A Ticket from Christmas Eve 1994: The Day the NFL Died in L.A.
On Dec. 24, 1994, the Raiders and Rams both played their last games in L.A. The stars were out—from Marcus Allen and Jerome Bettis to Whoopi Goldberg and Kelsey Grammer—as were fans desperate to hold on. But while a sense of finality hovered in the air, no one thought the void would last two decades and counting
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in The MMQB’s 10-part series NFL 95: A History of Pro Football in 95 Objects, commemorating the 95th season of the NFL in 2014. Each Wednesday through the start of training camp in July, The MMQB will unveil one long-form story on an artifact of particular significance to the history of the NFL, accompanied by other objects that trace the rise of professional football in America, from the NFL’s founding in a Hupmobile dealership in Canton in 1920 to its place today at the forefront of American sports and popular culture.
It’s been 20 years. Really. Two decades have passed since the NFL played a game in America’s second-largest metropolitan area. “Mind-boggling,” says Broncos coach John Fox, who was the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1994. “You thought when the Rams and the Raiders left L.A., it’d be a couple years, maybe a year, before the NFL came back. But for it to go this long is crazy.”
The day football died in Los Angeles: December 24, 1994. The Raiders walked off the turf of the L.A. Coliseum at 4:02 p.m. after a 19–9 loss to the Chiefs; five minutes later, 35 miles away, the Rams’ game against Washington at Anaheim Stadium ended in a 24–21 loss. The Los Angeles area hasn’t hosted an NFL game since.
That’s right: The last two games for Los Angeles’s NFL teams were played simultaneously. Plenty else of note dimmed with time from that murky Christmas Eve in Southern California:
- In Anaheim, the Rams’ final game drew a smaller crowd than a high school game played in the same stadium eight days earlier.
- In Los Angeles, Joe Montana played the last regular-season game of his life, and threw the last of his 273 NFL touchdowns.
- In Anaheim, Chuck Knox coached the last game of his career.
- In Los Angeles, 34-year-old Marcus Allen, in his second season as a Chief after 11 with the Raiders, stuck it to Al Davis with one of the last great games of his Hall of Fame career.
- In Anaheim, first-round Washington quarterback “savior” Heath Shuler won the first game of his ill-fated NFL career. He’d win just seven more before the second act of his adult life—as a U.S. congressman from North Carolina.
- In Los Angeles, fans had no idea the Raiders were playing their last game in L.A.
- In Anaheim, fans knew the Rams were as good as gone.
“All in the same day?” asks Jerome Bettis, then a second-year back for the Rams. “That’s wild.”
The Rams were born in Cleveland but moved to southern California in 1946, the league’s first West Coast venture, and played there for 49 seasons. They were the first NFL team to sign a black player: Kenny Washington, in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Los Angeles is where the Rams won an NFL championship in 1951, where the Fearsome Foursome terrorized offenses and Eric Dickerson rushed for 2,105 yards. The Raiders played in Los Angeles for 13 years, and it was home to their last Super Bowl-winning season, in 1983.
The last day, though, was … well, unceremonious at best. In the annals of the NFL, Christmas Eve 1994 has been largely forgotten. Until now.
Here is the story of the day football died in Los Angeles.
* * *
Anaheim Stadium, 11:55 a.m.
Dale Kristien wore a red-and-black plaid dress and mid-calf black boots. The anthem singer for the Rams’ game, a Broadway soprano, took the elevator to ground level and walked onto the field “When I got down there, there was nobody there to greet me,” Kristien says. “I thought that was a bit odd. But I found three guys sitting on a bench. ‘Excuse me,’ I asked one, ‘Do you have any idea where I’m supposed to go?’ He replied, ‘No idea, sorry.’ But then he offered to help. Turns out that man was Sonny Jurgensen! [The former Washington quarterback was a color man for the radio broadcasts.] Of course he wouldn’t know. The lack of attention overall was definitely strange.”
L.A. Coliseum, 12:10 p.m.
It began with a scuffle. During warmups, the Chiefs rocketed punts into the area where Raiders players stretched. Or the Raiders slowly infringed on Chiefs territory. Depends on whom you ask. Either way, assistant coaches Kurt Schottenheimer of the Chiefs and Arthur Whittington of the Raiders had to be separated. “Doesn’t surprise me,” says Raiders tight end coach Bob Mischak, now 81. “Things like that were always happening at the Coliseum. In warm-ups there just wasn’t enough room. The configuration was terrible.”
