The End of an Era, Somewhere
Emotions ranged from wistful to angry at the final home games in St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland. At least one of those fan bases will soon be abandoned by the NFL—and the worst part is that even now, no one knows which
ST. LOUIS — I arrive at the Edward Jones Dome three hours early, just as a group of beat writers gather at a spot on the front row of the press box for a group picture—quite possibly the last such picture—with the humble interior of a 21-year old stadium as backdrop. After the photo, I ask one of the scribes my burning question: Where’s the best tailgating here?
“Tailgating?” he says, amused. “There’s no tailgating here, unless you count that band across the street with all of four people in the audience.”
The Rams sponsor an outdoor party adjacent to the stadium complete with a cover band and several pop-up bars hawking Captain Morgan and Budweiser products. Many teams have the same setup, though the Fan Zone™ typically lives within a more robust tailgating scene. Aside from the occasional lonely grill parked behind someone’s Corolla downtown, the party is dead here. And the consensus is, Rams owner Stan Kroenke killed it.
There is, however, one ray of light lingering in the Fan Zone after dusk. He walks around in blue jeans and a light sweater in 30-degree weather, his 6-5, 330-pound frame attracting stares and, often, revelations. “Holy s---,” says one man holding a can of Bud Light. “That’s Orlando Pace.”
The former franchise left tackle heads into a special Fan Zone within the Fan Zone, a catered lounge with free beer and food. It’s being used as a backdrop for NFL Network Thursday Night Football cutaways, with fans being beckoned to don Michael Irvin and Marshall Faulk mascot heads and trade faux jabs. You need a ticket to get in, but a man who flew down from Canada says a Rams employee approached him out of the blue and handed him and his friends a handful of passes. Pace and former Rams safety Aeneas Williams stay for roughly an hour, posing for pictures and signing autographs for fans too awestruck (or entitled) to simply say “thanks.”
I introduce myself to Pace as he leaves the Fan Zone and walks toward a stadium entrance just after 7 p.m. local time. “Walk with me,” he says. On the way, we’re approached by a homeless woman who’d been resting under an awning across from the stadium. “Spare anything?” she asks. She follows behind him, annoyed as Pace continues walking while struggling to produce two dollar bills that are mashed in his wallet. “If you’re gonna give me something,” she says, “quit walking away.”
“This is all I have,” he says, handing her the bills. “Everything else is plastic.”
“Thank you, sugar,” she replies.
A fan in a Marshall Faulk jersey approaches Pace and asks for a picture with his group of friends. Pace obliges, and one of the young men quips, “While you’re doing favors, can you play left tackle for us today?”
What exactly happened here? How did a once-respected team that played to full houses a decade ago arrive at the lowest attendance in football in 2015, both in raw numbers (52,402) and in percentage of capacity (80.2 percent)?
“Business gets in the way of everything,” says Pace, an anchor on the Rams’ Super Bowl teams and a three-time All-Pro. “When you look at Mr. Kroenke, he’s a businessman, and you can’t knock him for that. We know if you put a good product on the field the fans will come. We experienced that for years.”
Pace says he’s headed to a private suite where a handful of Rams alumni would watch the team play the Buccaneers. Although the Rams are up against two other teams in a bid to relocate to Los Angeles, Pace says the notion this could be the last game at the Dome weighs heavy on the former players.
“This is the house that we all built together,” he says. “This is our home. For this to possibly be the last game, it’s tough.”
Back in the press box, I’m immediately relayed a good bit of scuttlebutt: Kevin Hart and Ice Cube are coming to the Dome tonight as part of a media tour for their upcoming film, Ride Along 2. I asked Rams PR man Artis Twyman if he could get me in the room with Mr. Cube, one of the biggest cheerleaders for football in Los Angeles and the embodiment of the N.W.A. culture that permeated the Raiders during their decade in southern California. “I’ve got you,” Twyman says.
I arrived at the Ride Along 2 suite at halftime, where I’m reminded for the second time that my write-up must include mention of the upcoming film, Ride Along 2, starring Kevin Hart and Ice Cube. The rapper/actor tells me he’s thrilled at the prospect of L.A. adding a team, but he sympathizes with the Rams faithful.
“I feel sorry for St. Louis,” Cube says. “It’s not a foregone conclusion, but it’s looking bleak. We were in the same position. We were spoiled. We had two teams, and then we looked up and we had none. I know it’s going to hurt somebody for us to get a team, but that’s out of our hands.”
