LOS ANGELES — On the first NFL Sunday here in more than two decades …
8:37 a.m. PT
The parking lots around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum are mostly empty, but that doesn’t stop the tailgaters from tapping their pony kegs in Lot 2. Every other person is wearing a jersey, and their selections are heavy on running backs, with Eric Dickerson, Todd Gurley, Marshawn Lynch and even Shaun Alexander represented. There’s also one guy wearing (oddly) a Bill Belichick No. 1 jersey, women in bikinis, shirtless bros grinding through cornhole games, skaters on their boards and palm trees.
This is NFL football back in Los Angeles, the Rams’ regular-season return.
The sun is out, naturally, and the Juarez family is decked out in “Welcome Home” T-shirts. Gabriel is the family patriarch, a Rams’ fan all his life, at least until the team bolted after the 1994 season. He couldn’t root for the franchise for all the years the Rams played in St. Louis. But he bought tickets for the preseason and regular-season openers as soon as they went on sale. Then he brought his wife and two daughters from Hermosa Beach. They arrive earlier than most, and set to readying the grill. “I almost can’t believe this is happening,” Gabriel says.
The Rams’ return is big business for the neighborhood around the stadium. There are merchandise tents and venders selling sausages, hot dogs, pineapples, ice cream, water, soda and ice packs. Every business and home nearby is selling parking, the going rate anywhere from $30 to $100.
Even the pedicabs are busy. One driver, who declined to give his name unless I took a ride with him, says he’s made 10 trips around the sprawling grounds. His shirt is soaked in sweat, indicating he’s telling the truth. “Go Rams,” he says as he peddles off.
The scalpers seem frustrated as they peddle tickets on the outer fringes of the grounds. One says demand dropped significantly after the Rams were blown out in their opener, a 28–0 loss to the 49ers last Monday night. I took a picture of L.A. Rams signage on a dumpster, and it didn’t take long for Twitter to make the connection between the garbage receptacle and a franchise that last went to the playoffs in 2004. “Check back for the inevitable dumpster fire later,” one poster wrote. “Can you throw Jeff Fisher in there?” read another.
The scalper says he’s only sold a handful of tickets this morning, but he notes that this is L.A.; he expects a late arriving crowd. “Who needs tickets?” he shouts.
The Seahawks and Rams begin the warm up. Fisher, the L.A. coach, has spent some of the morning in the coach’s office, which used to belong to Pete Carroll when turned USC into a powerhouse. Now, Carroll is on Seattle’s visitor sideline for the NFL’s return to the market he once owned. “I doubt it’s a coincidence,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman told reporters earlier this week. “I’m sure the league had something to do with that.”
Fisher is happy to be home. The Rams played their last three games on the road, and they spent the off-season moving from St. Louis to Oxnard to Irvine to Thousands Oaks. On Thursday, Fisher said, “We’ve been through a lot. Not that the rest of the league cares. The guys are focused; they’re rolling with it.”
The parking lots are starting to fill up. Traffic clogs Figueroa Boulevard and the surrounding streets. Parking lots are almost full. Grill smokes mixes with the smog in the air.
Near the stadium, there’s a Fanfest, sponsored, naturally, by Bud Light. Fans throw footballs at targets, pound beers and lament another Rams season that hasn’t shown much promise. “This is great,” one fan says to his friend while in line at a taco truck. “Well, except for we have to watch the game.”
Three Rams fans walk by wearing construction hats affixed with horns. They came up from San Diego, a two-hour drive on Sunday morning. “I wouldn’t miss it,” says Bruce Miller, who works in construction.
Miller says he went to his first Rams’ game in this same Coliseum with his father in 1977. He didn’t watch the NFL as much when the team left. He hated when St. Louis won the Super Bowl. “Worst day ever,” he says.
Three Seahawks fans walk by Gate 1 wearing No. 4 jerseys. That number belongs to Steven Hauschka. The kicker. They’re either Hauschka family members or they’re really into field goals.
Those who believe in the notion that Los Angeles-area sports crowds arrive late and leave early should have seen the gates a little over an hour before kickoff. The lines are so long it’s hard to walk through. The fans know what’s at stake here. They lived 21 seasons without a football team. By kickoff, most of the seats are full.
A family of three is clad in Gurley jerseys, standing in line at the concessions stand. “We bought the jerseys when they announced the return,” says Johnny Xavier, who lives in the Hollywood Hills.