Chiefs fullback Kimble Anders: “Not only was it intense on the field, but those fans were nuts—intimidating, a lot of profanity, just in-your-face rowdy. They greeted us the second we got off the bus, a big crowd of them just yelling. They wore costumes, had black-and-silver face paint, the whole deal. There’s one guy who stood out. He was a bigger, muscular guy, and had these spikes poking out of his shoulders. I remember him because he was chirping at me the whole game. That same guy.”
Anaheim, 12:20 p.m.
It was a lost season for both the Rams and the Redskins. Los Angeles had a promising young running back in Bettis, but not much else. “When I think back to my time in L.A., unfortunately the only thing I think of is personal achievement,” Bettis says. The Redskins lost virtually every player from their 1991 Super Bowl team, and started rookie quarterback Heath Shuler. “Plus, there were wanted posters for me at every D.C. post office,” Ron Lynn, the coordinator of a Washington defense that would give up the most points in the league, says with a laugh. This wasn’t exactly the draw of the week.
As Redskins rookie head coach Norv Turner walked out of the tunnel out for warm-ups, he surveyed the crowd. He looked at the lower bowl, then scanned up.
“There were sections that were just completely empty,” Turner recalls. “It felt like a high school Friday night football game.” Perhaps not quite: A week earlier, 26,295 showed up here for the California Southern Section Division I championship. For the Rams’ finale against Washington: 25,705. The Mater Dei-Bishop Amat title game outdrew the NFL.
Rams radio voice Steve Physioc: “They had some bad crowds that year. But this one stood out.”
Rams defensive end Gerald Robinson: “When I ran onto the field, it was just like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
Coliseum, 12:50 p.m.
It was sunny and 65 degrees during early warm-ups, but a blanket of clouds had since swept over the stadium as the teams came out for kickoff. The Chiefs ran onto the field first, greeted by boos from the 64,130 fans. The Raiders had all sorts of problems filling the 90,000-seat Coliseum that season.
Fox: “It was such a vast stadium to begin with, it was never full. I mean, it was built as an Olympic stadium. That day, though, I remember a decent crowd.”
Raiders ticket agent Peter Eiges: “This game, we had no trouble selling. I spent the game in my office, fielding any issues from game-day tickets and also working on potential playoff scenarios.”
This was a pre-playoff playoff game; the winner would be an AFC wild card. The Chiefs, led by Montana and a stingy defense, were 8–7. As they jogged onto the grass, a bit dug up and yellowed from a long season, the black-and-silver speckled crowd booed. As Kansas City defensive end Neal Smith ran out, an NFL Films boom mike captured him shouting to his teammates. He said, “Gotta earn respect, baby. The only way to earn respect is to win out here. Gotta win in Los Angeles.”
The Raiders ran out next, flanked by Davis. As Los Angeles players spilled onto the sideline, Davis, in a white jumpsuit and Cazal shades, jogged back toward the tunnel and slapped hands with fans in the front row. Al Davis slapping hands with the masses? It happened. Lakers forward Vlade Divac watched from his seat in the second row. Upstairs in a suite, Whoopi Goldberg snacked on popcorn.
Anaheim, 12:55 p.m.
Rams PR director Rick Smith settled into his press box seat, preparing for a long day. Two or three St. Louis TV stations were credentialed, and Smith knew afterward, win or lose, questions wouldn’t be just about football. “It’s funny,’’ Smith says. “When [the St. Louis media] first started coming around, they would interrupt Knox during his press conferences, or not ask questions at the right time. They weren’t used to covering football. It was a whole new ball game for them.”
Coliseum, 12:57 p.m.
In the midst of its second season, Frasier was just becoming TV’s most popular sitcom. Now, out of the tunnel walked the star of the show, Kelsey Grammer, to sing the anthem. He wore a cobalt blue sweater layered over a white collared shirt. Surprisingly sonorous, the sitcom star nailed his rendition, then pumped his fist.
“Merry Christmas!” Grammer shouted into the mike.
* * *
Anaheim, 1:17 p.m.