Soon after I return to the press box, Tavon Austin takes a pitch and weaves through six hapless Tampa linebackers and defensive backs to put the Rams up up 27-8. It’s reminiscent of my days covering Austin’s high school teams in the playoffs in Maryland, watching him scoot around untouched, the fulcrum of the most prolific offense in Baltimore. The Rams don’t have that. They have Nick Foles, and the 31st-ranked offense and a 6-8 record by the end of the day.
PROPOSED NEW RAMS STADIUM IN ST. LOUIS
Still, the 40,000 fans in attendance are inspired. A “Save our Rams!” chant morphs into “Kroen-ke sucks!” That’s a familiar refrain in this town, where city aldermen voted 17-10 this month to approve $150 million in city funding for a new stadium, a move that hasn’t quite cooled the prospect of a move. Of the three owners with a hat in the ring for L.A., Kroenke has been the most unapologetic and resolute in his desire to relocate.
“We’re like at the strip club,” Alderman Sharon Tyus told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “and the stripper is throwing the money back at us.”
The players know this, and they’ve been well prepared for the inevitable relocation question all season. You can always tell when NFL players are parroting the words of a coach or a G.M.
“I can only control what I can control,” says left tackle Greg Robinson.
“I can only control what I can control,” says Austin.
“I can only control what I can control,” says wide receiver Brian Quick.
Desperate, I turn to veteran defensive end William Hayes, who joined the team in 2012 and is one of the few players who have put roots down in St. Louis.
“I’ll give you a genuine answer,” says Hayes. “If I didn’t have a home in North Carolina, I would consider settling down here. St. Louis has the nicest people I’ve ever been around. It’s tough not knowing [what will happen]. I wouldn’t say the product we’ve been putting on the field caused this. At the end of the day I think it has more to do with business or personal preference, but I really can’t say.”
I walk out of the empty locker room, sneak past an usher minding the entrance to the field and sit on the visitors’ bench. Stadiums are eerily beautiful after games, and somehow it’s easier to understand the speed of pro football when you’re standing on a calm 50-yard line. Out on the field, relatives of players and coaches are playing catch in the end zone. Two young men in jackets sit on the Rams logo, gazing up. Defensive end Chris Long brings a group of teens from his charity, Joel’s Heroes, out onto the field for autographs and pictures. He does this every week.
“We should’ve brought a football,” says one high schooler to a friend. “I could’ve thrown the last pass here.”
* * *
SAN DIEGO – Twenty-five percent.
That’s the number on the tip of the tongue of nearly every fan I meet in the parking lot of the baby boomer stadium the Chargers call home, Qualcomm.
But before we get to the number, a note about that Chargers home: You take a sun-kissed road down a hill to get to it, and from afar it looks like the paradise local sportswriting legend Jack Murphy envisioned in 1965 when he successfully campaigned for a multisport playground two hours south of Los Angeles. To see the sun climbing high above those checkered walls is to agree with Jack.
There was some debate that year as to whether this quiet Navy town really needed such an impressive structure, what with its big brother to the north serving as the nation’s sporting capital west of the Mississippi. Murphy won the argument, and San Diegans voted to approve a $27 million stadium bond to subsidize the NFL’s millionaires. (A sportswriter could carry a lot of clout back then). The AFL’s Chargers, who’d spent a season in Los Angeles before to San Diego south in 1961, took up residence at the new venue in 1967.
Fifty years later, Los Angeles still hangs over the heads of these fans, this time in the form of a number. Wrote Chargers lead counsel Mark Fabiani in February: “Fully 25 percent of the Chargers’ season ticket base comes from the L.A./Orange County market (along with the Inland Empire).”
Steve Kurz, a bearded army brat with an impressive tailgate setup within a stone’s throw of the stadium, brought up the number within the first breath of conversation.
“They say there’s a 25 percent fan base in L.A.?” Kurz asks. “Well good luck filling that f------ stadium with 25 percent.”
Kurz, a season-ticket holder since 2003, and the Powder Blue Tailgate Crew started their party a dozen years ago with a game of beer pong played on a surfboard, and it evolved into couches, flat-screen TVs, a bar with shots for sale and a portable heater. (God knows why you’d need one out here.)
“If they move to L.A., nobody will be a L.A. Chargers fan,” he says. “It’s going to be like starting over. It’s going to be nothing but what we have here—away fans filling the stadium.”
