A die-hard fan from New Zealand flew halfway around the world to St. Louis to watch his beloved team take on the Seahawks in the season opener. He picked the right game

September 17, 2015

BY JONO HARTLES

Unforgettable. That’s what my first NFL experience was—watching my Rams beat the Seahawks in overtime, live at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on the opening week of the season. 

I was very nervous going into this game. I could handle a loss, but I couldn’t handle a performance that wasn’t competitive. The Rams have been lackluster and inconsistent for so long, I was scared that I’d travelled 8,000 miles and spent thousands of dollars only to be disappointed. But I wasn’t. Not one single moment, from the start to the finish.

You might be curious how a 25-year-old personal insurance agent from Hamilton, New Zealand, become a St. Louis Rams fan. Well, it was 11 years ago. Steven Jackson was a Rams rookie, and I was 14 years old. In New Zealand, we didn’t have much exposure to American football on TV, but my friends and I would buy the Madden game every year. We were playing a friendly, and I decided to use the Rams. Funny thing is, I started off using Marshall Faulk in the backfield, but I thought he was too slow, so I brought in Jackson. He looked wicked with those dreads, and he was faster than Faulk.

Since then I haven’t looked back. I get up at 5 a.m. every Monday morning in the season to watch the games (there’s a 16-hour time difference), and I see every single Rams game. I’m obsessed. I take days off of work when the Rams play national TV games. I take days off for the NFL draft. And of course I take the Super Bowl—on a Monday in New Zealand—off.

This year I started planning a trip to the Lou to see the Rams play and do an American NFL tour. After weeks of talk I finally convinced my cousin Hugo that we wouldn’t get another opportunity to do this, as eventually we’d have families and other priorities. He agreed, even though it meant he’d have to quit his job to take the vacation time. After taking all this into consideration, he decided he could always get another job—but he may never get another opportunity to tour the states with this cousin and go to three NFL games: Seahawks at Rams, Broncos at Chiefs and Cowboys at Eagles. Off we went!

My first surprise on game day came on our walk to the stadium. I looked over and next to us, waiting at the stoplight, was Todd Gurley in his SUV. It was fate, I decided—I had to buy his top, as he was the first player I saw. Note: It was excruciatingly difficult to not buy a Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers or Alec Ogletree jersey. No joke, I wanted them all.

 I was scared that I’d travelled 8,000 miles and spent thousands of dollars only to be disappointed.

My first sense of the Edward Jones Dome was that it just looked ginormous. Everything felt larger than life. I guess when you get used to seeing it on a small screen hundreds of times over, you can’t comprehend how big the field, the stadium and everything else is. I was blown away by the sheer size.

After I bought my Gurley top, Hugo and I were escorted onto the field before the game to watch the Rams warm up. To briefly explain how that happened: Field Yates of ESPN quote-tweeted my tweet explaining that I was flying from New Zealand to the Lou to watch the game. Seeing that, Molly Higgins from the Rams reached out and offered Hugo and me field VIP passes to allow us to watch the Rams warm up.

Jono (left) and Hugo.

Everything felt so surreal, being less than five meters away from these mammoth men, seeing them in the flesh, trying to comprehend how big it was for me to be there, in that moment. To see these guys in the flesh, my favourite team, after watching them from 8,000 miles away on a weekly basis felt like a dream.

Previously when I watched games, the NFL seemed like an imaginary world. Seeing these players up close—their size, skill, athleticism—made it all real. It really does take being up close to appreciate and truly understand the size, power and speed of these men.

As Hugo and I walked around the stadium talking to other fans, people were definitely surprised by our accents. Their first guess was always Australia, but after I’d explain that we were from New Zealand, the general reaction was disbelief. One fan said, “Here I thought I was making an effort flying in from Chicago this morning.”

For 60 minutes of football, the Dome screamed its heart out, trying to push the Rams across the line. I just can’t get off the passion in the crowd. When the Rams defense was on the field, every down was truly electric. At some points I had goosebumps. Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn were straight out dominant, and the defense continually gave me reason to stand up and scream my lungs out. We high-fived and hugged each time the defense came up trumps. The stadium just erupted after Donald’s second sack, followed by Tavon Austin’s punt return TD.

Sooooo many years I’ve gone into Rams season with high expectations, and always left frustrated and disappointed. Sunday felt different. When adversity struck and the Rams went behind 31-24, they didn’t fade away. Nick Foles coolly led them down the field to tie the game with less than a minute remaining.

The passion from the fans surprised me. With all the negativity surrounding the Rams and their potential move to L.A., it was the lowest attendance for a home opener since the Rams moved to the Lou, but it didn’t matter. If you closed your eyes you would believe 100,000 people packed that stadium. So, sure, the Rams may have lost some fans because of what is happening with the move, but those that remain more than make up for that. Passion is not a question. I loved every second of it, and a few empty seats didn’t change a thing.

My first game was a mind-blowing experience, better than I could have ever expected. No doubt in my mind that I made the right decision in coming. I’d do it every year if I could, and I would live in America for the entirety of the NFL season to watch the Rams play. Yes, I love it that much.

Jono’s off to see more NFL, and some baseball, on his American trip. Follow him on Twitter @TFF_jono and Instagram at j_hartles. Do you have a great fan story? Let us know at talkback@themmqb.com.

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