Rams safety Anthony Newman: “Before the game, [defensive backs] coach Joe Vitt told us to just watch Heath Shuler’s eyes and get a break on the ball, because he’s going to try to force it. Sure enough, in the first quarter Shuler tries to force a throw and it goes right in my direction. Interception. The crowd, though it was small, was going nuts. When I ran back to he sideline, Vitt goes ‘I told you so, I told you so!’ ”
Todd Lyght slapped Newman on the back and yelled, “I’m going to get me one!” Marcus Todd, fellow defensive back, joined in: “I’m going to get me one too!”
“Man, we felt really good right then,” Newman recalls. “We felt like we were going to give those fans that came out something to cheer about, and Coach, too. We all loved Coach Knox. We saw him kind of like a grandfather figure. My favorite Knox story was that he always yelled at us if we kept the locker room messy. If there was tape lying around or we’d leave extra towels on the floor, he’d freak out. That’s the angriest we’d ever see him. ‘You know, somebody’s mom comes in here and picks all this stuff up!’ he’d tell us. Well, turns out one day we found out Knox’s mother was a maid. It kind of made you take a step back and say, Wow. Anyway, we loved that guy. We wanted to win for him. No matter what happened in the offseason—and we knew there would be a lot of changes—this was one thing we could control.”
Fans sporadically booed Rams owner Georgia Frontiere throughout the game. It had been all over the papers that she was looking for a more lucrative home for her team. The fans waved homemade signs:
“Georgia is the Grinch”
“Georgia Gets Cole” [sic]
“Bitter to the end”
Washington defensive coordinator Lynn: “There were visible signs of protest. I think I even remember a fly-over plane protesting our owner, Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the L.A. newspaper [the Daily News] at the time. And of course there was booing for Georgia [Frontiere]. But we were just focused on the game. Everyone in that game just wanted to end the season with a win.”
Coliseum, 2:10 p.m.
Down 7–3 with 12 seconds left in the half and the Raiders positioned on the Chiefs 28, Los Angeles coach Art Shell opted to try one more play. The decision backfired. Mark Collins intercepted Jeff Hostetler’s pass and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown. “Fluky play right before halftime,” Fox, up in the coaches’ booth that day, recalls. “That’s kind of what decided it.”
The Raiders’ quarterback spiked his helmet on the ground. On the Kansas City sideline, wide receiver J.J. Birden skipped back and forth. “They shoulda kicked the field goal!” he beamed. “They shoulda kicked a field goal!”
Anders: “That kind of silenced the crowd for a while, especially going into halftime. Playing in there was always tough because if you got caught up in what the crowd was yelling, you could lose focus. Our coaches actually told us to keep our helmets on when we were on the sideline, and running into the tunnel, because fans were known to chuck pennies or cigarette lighters at you.”
Anaheim, 2:30 p.m.
Mission Viejo (Calif.) High band director John Hannan normally wouldn’t accept a gig like this. School was on break, after all, and asking the kids to show up a day before Christmas didn’t seem right. But the Rams offered a hefty payment, and the band really needed new tubas. So at 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve, the students congregated at the high school parking lot and rehearsed through dense fog. Only half of the brass quartet could show up, so saxophone players had to learn their parts. “It only got stranger,” Hannan says. They drove the half-hour to the stadium, and when they arrived in Anaheim a mishandled flagpole whacked a trumpet player above the left eye. Blood gushed everywhere. A band member’s father applied butterfly stitches, a temporary fix until they could visit the hospital after the game. So here was the slightly mangled group, ready to take stage.
“But first they had this Frisbee dog act,” Hannan says. “The kids got a kick out of that.”
The Rams paid Bill Camp of America’s Best Frisbee Dogs $2,500 to come from Michigan. That just about covered the hotel and airfare—for Camp and his dogs. “I pretty much made out even,” Camp says. “But we did it because it was such a fun trip.” Sprite the Super Dog (a Border Collie) and Whitey the Wonderdog (a stray-turned-star Lab/Doberman mix who also appeared in Little Caesar’s commercials) loved performing in the sun. They darted from end zone to end zone, and garnered cheers when Whitey put on a pair of sunglasses. “We’ve done 500 shows, and I think 223 NFL games or something like that. But this was one of our favorite venues. I loved coming out to Los Angeles. It’s a shame we haven’t been back.”
Coliseum, 2:35 p.m.
Inside the Raiders’ locker room, Art Shell apologized to his team. It was his fault, the coach insisted, that the Raiders trailed. They shouldn’t have gone for it. They dominated the game. Frustration stewed. “But we play best when we’re mad,” Shell told the Raiders, and so, they ran out seeking vengeance.
