Ex-players lamenting the end of a Rams era

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- Jack Snow dreads the conversation that is sure to play out sometime in the distant future, when his two granddaughters approach him and ask what he did in the NFL.

"It's going to be hard for me to explain 10 years from now," said Snow, "that your grandpa played for the St. Louis Rams . . . but they were here. They are going to say, 'What are you talking about?' "

Jack Youngblood ponders the possibility with similar despair. He guessed that his words would take this course: "Youngin', you don't have the time for me to explain this. That's a long story."

Such is the plight for many warriors who were associated with Rams glory during the franchise's 49 years in Los Angeles.

Along with most everyone else in the area, they brace for the team to announce shortly its intention to relocate to St. Louis, there to flee sagging attendance and an unacceptable stadium situation in Orange County. They realize that yesterday's meeting with the Washington Redskins at Anaheim Stadium might well have marked the team's last home game in Southern California.

And they react with a wide variety of emotions: shock, sadness, anger, frustration, resignation. But mostly disbelief. For them, it's difficult not to lament the potential loss of something that for so long was a rich part of their lives and the sports fabric of a community.

"I just can't visualize the Rams not being in Los Angeles," says Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, a Hall of Fame halfback and end from the 1950s.

"It's always going to be there for me, no matter where the team goes," added former All-Pro cornerback Pat Thomas, today an assistant coach with the Indianapolis Colts. "I was a Los Angeles Ram. That's the way I'm always going to look at it. They can go to Timbuktu, but that's not where I'm going."

Don Paul, a linebacker in the '50s who today operates a string of restaurants from an office in Calabasas, said: "You hate to lose something that has been a major part of your life. I'm looking at my walls. I don't have restaurants on the walls, I have football. I'm looking at the '51 world's championship right now. And a picture of a game I don't like to remember, the '50 championship [when the Rams were edged by the Cleveland Browns]. It means a lot to guys who really came in the beginning here."

And Youngblood, now a radio talk-show host in Sacramento, offered: "It almost seems like this is a nightmare, and you want to wake up quickly and say, 'Let me get back to reality here.'

"But, then again, you look at what's happening with the '90s. It seems like nobody has any roots any longer, nor allegiance, nor tenure anywhere you go, be it a player, be it a coach. Be it a franchise."

Those who played for the Rams in bygone eras sank their roots into a vibrant tradition.

After moving here from Cleveland for the 1946 season, the Rams grew to personify their Hollywood surroundings, producing an exciting style of play with Hirsch, Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin and Tom Fears, and played before enormous crowds at the Coliseum. They competed for the NFL championship four times in seven years, and won it once.

The 1960s saw the emergence of such stars as Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Roman Gabriel, Dick Bass and Snow, and a string of dominant seasons.

The 1970s ushered in Youngblood, Fred Dryer, Lawrence McCutcheon -- and seven straight division titles. Also the team's only Super Bowl appearance -- a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers to conclude the 1979 season.

The franchise moved to Anaheim for the 1980 season and, after riding Eric Dickerson to some success, staggered headlong into the 1990s. In this decade, the Rams have produced win totals of five, three, six, five and four.

The team draws horribly and can't command a cushy stadium in an area that is anything but rabid for its sports teams.

And it no longer seems to offer the spark of excitement that distinguished its history.

The search is on for explanations of how matters deteriorated to this point.

"The passion is not there anymore. That's a given," said Jones, a Hall of Famer who joins Snow as the team's radio-broadcast analysts. "It just somehow slipped away. I don't know how it did it. I don't know if it's not fashionable anymore. . . .

"I think fan appeal is earned the same way respect is earned."

Les Horvath, a Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State who played with the Rams in the late 1940s, is a longtime Glendale resident. He believes passion went south when the team did. "They already moved once," he said. "They weren't really loyal to Los Angeles proper when they moved to Orange County."

Others cite the fair-weather nature of the Los Angeles sports fan and less-than-enthusiastic civic and business leaders -- certainly where stadium issues have been concerned -- as contributing to the club's struggles in the area.

But all these factors may be peripheral. A consensus of former players seems to hold that Rams management brought its travails on itself through a series of ill-advised policies after owner Carroll Rosenbloom's death in 1979.

"They lost in the Super Bowl and haven't had much of a team since then," said Red Hickey, a former player and assistant coach. "I wouldn't want to criticize any of the coaching. I would prefer to say they haven't had the players."

Horvath noted: "The Rams are leaving because they don't draw the crowds? Why don't they? It seems like they don't want to pay players."

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