On the Road with the L.A. Rams’ Rolling Caravan
OXNARD, Calif. — When the news broke two and a half months ago that the Rams were moving back to Los Angeles, the team’s equipment czar, Jim Lake, gathered his three sons in their St. Louis-area house and made an announcement: They were relocating to California, too. The middle child,13, burst into tears. The youngest, 12, shut down and wouldn’t talk about the move for almost two months. The eldest, a business-minded 15-year-old, had a question: “If there’s a second team going to L.A., would they have to pay the Rams rent?”
A potential tenant is the last thing on the minds of Rams employees as they scramble to prepare a half-dozen sites to house the team. Owner Stan Kroenke was given the NFL’s blessing to move to Los Angeles in part for his ambitious new stadium, which is scheduled to open in 2019 in Inglewood. Until then, the franchise is operating in temporary spaces between Oxnard and Irvine, a distance of more than 100 miles. “We jokingly call it the gypsy caravan,” Lake says. “Everything’s on wheels. Everything’s ready to roll.”
It’s been this way for the franchise for almost a year now, as long-whispered Los Angeles rumors morphed into public posturing and proposals. Lake’s crew started packing and prepping for the move a day after the regular season ended. Says Rams CEO Kevin Demoff, “No matter what the outcome was, whether we moved or didn’t, I think there’s a tremendous amount of relief among our people in just knowing what the future holds.”
Last Friday, Demoff took a brief tour of the caravan’s first stop: the sprawling Residence Inn campus in Oxnard, where the team will hold its offseason program (rookie minicamp, OTAs, top-30 visits, draft preparations) before most likely staging training camp at UC Irvine (the team and the school have yet to reach terms). Demoff, the slender, Dartmouth-schooled executive, took a moment to soak in the Southern California sunshine before surveying the giant white tent that will serve as the weight room.
“Just look at this weather,” he said with a laugh. “We’re going to be the softest team.”
Jokes aside, the Rams are taking every step to ensure players experience something close to business as usual when they report to work in mid-April. Three weeks ago the team received permission from the NFL and the NFLPA to hold a non-mandatory information session at a Manhattan Beach hotel. An officer from the LAPD was there to educate players on topics ranging from new drivers’ licenses and California traffic laws to local gun ordinances. Rams PR director Artis Twyman highlighted the media scrutiny players will be under in Los Angeles, a lesson that almost taught itself: Twyman showed a video on a projection screen of a TMZ reporter ambushing running back Todd Gurley at the LAX baggage claim just the day before.
In the clip, the NFL’s 2015 offensive rookie of the year was asked about In-N-Out Burger—a favorite on the West Coast—and played along with the minor annoyance. “I eat beef, but not that much,” he said between glances at the baggage carousel. “But when I do, it’s definitely In-N-Out.”
Coach Jeff Fisher brought in a couple of heavy-hitters, former Rams greats Eric Dickerson and Jackie Slater, to hammer home his most important point about living in the greater L.A. area: The traffic congestion is very real, and will be especially so during this nomadic season.
The first stop for the offseason program is Oxnard, 61 miles up the 101 from downtown Los Angeles. At the end of the month, the football staff will relocate to a hotel across the street from the downtown L.A. Live complex; they’ll hold a week of scouting meetings before a draft event at L.A. Live.
In July, players will move 105 miles south from Oxnard to Irvine (likely) for summer training camp. When camp breaks, they’ll go 84 miles north to Thousand Oaks, to the Rams’ in-season practice facility and offices. On game days players will commute 43 miles east to the Coliseum, just south of downtown. By the time a sense of routine is established, the Rams will play a “home game” in London on Oct. 23 against the Giants. That’s a nice little commute of 5,437 miles, each way.
The players were advised, in no uncertain terms, to find housing arrangements near Thousand Oaks and the campus of Cal Lutheran, where the team will be headquartered for the next three regular seasons.
“The commute time is going to be your biggest enemy,” says Bruce Warwick, the Rams’ director of operations and assistant to the head coach. “Eric lives down in Calabasas, whereas Jackie lives in Orange County. And they talked about what the commute time is going to be and how it’s not St. Louis.”
Only one player on the roster has boyhood ties to the L.A. area—linebacker Akeem Ayers grew up in Watts, where he went to Verbum Dei High School. On the other hand, several Rams staffers are making their second move with the franchise. The team retained almost 100 staff members, including coaches, scouts and behind-the-scenes personnel such as Lake.