Wide receiver Alexander Wright: “I think my fondest memories from that day was the strong bond on that the Raider team. We had this hard work ethic and determination to succeed, even though it didn’t end up going in our favor.”
Anaheim, 2:40 p.m.
Georgia Frontiere’s luxury box was a glass-enclosed room on the 50-yard line. It was famous for its celebrity guests (Maureen Reagan, daughter of the former president, was a regular) and its endless lunch spread. On this day the offerings included roast beef, salads and a dessert bar with make-your-own hot fudge sundaes.
Super-agent Leigh Steinberg brought his 8-year-old son, John. Steinberg spearheaded the Save the Rams campaign, assembling 120 local businessmen to keep the team in town. (One fan brought a poster to the game that read, Leigh Save Our Rams.) Progress seemed to stall, so Steinberg was hoping to approach Frontiere for one last plea. “I went up there quite a bit because Georgia and I were actually good acquaintances,” Steinberg says. “In 1992 she was the chairwoman of a foundation that had named me Man of the Year. She gave me a Rams jersey with my name on it that I had in my office for a while. But I also knew how, well, difficult she could be. She was an eccentric. Once, for example, I wanted to discuss a client with her. She said, ‘Now’s not a good time, Leigh.’ When I asked why, she said, ‘Because Mars is in retrograde.’ ”
Steinberg kept trying to approach Frontiere. She kept eluding him.
Coliseum, 2:50 p.m.
A shirtless man with sagging black cargo pants and silver facepaint darted onto the field. He waved a black T-shirt and ran within inches of where the Raiders were lined up for 2nd-and-long. Two policemen and three security guards swarmed the guy, collared him, and escorted him off the field. Four minutes earlier another fan had tried to do the same. On the sideline, Chiefs players laughed. After grabbing a cup of water, linebacker Greg Manusky walked over to teammates and said: “Man, this place is crazy. There’s fights going on, now this. It’s like a war zone.”
Safety Dave Whitmore: “Welcome to L.A.”
Anaheim, 3 p.m.
Washington safety Martin Bayless: “I remember the fans who were there were frustrated. You saw some booing the owner, some had bags over their heads, and who can blame them. I tuned all that out; I was in the zone that day. My dad had passed away a few days before. He was one of my biggest fans. By the time I had an interception in the third quarter, I remember a pretty thin crowd. After the game I flew back home to Ohio to bury my dad. I never really thought of this as the last game in Los Angeles. I never put it into that context.”
One fan who stayed: photographer Christopher Grisanti. The chief artifact in this story—a ticket from that last game at Anaheim—belongs to him. In 1994, Grisanti’s career was just taking off. He shot a few Rams home games that season and was offered a press pass to cover this one. “I had to decline, though,” Grisanti says. “It was really important for me to watch this last game with my dad. He had been a fan from the beginning. It started in 1945 when he loved UCLA. UCLA’s quarterback Bob Waterfield was drafted by the Cleveland Rams, and he became a Cleveland fan. As fate had it, Cleveland relocated to Los Angeles, and he was a fan ever since. I went to my first L.A. Rams game in 1969, when I was 9 years old. I got a pair of season tickets for my high school graduation. Going to Rams games was how my father and I bonded. We knew this was the end for the Rams here in Los Angeles. The day was kind of dreary … it definitely fit the occasion. My father also hadn’t been feeling well. He was battling through what he thought was the flu. A few weeks later he found out it was lung cancer. It’s funny—he always said if the Rams leave Los Angeles, I’ll die.”
Robert Grisanti passed away nine months later.
Coliseum, 3:30 p.m.
Down 17–3 entering the fourth quarter, with a chance to make a late push, the Raiders gave up a safety. Later Montana bruised his left knee, and then Hostetler twisted his right ankle. As the final whistle got closer it was two backup quarterbacks—Steve Bono for the Chiefs, Vince Evans for the Raiders—milking the seconds off the clock.
Mischak: “The end of the game was a blur. I think we were all ready to start a new season.”
