On Christmas Eve 1994, Los Angeles hosted a regular-season NFL football game. The Raiders defeated the Kansas City Chiefs to earn a wild-card berth, and those in attendance probably didn’t expect to bear witness to the final game in the L.A. area for over two decades.
But those who lined the parking lot surrounding the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum yesterday harbored only trace amounts of bitterness toward the league. The Rams last played a game in L.A. proper in 1979, departing from Southern California at the end of the 1994 season. At the time of their move 37 miles south down the 5 freeway, the Rams were the reigning NFC champions. By the time of their move from Anaheim to St. Louis, the Rams were destined to be a forgotten in the pantheon of Los Angeles sports history with nary a championship to their name.
Now they’re back.
Prior to the Rams ending the NFL’s long-standing habit of extorting cities unwilling to give teams their own publicly funded stadium, Los Angeles was steadily becoming a pro football wasteland. Sure, the bars in West Hollywood, Santa Monica and the South Bay were full of fans, but the league already abandoned an entire generation of apathetic NFL fans, caring more about their fantasy teams while being annoyed that the Chargers and Raiders appeared on TV frequently. Due to the league’s archaic TV rules, those teams were granted most favored nation status in the City of Angels, which, over the past decade or so, led to fans watching mediocre football from teams they had little emotional attachment to. Not anymore.
Fans who arrived as early as 8 a.m. filled summer air with smokers, sausages and beer burps. It was a welcome sight for longtime football devotees who’d resorted to cheering on the local college football teams. Around the stadium, people were bustling with anticipation for the 2016 version of the Mob Squad—aka the defensive line that arrived with the team from St. Louis—even as they groused about the $50-$100 parking. Footballs sailed through the smoky air.
Wearing primarily Rams jerseys from yesteryear, bearing the names of gridiron gladiators like Jack Youngblood, Roman Gabriel and Ron Burgundy pal Merlin Olsen, fans donned rose-colored glasses when recalling the team, mostly blurring out Anaheim and the past 20 seasons in St. Louis. That didn’t stop tailgaters grumbling about the rumored three-year contract extensions given to perennially overrated head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead. “How could they be so flippant after that debacle!” asked one fan (Jim Everett jersey, cup of wine), referring to last week’s poor performance in San Francisco.
Nearby, diehards exchanged notes about the rival Seahawks and hurled insults at fans wearing their navy, silver and neon colors.
Though they’ve been caught wearing Raiders gear in the past, hometown heroes Red Hot Chili Peppers, all sporting Rams uniforms, welcomed the early arriving crowd with a two-song set. Flea, who claims to be a longtime Rams fan, led the band through a singalong version of “Can’t Stop” and their new single “Dark Necessities.” The relatively sloppy performance wasn’t the stuff of RHCP legend, nor will it be fondly looked back upon due to the notoriously hollow Coliseum sound and relatively sterile environment. That they were there in Rams regalia, amping up the crowd, was enough on this day.
They weren’t the only celebrity draw. Late Late Show host James Corden donned the Rams cheerleaders’ uniform, and Cee-Lo Green belted out the national anthem. Also spotted, because this is L.A.: LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Ty Burrell and Elizabeth Banks, among others. It wasn’t quite Ann-Margret cheering on the Raiders, but the celebrity presence added to the team’s glitzy cache, even if recent years of production on the field hasn’t.
As the weather became unforgivable by football standards—the mercury went north of 90 degrees—with little room for patrons to hide in the Coliseum, the gameplay became stagnant and a bit of a snore. The offenses were offensive, while the stout defenses dictated the pace of the game with intimidating pass rushes and a lockdown secondary. Ultimately, the Rams made their return to Los Angeles a memorable one, taking the spoils in a 9-3 victory.
The crowd cranked up the volume in the fourth quarter, even if the PA announcer overenthusiastically implored the crowd to do so, which annoyed some who felt like they were being treated like a football outpost instead of the second largest city in the country. The same goes for using famous local faces like Kendrick Lamar to get the crowd amped up for big plays. This was an insult to the meat-and-potatoes set who didn’t need the prodding.
While the outlook isn’t promising for the team this season—much like their cardinal and gold adorning co-tenants—the fact that the NFL is back in town, for many, is good enough. With fans cheering and taunting Seahawks supporters (who they called “Seacocks” and “Seachickens”) as they spilled onto the street, it was unmistakable that football in Los Angeles was back. Though it’s going to take time for many to harness their fandom, and even get their insults right, the fact that nearly all fans stayed until the final whistle dispelled a few L.A. fan stereotypes and confirmed that football was sorely missed. They’ve waited a long time to watch a pro football team they could finally call their own.