Peabody Opera House, 10/27/2015, 7:22 P.M.
An 81-year-old man known as “Pops” is given the microphone, but quickly becomes too emotional to speak and hands it over to his wife so that she can read a statement he has prepared. Pops went to his first Rams game in 1946 when, as a child in Los Angeles, he sold newspapers outside of the LA Coliseum in order to make a buck, sure, but more importantly to earn free entry to each home contest after the first quarter. For the past 7 decades there is very little, besides his family, that Pops has cared about more than his team. Soon after the Rams moved to St. Louis Pops’ wife got a job offer in Illinois and he enthusiastically encouraged her to take it so he could have the chance to once again watch the Rams in person. Now, some 20 years later and unable to relocate back to LA due to age and cost concerns, Pops was begging and pleading with the NFL to keep his team here, to not take them away from him again. “Owners are the caretakers of the franchises,” his wife read off of her husband's notes, “but the teams ultimately belong to the fans.”
I think about going to games in high school, after I had become serious about football myself, and dreaming of one day being on the field (more realistically for a State Championship game than NFL matchup), and I think of the day last season when my girlfriend got me a field pass before the Rams faced the Seahawks, the day when I finally made it onto the Rams’ turf, the day when I couldn’t stop weeping because I had never, ever been that happy in my entire life; because, in some small way, I finally got to live out my fantasy.
I think about the dejection I felt in college dorm rooms, and in the corners of random Chicago bars with my head slumped down onto the table, and when walking out of the Dome and onto 7th Street as a random Cowboys or 49ers or Saints fan once again got the opportunity to boast in my face. I think about how joyous and proud I felt just two days earlier, after the Rams had beaten the Browns and Todd Gurley had shown me what greatness looks like. I think about what it means to feel alive; about how many things in our lives can arouse this level of ecstasy, this sense of despair. I think about how much I care about this team being in this place. I think about why.
When the Rams left Los Angeles they also left all kinds of 8-year-olds who never got to feel what I felt, who never were afforded the opportunity to care like I got to care. That’s not right. That’s not OK. That’s not fair. At one point later in the night one father will take the stage and show NFL VP Eric Grubman a picture of his 11-year-old son celebrating the Rams win with Nick Fairley and Greg Robinson after the game. “Please don’t do this to us!” the father will exclaim. “Please don’t take this away!” I wonder how many in LA then were saying what we in St. Louis are saying now.
What I wanted to say, if I had been at the microphone, was the same damn thing. Please don’t take this away. But there is a paradox that lives inside of me, one I have been forced to confront more and more the longer that this process has been drawn out: what is it that I am willing to sacrifice to hold onto what I had, what I have, what I want to pass on to my own children so that they can one day understand why this means to me what it does, so that they can one day experience this sentiment themselves? And how can I rectify all of these things that appear to contradict themselves in such obvious ways? That by keeping what we have, we are denying it to someone else; that by getting what we got, we had to take it away from them in the first place.
Professional sport is a business, an especially cold and ruthless one at that. I have never viewed in through that lense. I have never seen it in that light. I have never faced the fundamental question that all sports fans must stare down on the day when they lose their innocence and naiveté: how can you love something so immensely, while simultaneously knowing that it will never, ever, truly love you back?
Maybe owners are, in reality, just the caretakers, but fans can never claim true possession of the teams that they love. Only their money can. And when the caretakers get the chance to do something big, like move your team away, or something small, like drag games on because they have Bud Light to sell and daily fantasy leagues to market, they will never, ever think about you. They will focus on your pocketbook. They will reflect on your bank account. They will memorize your credit card number. They will leave you raw and alone and exposed to the folly of your ways. You will not matter to the game then. You will not be what the caretakers are taking care of.
This was true in 1995 even if I wasn’t aware of it. This is true in 2015, when it wells up inside of me and makes me wonder what all of this is for. Moving the Rams to LA would be a form of greed and hubris and duplicitousness and nonsensical gluttony. Maybe the Rams coming to St. Louis was all of those things as well. I just know that it is affecting me now. I just know that it is making me want to gravel and implore and beseech, just like Pops, just like the boy’s father, just like the vast majority of the other 1,499 people in the crowd. The Rams are our team now, right now, in this moment. Why are they being stolen from us? Why can’t we keep them forever?
Why does it matter? There is war in the world. And hunger. And poverty. And yet we are here, we are in this room, we are standing up and bartering with, essentially, a cartel of billionaires who have us by the balls and know it. We are urging them to take mercy, to have sympathy, to pick someone else. We will buy your tickets. We will purchase your hot dogs and beer. We will follow you to the depths of Hell, through thick and thin, to the end and back. All you need to do is determine that we are worth it. All you need to do is decide that our devotion is worth saving.
I am caught in the past, the first game at the Dome, the Proehl catch, the Super Bowl parade, all the losses that followed. I am caught on the field that day watching Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald warm up mere feet away from where I stood. I am caught with the voice of Pops’ wife playing over in my head, reading his words, a man who followed the team halfway across the country and is appealing to Eric Grubman and the men that hired him not to make him do it again: “Please don’t take my Rams away from me.” I am caught with the voice of the father speaking for his son running itself on a constant loop through my mind: “please don’t do this to us.”
We are powerless. We have lost control. We are innocent minnows surrounded by a gaggle of money hungry sharks. But we love. We adore. We soldier on. We do whatever it takes to preserve this sense consciousness, to maintain what will always be our last holdout. Hope. We hope that, one way or another, our presence can be taken into account. We hope that, one way or another, our existence matters at all. We hope that, one way or another, someone out there will recognize how much this means to us.
We realize (to paraphrase the great Roger Angell) that, as silly as it may appear to some, it is not the object of our concern that is important; it is our ability to feel, our emission of passion, our propensity to care. It is the happiness that we can find in something, anything, even if it is as seemingly benign as the undecipherable flight of a ball thrown by a man who is only connected to us through the city in which he plays and the logo that he is paid to wear across his chest. It is the fact that the team is ours for as long as we choose to care about it, no matter how many things out there are meant to tell us that we shouldn’t. It is the notion that the team is ours as long as we decide that it belongs to us, no matter how many things out there are designed to show us that it does not. It is the knowledge that the team is ours for as long as we believe it to that, if we hold on tight enough, it will never slip from our grasp.
I believed that when I was 8. I believe it now at 28. I hope I get the chance to believe it when I am 81. The St. Louis Rams are a part of me. They can be amputated from my being and I will live. That doesn’t mean that I will ever view the world the same way. That doesn’t mean that I will ever get over the pain.