Not Marcus Allen. Games against the Raiders were always personal to him, because he felt Al Davis made it personal with him. Allen was the biggest star of the Raiders teams in the ’80s, but he felt Davis buried him with the Raiders (because of contract disputes and the belief that he was injury-prone) and dictated to the coaching staff that he not play much even when he was healthy. After the 1992 season, Davis let Allen walk, calling him “an asterisk” in Raiders history. That asterisk had had one of the best postseasons in NFL history in 1983, rushing for 466 yards over three games, including 191 in a Super Bowl MVP performance against Washington. But over Allen’s last four seasons as a Raider he never had 100 yards rushing—or more than 20 carries—in a game.
Thus Allen’s bitterness toward Davis—and his eagerness to kill the Raiders’ playoff hopes as the disappointed silver-and-black crowd filed for the exits.
During that fourth quarter, Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer kept calling Allen’s number … and Allen kept grinding. Sixteen times he carried the ball, for 70 yards. He had more attempts in that final quarter than he’d had in any game during his final season as a Raider.
Anaheim, 3:50 p.m.
With 4:14 left, Rams kicker Tony Zendejas’ 33-yard game-tying attempt sailed wide right. Quarterback Chris Miller: “We just couldn’t get it done.”
After the miss, the Rams’ band played three verses of “St. Louis Woman.”
The last song played at a Los Angeles Rams game? “Auld Lang Syne.”
“The Rams’ professional band was fantastic,” says Hannan, the Mission Viejo director. “But by the end of the game the stadium was so empty, and the speakers were on so loud, their music just echoed through the stadium.”
Bettis: “I probably knew that was our last game there. All season long there were whispers that we would be relocating. It was tough when you didn’t get a lot of fans, and the team didn’t do too well, but L.A. was awesome. I loved it there. And when we heard we might be going to St. Louis, I was like, What?! I didn’t want to go. I knew nothing about St. Louis, let alone Missouri. Honestly, the only thing I could think of was what I learned in elementary school geography class—that it was near the Mississippi River. I didn’t know what else was there, or what it would be like, or if there would be more fan support than there was here. All I knew was it would be different.”
As the clock wound down, a man in a green shirt in the 400 section munched on french fries, nobody within a 30-seat radius.
Anaheim, 3:55 p.m.
The man who wanted to keep the Rams in L.A. kept trying to get Frontiere alone.
Steinberg: “I knew it was important to talk to her right then. It was a frustrating time. People around town kept saying, ‘Oh, Leigh, don’t worry. Los Angeles is so critical to the league. There’s no way they could negotiate a new TV deal without a franchise in Los Angeles. Even if the Rams and Raiders left, the NFL would bring a new team here.’ I knew that wasn’t true. I knew there was a good chance that if the Rams left, the Raiders would leave soon after, and there was no guarantee the NFL would return. The league was becoming so popular it didn’t matter what market they went to. So I’m there in the luxury box with my son, and we’re watching the game, and I’m hoping to talk to her for one meaningful conversation.”
Steinberg waited for her after the game. He never saw her leave.
The Rams lost, 24–21.
Coliseum, 4:05 p.m.
If anyone knew the Coliseum, it was Allen. He’d won the Heisman trophy playing there for USC, and he built his Hall of Fame résumé during 11 seasons with the Raiders in L.A. That Christmas Eve in 1994, he finished with 33 carries for 132 yards—more touches and more yards than any other game over the final 10 seasons of his career. In that game, he also became the eighth running back in history to rush for 10,000 yards. Which is why NFL Films cameras caught Allen grinning broadly as he left the field.
* * *
Coliseum, 4:06 p.m.
When Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer was walking off the field, he saw one of Marcus Allen’s best friends, Mike Ornstein. Ornstein had worked for Al Davis for years until a bitter parting in 1988, and now he was one of Allen’s biggest allies. And thus, one of the Chiefs’ biggest allies. Schottenheimer knew what this game—and Allen’s performance—meant to Ornstein. “Marcus is getting a game ball today,” Schottenheimer said to Ornstein, “and you’re getting a game ball too.”
“A gigantic win for Marcus, obviously,” recalls Ornstein, “and a huge win for Marty too. He hated the Raiders. If he could have let Marcus run for 3,000 yards that day, he would have. The whole game plan that day—I knew it—was to get the ball to Marcus as much as they could. So you knew Marty and Marcus loved how that fourth quarter went.”
As he left the field to go back to the locker room, Allen was mobbed by former teammates. At least 20 hugged him as they went their separate ways post-game.
Anaheim, 4:08 p.m.