“My dad passed Rams fandom onto me, and I’m passing it on to my son,” he continues, as he gestures at his son, seven-year-old Ryan. They head into the stadium, to take their seats. They don’t want to miss anything.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers climb atop a makeshift stage on the field. Hundreds of fans surround them. Lead singer Anthony Kiedis performs shirtless, as they belt through three songs. This feels very California-y.
Players from both teams make their way onto the field. Cannons shoot fireworks into the air. California Love blasts over the field. The announcer generously calls the Coliseum the “most iconic stadium venue in America.” If he means old and in need of updating then that’s fair. Downtown L.A. looms in the distance, the San Gabriel Mountains behind in the far background. It feels a little like the NFL never really left.
The singer CeeLo Green performs the National Anthem. The Seahawks lock arms, same as they did last week, in what they say is a demonstration of unity.
Kickoff. The NFL is back. Another Hollywood sequel has begun.
The Rams take a 3–0 lead in the first quarter after a 39-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein. That score marks their first points of the season. It’s not a touchdown. But it’s progress.
Because this is Los Angeles, the video boards flash to one celebrity or another during every timeout . There’s basketball star LeBron James on the sideline wearing shades. There’s the talk show host James Corden dancing with the Rams cheerleaders (an image that you should Google and watch, and you will never be able to un-see it).
The Seahawks add their own field goal to the scoreboard, a 23-yarder by Hauschka that was undoubtedly applauded by the two people who wore his jersey to the game. A barnburner this is not. But don’t tell that to the stadium P.A. announcer. He makes 3–3 sound like the most exciting thing in the entire world. He shouts into the microphone after every play, like he’s announcing at Wrestlemania. This is the guy I want writing my obituary.
Rams quarterback Case Keenum finds running back Todd Gurley in the left flat, and Gurley turns up field and picks up 19 yards. The Rams had gained 67 yards in the full hour before that play. For the fans who might have been confused, the rest of the league calls that offense.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t understand why the Rams don’t feed the ball to Gurley every chance they get. They threw 35 times last week against the 49ers and 30 times on Sunday against the Seahawks. And while defenses undoubtedly will key in on Gurley, loading eight defenders near the line of scrimmage, 20 touches for last season’s NFL rookie of the year doesn’t seem like the smartest way to win.
There’s a lot of chatter on Twitter about the number of empty seats at The Coliseum. You can definitely see them. That said, it’s loud here. After big plays, the press box shakes. As the Rams drive down field in the second quarter, Keenum has to quiet the crowd on two occasions.
Rams fans even cheer when there’s not much to cheer for—like a 6–3 lead going into the half.
The Rams introduce their Hall of Famers during a halftime ceremony. The press box is mostly empty, because it’s halftime, and they’re serving Pink’s hot dogs, and the line is like something from Black Friday. (Hot dogs consumed: two; don’t judge.)
Rams defensive end William Hayes flattens Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. It’s fair to wonder, as it was last week when Wilson injured his ankle against Miami, how many players are as indispensible to their teams as Wilson is to his. His backup is an undrafted free agent rookie in Trevone Boykin. If Wilson goes down, so do the Seahawks, which is why Seattle’s offensive line will need to improve for the team to make a playoff run. Wilson looked less mobile than normal on Sunday, even as he insisted his ankle was fine and healed.
Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor who could pass for the actor Ty Burrell’s twin, is shown on the video boards. The crowd boos him. Think about that. They boo the mayor, but they don’t boo the Rams!
I talked to Garcetti a few weeks ago for a magazine piece. He had a good story I didn’t have room for. “There was this one guy who kept asking to get a stop sign put in his neighborhood,” Garcetti says. “I saw him at a party. He had been trying for years, and he finally got the sign. That affected the safety of his kids, but he was more excited about the NFL’s return.”
Greg the Leg knocks his third field goal through the uprights, a 47-yarder, and the Rams lead, 9–3. The PA announcer says 91,046 are in attendance, although that seems like a stretch. Lakers rookie Brandon Ingram is in attendance, and they show him on the big screen. The crowd cheers.
The Seahawks offense takes the field for one final drive, needing a touchdown to steal a comeback win. From the field, the stands look close to full, at somewhere around 90% capacity. Then Wilson uncorks a beautiful deep ball to receiver Tyler Lockett up the left sideline. The play goes for 53 yards and puts Seattle 35 yards from the end zone.
