’s elbow secure that miraculous touchdown catch.

Of course, not all the times were good.

Hard as I try, I’ll never forget when Az-Zahir Hakim’s season-ending fumble the next year made me realize we weren’t going to win every Super Bowl until the end of time. Or when Adam Vinatieri made sure that realization stuck in 2002. I’ll never forget how hard it was to watch Steven Jackson, whose jersey I’ll be wearing today, waste his career at the bottom of the standings.

I always thought there’d be a big payoff for those years of historically bad football, during which I came to think of The Dome more as a place where I competed in marching-band competitions than the home of a football team.

You kind of thought it might happen when the Rams drafted Sam Bradford, whose press conference I was thrilled to attend the next day while shadowing the late Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell.

It seemed like that payoff was coming when the Rams swindled Washington out of all those draft picks two years later or, if you had any naieveté left by then, when the Rams began last month with a winning record.

But if you’ve rooted for the Rams long enough, you know not to expect anything more. You know that the magic of the Greatest Show on Turf might be all you get, and that that’s OK.

You also learn to savor a good moment if it does float by — like a win against Seattle in a lost season or, for me, a simple gesture against racism that gives you reason to feel pride in your team for the first time in years. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Stick to sports.)

It would have been easy in those years to devote the entirety of my fanhood to the Packers, as glowing and successful a franchise as one could hope to root for. It looked more tempting than ever this Thanksgiving, when Bart Starr, my dad’s hero growing up, returned to Lambeau Field to honor Brett Favre, my first football hero.

Before long, I will be on that Packers bandwagon fully and I will know no pain.

But for now? For today? Go Rams.



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