Rams linebacker Roman Phifer: “A team joke for us at the time was singing I’ll Be Home for Christmas. We’d sing it in the locker room or on the sideline. We were always home for Christmas. We never made the playoffs those years. It was unfortunate. That was a great team with a great group of guys. We always said that was the most fun we ever had losing. Things changed when we got to St. Louis.”
Coliseum, 4:10 p.m.
“I had no idea this was the last game,” says Los Angeles lawyer Brent Montgomery, a Raiders season-ticket holder who would retain his seats and, for the last 19 seasons, commute to Oakland for game days. “I took my nephew to the game. That was the deal I made with the family so that I could get to Christmas late. I don’t remember much about that game, and maybe I would have cherished it a little more if I realized it was going to be the last one there. You kind of knew in the back of your mind that there was a chance Al would move them. But I don’t know, this game just felt like any other. All I remember was the disappointment of a loss.”
Anaheim, 4:11 p.m.
Rams cheerleader Liza Macawili: “After the game, I remember weaving through the crowd looking for Marquez Pope. We had gone to high school together, and I always meant to get a picture with him. I figured this might be my last chance. I found him, then grabbed some photographer on the sideline and made him snap the shot.” Macawili never saw that picture.
The Rams’ cheerleaders were invited to join the team in St. Louis. Only one woman went. Two ended up joining the Oakland Raiders’ cheer squad. “It was hard just to uproot and head out there, you know?” Macawili said. “Most of us were California girls. To move all the way to St. Louis, it just wasn’t something that would be easy.” Macawili waited out the year for the league to announce a new team coming to Los Angeles. She was convinced one would come. Then she waited the next year. Eventually she would cheer for a minor-league baseball team and a minor-league hockey team and an Arena Football team. She lost touch with most of her teammates until Facebook came around.
Coliseum, 4:20 p.m.
Schottenheimer gathered his team in a small white room with no windows. He took a sip of Coke, then addressed his players, who sat in black folding chairs. “Marcus Allen reached 10,000 yards today,” Schottenheimer said, as they all clapped. He told them they had plenty to be happy about, but wanted to keep it short.
Anaheim, 4:20 p.m.
Newman: “Georgia [Frontiere] made her rounds at times. At the beginning when I got there, the first three years, because we were going to the playoffs all the time. When we started losing she disappeared. She used to come in the locker room a lot when we won. I hardly saw her those last couple years, even if we won a game. I don’t even recall her being there that last game.”
Chuck Knox gave his postgame press conference in a room under the left field bleachers. He spoke for one minute and 22 seconds. His eyes watered toward the end.
Coliseum, 5 p.m.
Raiders cheerleader Ramona Braganza: “After that game most of us went home without going out to our usual post-game bar, a pizza place on the USC campus called 502’s. The next day I spent Christmas brunch with our director, Mary Barnes, and her family. I was fortunate enough later to be asked to be the assistant choreographer the next season.” Braganza was the only Raiderette to follow the team to Oakland.
Anaheim, 5:05 p.m.
Todd Hewitt, equipment manager: “I kind of felt like I was losing a family member. All game I’d say goodbye to anyone I saw. The visiting clubhouse attendants, the cleaning crew, people I had known for a decade. It was like, ‘Well, if I never see you again, thanks for everything.’ Usually after a season we keep some stuff in the locker room: towels, extra pads, cleaning supplies. I was given orders to clear everything—put it all in storage. It was especially emotional for my dad. He was the longtime equipment manager, but was semi-retired at the time, kind of like the equipment manager emeritus. I had kids and a family at the time, but I knew I’d pack up and go wherever the team went. He wasn’t in the position to do that. He couldn’t just get up and go. For him, this was his goodbye to the team that he worked for since 1967.”
Troy Drayton, tight end: “You knew it was over in the back of your head, but for some reason, you just try telling yourself there’s still a chance you would stay. I was a younger guy then, only my second year in the league, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I was only renting a two-bedroom condo in Huntington Beach. But I looked at a guy like Jackie Slater, who was the soul of this team, and you could see how much it was a struggle for him. I mean, what does he tell his wife? Does he have her stay in L.A. where they have a family or pick up and move? Does he go at all?”