Cameramen scramble down the field, past the mist machines on the Rams’ bench. The crowd chants DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!
It’s so loud that Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham is whistled for a false start. Usually that’s what happens to opponents in Seattle.
Wilson throws to Christine Michael on third-and-10, and Michael, sensing the game is on the line, fights forward toward the first-down marker, only to fumble. The Rams recover. They run out the clock. They win.
Since the start of the 2014 season, the Seahawks are 22–7 against every NFL team except the Rams. They're 1–4 against the Rams in that span.
Fans stream toward the exits. They’re not leaving early. They’re leaving at the end. A helicopter flies nearby the field. “Let’s Go Rams,” the crowd chants. It’s the exact ending for the Rams’ first home game in L.A. that a Hollywood script writer might have written. (Although the game itself was all about punts and field position.)
The Rams still have yet to score a touchdown two games into their 2016 season. Still, they don’t plan to apologize for winning the way they did on Sunday. All wins matter. That’s the approach they took.
Seahawks defense end Michael Bennett stalks off the field. He looks upset. “California Love” plays again over the stadium speakers. Keenum runs by the fans in the front row near the Rams’ locker room, high-fiving as many hands as he can reach. One guy holds up a “Mob Squad” sign. Wideout Brian Quick throws his wristbands in the stands.
As the last players filter into their locker room, the fans that remain are dancing in the stands. They’re throwing up W’s. They don’t care about the score. They care about the win.
Fisher walks into his post-game press conference with a smirk spread across his face. “They’re killing me,” he says, and he means his team and how they let Seattle back in it. He wore a blue polo shirt and those khakis that every coach seems to wear that are a size or two too big and pleated and almost always gray. It’s like they give you a closet of those khakis when you become an NFL head coach.
Someone asked Fisher about his team’s “domination” of the Seahawks. “I wouldn’t call it domination,” he says.
Besides, the Rams still need to score a touchdown. They need to get Gurley the ball more. That’ll happen, Fisher says.
The crowd of reporters around linebacker Alec Ogletree’s locker is five deep. That’s because he recovered that Michael fumble to seal the Rams’ victory. That’s because he’s a star. So many writers crowd around his locker they block the entrance to the locker room. It’s possible that’s a good thing since there’s no air conditioning in there and everyone is sweating like they just ran marathons. Employees pack up the Rams' equipment. The televisions are already showing highlights from the game.
Behind Ogletree the snippet of his fumble recovery plays as he talks. The defensive players are careful not to say anything negative about the offense. “I feel like our offense is going to come through,” cornerback Trumaine Johnson says.
At his locker, Hayes is being asked about how the Rams have the “Seahawks' number.” He says he doesn’t agree with the premise of the question. It’s weird, then, to hear these players on this team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2004 being asked about “dominance” and having “someone’s number.” But that is the weird thing about the Rams. They always give the Seahawks fits.
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald walks by en route to the shower. “Can we get some AC in here?” he asks no one in particular.
A crowd waits for Gurley as his locker as he dresses, tugging on some spiked gold high-tops. Les Snead, the Rams general manager, watches all this unfold.
One of his sons asks Snead, “Did you get to meet LeBron?”
“I did get to meet LeBron,” Snead says.
The stadium is mostly empty now, as Gurley talks to reporters. He’s not surly, and he’s not complaining, but it’s easy to see the frustration on his face. He mumbles out his answers. He says “clearly that wasn’t our best game” and “obviously we can do a lot better” and “we gotta score.” As the questions keep coming, Gurley sighs when they’re asked.
“I can’t predict the future,” is how he ends the interview.
The stadium is empty now, save for the workers who are cleaning up the pretzel crumbs and beer cans. A man drives a lawnmower over the field. The TV reporters sit or stand in the end zone, beaming back reports about the game and what it meant.
For the Rams, victory was better than the alternative, even if victory was boring, or ugly, or Rams-ian. Los Angeles may be a city of celebrity, but on Sunday the Rams knocked off one of the NFL’s best teams with punts (!) and field position (!!) and a crowd that was so loud the roar echoed to downtown in the distance. They won because they grinded, and, on the first NFL Sunday in Los Angeles in more than two decades, there was some beauty in that, too.