Friday August 12th, 2016

IRVINE, Calif. — Adam Mirghanbari, or “Merg” to those who know him, attended his first Rams game in 1966. He was 3. He went with his father, a chemical engineer, to the Coliseum in Los Angeles, and even though he knew nothing about football, he never forgot that game. “I remember vividly sitting on the dirty concrete with peanut shells on the floor, he says. “My dad would watch, and I would watch him.”

Before he left the stadium that day, Merg knew what he wanted to be: an LA Ram. For life.

People always ask him. What do the Rams mean to the people of Los Angeles?

Let Merg explain.

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In 1969, his father was transferred to Chicago. Merg, naturally, had issues with Chicago. Bears fans, for one. Insufferable. Those black helmets with the orange “C”—ugly. His father, in an effort to make Merg feel better, gave him a poster of Roman Gabriel, the Rams quarterback and league MVP that season. Merg hung the poster over his bed. He thought he looked like Gabriel, so he had his hair cut the same way: short.

Merg could rarely watch Rams games in Chicago, at least until the playoffs. Fortunately for Merg, once owner Carroll Rosenbloom took over in 1972, the Rams made the playoffs in every season from ’73 to ’80. They even made the Super Bowl in ’79. They also lost four conference championships in five seasons, from ’74 to ’78, as Merg’s hatred of the Vikings, Cowboys and Bears ballooned. “I would be so mad, I’d go out behind the garage and cry,” Merg says. “All my friends were Bears fans, which also made me dislike the Bulls, Sox and Cubs. I was anti-everything. My deal was: this is my team.”

The worst year? 1985. Those stupid Bears and their dominant defense. Worst yet? Merg’s father scored them tickets to the NFC Championship game, where the Bears shut out the Rams, 24–0, at Soldier Field. “It was me versus 66,000,” Merg says. Worse still? Merg’s father had become a Bears fan. Chicago won the Super Bowl that season.

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O.K., so that wasn’t even the worst part. Merg wanted to be an L.A. Ram so badly he kept injuring himself in street football games, busting up both knees, both ankles and several fingers. He had four surgeries on his right shoulder. Then the Rams left LA, and Merg remembers the exact place he was—at the gym, on a treadmill—when the rumors became official: the Rams were moving to St. Louis. “I was crushed,” he says. “Crushed! CRUSHED!!”

Then he started thinking about it. St. Louis was a heck of a lot closer to Chicago. He could make the drive in under five hours, and so he did, for the Rams’ first practice in Missouri, and for every game—preseason, regular season, postseason—for the next 21 years. He went to the road games, too, flying into major cities, figuring out the hotel and rental-car situations upon arrival. “I was a groupie,” Merg says.

That’s what the Rams meant.

The team noticed. They asked Merg if he wanted to work with the video department, taking still pictures from the printer to the coaches. That started in 1997. He couldn’t believe it. He was on the sideline. He wore team swag. He still refers to his first game in that capacity as “the biggest day of my football career.”

“Man, when those doors opened, it was like the gates of Heaven,” Merg says. “I ain’t kidding. Unbelievable.”

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In 1999, as part of a promotion, the NFL named Merg the Rams’ No. 1 fan. The league even flew him out to the Hall of Fame. His heroes—receiver Isaac Bruce, linebacker Roman Phifer, even lesser-known guys like safety Toby Wright—had become his friends. They took care of him. They ate with him. They gave him gifts. The Rams won the Super Bowl that season, behind Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Bruce and the rest of the Greatest Show on Turf. Merg was there, on the sideline. He still calls Bruce his “spiritual leader” and ranks that day among the greatest of his life.

All this time, Merg owned and operated an Italian spot in Chicago that served pizza and catered to the neighborhood. He flew more miles to games than he can remember, at the cost of about $20,000 a season until he started to find better deals. In 2004, the team made him a ballboy, and in 2011, he started to work practices, as part of the chain crew. He ran the Juggs machine. He traveled on the Rams plane. Eventually, he opened a pizza place in St. Louis and moved there.

“When it came to it, though, I was an L.A. Rams fan,” Merg says. “St. Louis is a good place, nice people and everything, but the Rams were a stepchild. Their daddies weren’t Rams fans. Their granddaddies weren’t Rams fans. There’s no generational bond.”

People kept asking Merg: what does it mean that the Rams moved back to Los Angeles this summer, after a 21-year absence? His story answers for him.

Merg still owns his pizza place in St. Louis, and his elderly mother still lives there. But he moved with the Rams and travels back and forth whenever possible. He’s still on the chains at practice, with braces on both knees. He’s still in charge of the Juggs machine, still around all his favorite players.

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“I can’t even believe it,” Merg says. “Back in LA! And the cherry on top is that the next three years are going to be in the Coliseum. I ask myself, wait a minute, how can this be happening?”

The Rams host the Cowboys on Saturday in the preseason, their first home game since returning. “I’m getting chill bumps,” Merg says. “My beard is standing up just talking about it.”

What does it mean?

Lately, Merg spends much of his down time watching highlight clips from the 1960s, ‘70’s and ‘80s—Rams highlights, naturally. Roman Gabriel. Deacon Jones. Merlin Olsen. “The Rams were the first America’s team,” he says. “People get nostalgic about the frozen tundra. The Cowboys. Their star. Nuh-uh. This is Los Angeles. The Coliseum. I always said I don’t care if the Rams lose every game. I’m still going, dude. If I die tomorrow, I’m all good. That’s the truth.

“I’m all about the horns.”

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