Rams offensive tackle Jackie Slater: “I don’t remember saying goodbye to Coach Knox in the locker room that day. I think we all kind of wanted to get out of there and go home to our families. I left and spent Christmas with my wife, and I think it was a little somber. A few weeks later Coach Knox was fired. I drove back to the facility when I heard, and he and I had a long talk in his office. I don’t remember what we talked about, I just remembered being sad. I thought that I had played my last game. I was 41 and I had played 19 seasons. The thought of moving to a whole new city didn’t sound appealing. But reaching 20 seasons, all with the same team, was important to me. That’s the only reason I decided to come back.”
Hampered by injuries, Slater played one game as a St. Louis Ram. He retired in 1995, and moved back to Los Angeles. He was the first NFL player to spend 20 seasons with one team, and in 2001 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Bettis: “It was hard, at first, when we moved. When I found out the news for good, I didn’t cry, but I was almost in tears. The fans ended up really supporting the team, but the transition for us players was tough. I remember that summer was super hot in St. Louis, and we were practicing out of a Boys & Girls Club. An NFL team in a Boys & Girls Club!”
Anaheim 6:30 p.m.
Rams offensive coordinator Chick Harris: “I remember leaving the stadium that afternoon. I was living in Newport Beach at the time, and all I wanted was to get home. It was an exhausting day, and a disappointing season. I thought about how it all went wrong, how it stunk that we lost, how I might be out of a job in a few weeks.” He drove south on Jamboree Road, looking for a place to pick up dinner. At that point, the sun had come out.
“As I looked out the window, I couldn’t help but notice how many people were out and about,” Harris recalled. He passed a bustling shopping mall and a beach parking lot rammed with cars and smiling families. He flashed back to the empty stadium the Rams just played in, the look on Slater’s face as he exited the locker room, and the dissipating support the team received all season long.
“I know it was Christmas and all,” Harris says, “but I felt that we were at the end of an era. And I couldn’t help but wonder: Do most of the people around here even care?”
* * *
New York City, May 2014
Do they care? The question still resonates. The NFL’s popularity is at an all time high, and it doesn’t seem to matter, as Leigh Steinberg feared, whether the league will ever be back in Los Angeles. A generation of fans in the Los Angeles area have grown up with the NFL as a TV game—unless they want to drive two-plus hours to San Diego to see the Chargers.
Eric Grubman is an NFL executive vice president. He calculates, explores and oversees new endeavors. In other words, if the NFL is planning on returning to Los Angeles, Grubman is the man in the know. On a Monday morning in May, Grubman sits in a conference room on the fifth floor of the league offices. Tan with slicked back hair, he leans back as he explains the current landscape.
“We said a number of years ago that we need to be in the right place with the right features in, and I think we mostly have that now,” he says. “I think the people want it, I think the politicians want it. Some of the talked-about sites might not happen, but there are places we can get something done. It has to be the right deal. Roger [Goodell, the commissioner] has said again and again we are not going to do a deal that will leave a team financially stressed. But it’s a pretty high priority because it is an attractive market. I think in the next five or 10 years we can get something done.”
Is your gut feeling the NFL will be in Los Angeles 10 years from now?
“Yes,” Grubman says.
At an NFL job-advancement symposium last weekend, Miami owner Stephen Ross said that instead of buying the Dolphins several years ago, he considered focusing his energy on placing a team in Los Angeles. He didn’t do it, but he said he’s sure a team in Los Angeles will be a reality soon.
“Certainly within five years,” Ross said.
Angelenos have been hearing that for two decades now. They’ll believe it when they see it.
1958 Championship Game Goalpost
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Video Replay Monitor
It got off to an inauspicious start when introduced in 1986—few calls were overturned, and confusion reigned—and replay as an officiating tool was even scrapped in the ’90s. It’s back now, an integral if still sometimes problematic part of an NFL Sunday. read more →
Dirty Dozen Movie Poster
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The Colts’ Mayflower Moving Trucks
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Football’s most famous coach-turned-broadcaster had a fear of flying. So his customized bus became a home office on wheels. read more →
Pen That Signed The 2011 CBA
The longest work stoppage in league history ended when commissioner Roger Goodell signed the new CBA with this pen. read more →
Buffalo Bisons 1924 Game Request Letter
In the league’s early days there was no set schedule. Teams scraped together games the old-fashioned way: They wrote letters to each other, sometimes mid-season. read more →
For more than two decades Toradol, taken through an injection to the backside, was a gameday must across the NFL. Today, the painkiller is being seen in a different light. read more →