For Lake, the decision to move was a no-brainer. He’s a Rams lifer who had already moved with the team once, in June 1995, when he packed his personal belongings into the smallest U-Haul trailer money could rent and towed it behind his Jeep. Back then he was an intern in the team’s equipment department, a 20-something who got his start shagging balls at practice and was a blip in a convoy that included 16 moving trucks to relocate to St. Louis.
Twenty-two years later, Lake is the quick-witted equipment manager who played a pivotal role as 30 trucks made the trip to L.A. “It’s very bittersweet for me because I love St. Louis. I love that town,” he says. “We have very good friends, and it’s a good place to raise children. But that’s out of my control. So we’re excited for this adventure, and the kids are coming around. It’s hard on the kids.”
Bill Consoli, the team’s director of information systems in St. Louis, was among those who declined the offer to move to California. “He’s a genius-class intellect,” says director of video operations Larry Clerico, who was left to direct the loading of the “hot truck”—the 53-foot air-suspension straight truck with a 305-inch wheelbase that sent about $2 million worth of equipment, including computer servers, some 1,800 miles west on Interstates 40 and 15.
That truck left St. Louis last Thursday and arrived late Friday night for a Saturday installation. Clerico woke up at 5 a.m. that day and didn’t stop working until 10 p.m., installing an information system that will be packed up and moved to the team’s training camp location in a matter of weeks. “Most days we’re spending between 10 and 16 hours here installing and getting everything ready for these coaches to get here,” he says.
Bruce Warwick, the team’s director of operations, is a logistics guru who has worked with the Packers, Duke, Syracuse and Tennessee. He’s done the bulk of the legwork in building out new sites for the team’s move to California. He says he visited more than 30 sites that will have some bearing on the future of the Rams, all while keeping a mental catalog of minor details such as the color of the carpet in the training room tent (blue).
Warwick was the first to send Demoff an are-you-kidding-me text when it was reported last week that the league was advancing plans to have the Rams play a 2018 “home game” in China. Demoff texted back not to worry: “You’ll be bored by 2018.”
The day before the hot truck arrived, Clerico and Warwick had a sit-down with the Residence Inn’s general manager to assess the possibility of getting additional internet bandwidth, a critical commodity that can make the difference between a full night’s sleep and a 2 a.m. call from an agitated coach mashing the download button in vain. Before the meeting with the hotel GM, Warwick pressed Clerico. “Well, what’s our Plan C?” Thirty minutes later the hotel’s GM promised to put the squeeze on a local vendor. “I can turn up the heat,” he said, “and the heat is that little logo on your jersey. ‘Hey, the Rams are demanding this.’ ”
That the Rams are in the position to be making demands in Ventura County is the work of Kroenke, and to a large degree, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who championed the idea of the Rams returning to L.A. and building a megastadium that will rival his own in Texas. It was Jones who invited the Rams to this Oxnard site, where the Cowboys have camped for years, for a few days of training camp last offseason. It was an eye-opening experience for players and staff.
“We had two days of practice in California, and we had thousands come out,” says Kate Walker, the manager of football operations. “It made me happy for those guys.”
At the combine, “All the other teams’ staff were begging us for the [Los Angeles Rams] T-shirts,” says Walker.
In St. Louis, Walker worked with general manager Les Snead and saw her role evolve from handling logistics for the personnel department to include players as well. A razor-sharp multitasker, Walker attended the owners’ meetings in January and heard Demoff’s presentation before the Rams delegation was asked to leave the room. Later she and a colleague toasted the L.A. approval with champagne, unsure if they were flying back to St. Louis or straight to California to begin preparations.
Last Friday she wore one of the few Los Angeles Rams dry-fit T-shirts in existence as she pushed plastic crates up wooden ramps at the Residence Inn. For the combine in Indianapolis, the Rams brought a limited number of freshly minted L.A. Rams shirts to give prospects at the conclusion of their formal interviews. She successfully lobbied for one, but word got out and many other requests were denied.
“All the other teams’ staff were begging us for the shirts. It was hysterical,” she says. “There were a couple guys who worked for the Ravens who wanted them for their kids. A bunch of former Rams employees wanted them as well.”
The love for the Rams is blossoming in California as well. As Warwick bounces from site to site, people are thrilled. They still can’t believe the Rams are back, he says. Everyone has a story, from the guy who attended the final game in 1994, to the guy whose father took him to the first game, in 1946.
“People have been wonderful,” Warwick says. “There’s some connectivity that is unique to the Rams moving back here that I don’t think any other team could have.
“Obviously it’s business, but we’re in vogue right now.”
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