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ST. LOUIS — The mid-winter sky was gray, the wind was cold and the mood was as bitter as you might expect as sports fans here awoke Monday to their most miserable of football nightmares.
The Super Bowl will feature the franchise that bailed on them, relocated to the sunshine of Los Angeles and promptly got really, really good, playing against the club that defeated them in the last Super Bowl their local team reached, which is a wound that, as all Super Bowl losers know, never heals.
That’s right, it’s the Los Angeles Rams v. the New England Patriots … St. Louis-style, heavy on the salt.
“At first I wanted a sinkhole to open up and swallow the entire Super Bowl,” said Butch Hearn, of Wentzville, Missouri, as he had lunch downtown Monday. “Then I thought about a mid-air collision. But I realized that was too extreme.”
He laughed. This is still the nice Midwest after all. No need for mass casualties.
“So now I am just rooting for both teams to get food poisoning,” Hearns said.
Right. Much more reasonable.
“Seriously,” Hearns continued, “I don’t know what I am going to do for the Super Bowl.”
He isn’t alone around here. His lunch companion, Stephanie Garcia, also of Wentzville, swore she was “over it” but couldn’t promise she’d even watch the game. All across St. Louis the sentiment was repeated.
It was bad enough when the Rams, who played here from 1995-2015, relocated, stripping the town of the NFL for a second time (the now Arizona Cardinals played here from 1960-87). It was worse when after the Rams failed to reach the playoffs for their last 11 seasons in St. Louis, they suddenly became not just a winner again this season, but exciting again. It was like a remake of the “Greatest Show on Turf” teams that won St. Louis Super Bowl XXXIV in February of 2000.
“This should’ve been our Super Bowl,” said Richard Williams of St. Louis, as he walked near the Rams’ old stadium downtown, what is now called the “Dome at America’s Center.” It hosts an occasional concert and convention but not much else. “Those are our Rams.”
Instead of a city pulsating with excitement, there is nothing. No banners. No T-shirts in the storefronts (nothing NFL related, actually it’s all Cardinals and Blues and Mizzou Tigers). The Dome looks forgotten. The parking lots around seem pointless.
Then there is the case of the Patriots. In Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, the Rams were 14-point favorites. The city was all but certain of a second Vince Lombardi Trophy. Then a couple guys named Bill Belichick and Tom Brady delivered a crushing upset. No one has forgotten, and since the unfounded conspiracy theory that the Patriots taped the Rams’ walkthrough the day before the game still lingers here, some haven’t forgiven.
So many/most/all spent Sunday fruitlessly rooting for the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs, which as Missouri’s now only NFL franchise, has gained popularity here on the eastside of the state. If the Chiefs had made it then folks around here could go into the Super Bowl rooting for the Rams to get blown out. Instead to have that happen, New England gets the joy. It’s not much of a consolation, although it’ll probably have to do.
“Everybody hates the Rams,” Hearns said. “I don’t know anyone who likes the Rams. Everyone I knew was rooting for the Chiefs and the Saints. Instead we get the Rams and Patriots. I saw a lot of cursing on Facebook.”
It’s not just that the Rams left, either. There is a measure of perspective. The city needed a new stadium. And the Rams were in California from 1946-1994. “How can you be mad at a place that took back a team that you took from them,” Garcia noted.
And, maybe especially on a day when a brutal breeze flies off the Mississippi River, there’s the concession that Los Angeles is a far bigger market (13.1 million to 2.8 million) and the NFL is a business. Plus, you can love toasted ravioli and pork steaks and dinner on the Hill and fireworks over the Arch and trick or treat jokes and the local pronunciation of Carondelet with all your St. Louis-heart and still wish there was a palm tree or two around here.
“If I could go to California right now, I’d go to California right now,” Williams said laughing.
Which isn’t to say anyone has much patience with Rams owner Stan Kroenke. That’s in part because they feel that if the Rams didn’t stink for that decade-plus, especially the four losing seasons from 2012-15 under Jeff Fisher when relocation decisions were being made, details might have been worked out and the Rams would still be in St. Louis.
So the bad product that all fans are forced to suffer through from time to time cost them the franchise altogether.
Now bandwagon L.A., of all places, gets all the Sean McVay fun and none of the pain it took to get there.
“I remained a Rams fan until the day they left,” said Scott Keck of Swansea, Illinois, who along with his father was an original season-ticket holder in 1995. “I was very sad. I was angry.”
“I guess I’ll still root for the players from the Rams, guys I want to see have success,” said Anne Roberts of Ladue, Missouri, reasoned. “I am not rooting for the ownership.”
Keck and Roberts were at Fox Sports Midwest Live having drinks and watching the Blues play the Los Angeles Kings in a Martin Luther King Day matinee. It is part of a huge bar/restaurant/shopping complex across the street from Busch Stadium where the Cardinals play. The Blues have a losing record and are staring at another season outside the playoffs. Yet fans remain.
That’s part of the hurt. St. Louis isn’t a big city, isn’t a cool city and is stuck in the middle of the country. But there is no denying the fan loyalty that isn’t easy to duplicate in L.A. Thousands of Cardinals fans had come downtown over the weekend for the team’s annual “Winter Warm-Up” to meet players and get autographs.
With the Rams, the fans did what they could. They got left in the dust anyway. Now they have to move on.
“We love the Cardinals, so I was saying yesterday to everyone, ‘April 4 will be here in a couple months,’ ” Hearns said.
“I’m a Blues fan,” Garcia said. “I’m a Cardinals fan. I’m excited. And we’ll see where that takes us. I love football but it’s hard to get back into it. I’m over it. I’m not a fan of the Los Angeles Rams. It’s not going to be a good Super Bowl.”
And so everyone is left wrestling with the big question: Who do you root for – Rams or Pats?
“I’m rooting for the commercials,” Keck said, before theorizing that maybe they would just put on a tape of the Super Bowl the St. Louis Rams won. “Maybe we’ll watch Kurt Warner. Put [Super Bowl] 34 on.”
As sports fans though, they concede sitting out the Super Bowl altogether seems unlikely. They’ll figure it out by kickoff. At least the parties will have the requisite food.
And lots of alcohol, of course.
“We’ll need it,” Hearns said.
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