I head to the press box to see for myself, and it’s true. Dolphins fans have indeed packed into the lower bowl with such enthusiasm you’d think they weren’t also out of playoff contention.
I ask Kevin Acee, the esteemed Union Tribune columnist, What are the odds we’re watching the last Chargers game in San Diego?
“I’d have to give it a 70% chance based on all the evidence right now,” he says. “That’s as high as I’ll go.”
My seat in the second row of the open-air press box (a rare and beautiful thing in the NFL) is next to Lee Jenkins, Sports Illustrated NBA writer and son of San Diego. He attended his first game in 1986 and brushed shoulders with the departed Junior Seau in the 1990s. Of this Sunday afternoon game versus Miami he would write, “It was a beautiful funeral.”
“I can’t tell you how depressing this is,” Jenkins whispers as the game begins. “I wish Junior was here to talk about this. He would just hate it. He would just hate it.”
If you ignore the past-its-expiration-date stadium and a decidedly fair-weather fan base, it can be tough to fathom why the Chargers would bolt, or why the league’s owners would condone it. Of the three candidates, the Chargers are the only team with a recent history of moderate success. The average home attendance in 2015 is 66,772, a respectable 18th among NFL teams.
The popular villain here is Dean Spanos, whose father purchased a majority interest in the Chargers in 1984. Dean has been chairman since 1984. At press time his Wikipedia page, under constant threat of vigilante editing, read, among other unfriendly entries, “As of 2015, the Spanos family is no longer welcome in San Diego.”
First-half chants of “Span-os sucks!” are replaced in the second half by a sweeping and sudden realization: Whether the team moves or not, this is Malcom Floyd’s last home game as a Charger. The receiver who went undrafted in 2004 and spent the next 12 seasons with San Diego enjoys a second-half video career tribute set to Green Day’s “Time of Your Life.”
It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right.
I hope you had the time of your life
Danny Woodhead’s four touchdowns (!) put the three-win Chargers up by multiple scores, at which point coach Mike McCoy chooses to let the play clock run out with less than a minute left and calls for Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Floyd—San Diego’s version of the Big Three—to walk off together for a curtain call. Veteran punter Mike Scifres, a Charger since 2003, greets all three before they leave the field. After the game, as Spanos declines comment while leaving the locker room, Scifres reflects on the significance of the afternoon.
“For 13 years I’ve taken the same road, viewed the stadium from the same spot coming down the same hill,” he says. “You make the same walk and talk to the same people, and the potential of that not happening anymore? It did get emotional.
“When the clock hit zero it came out. It became real. You want to go out with a bang, right? People can say, ‘Man, I was at the last game at Qualcomm and they won big.’ I can tell my grandkids about that.”
As Scifres reminisces, Chargers PR man Jamaal LaFrance makes an announcement: “If you want Antonio Gates, you’ll have to get him outside!”
I walk down the ramp leading from the locker room to find about 1,500 Chargers fans who’d declined to leave filling the lower rows. Gates is signing autographs. So are Rivers, Floyd, McCoy and safety Eric Weddle. A pair of fans beckon McCoy to sign their homemade, laminated sign: $PANO$ THE GRINCH WHO STOLE THE CHARGERS. McCoy obliges. The coach works the entire half of the lower bowl, never turning down a request. He will later tell reporters, “We just wanted to show our appreciation. It should be like that every week.”
Weddle works the line for two hours, then walks out to midfield, lies on the Chargers logo and stares at the sky. He is feeling two kinds of loss: Whether the team leaves or not, he’s 99% sure this is his last season in San Diego, what with management’s lack of interest in contract negotiations as he enters free agency, nine seasons and three Pro Bowls into a career. The 30-year-old sees parallels between the stadium negotiations and his contract non-talks.
“It’s hard for me to think you couldn’t get something done,” Weddle says. “Just like a player and an organization—if both want you back, it gets done. It just baffles me that this is one of the most amazing cities in the world, and you’re not gonna have an NFL team here. You just wish it wouldn’t come to this.”
I follow Weddle’s entourage—mom, dad, agent, best friend—through the cavernous hallways of The Murph, out to an open bay door and a police officer who offers to escort Weddle to his car, past the two dozen fans waiting at a fenced-off exit. “No,” Weddle’s agent, David Canter says, “they’re fine.” Weddle signs another batch of autographs and takes a picture with a mom and daughter who burst into tears after the flash goes off, then steps into an all-black Camaro to join his weekly tailgate crew of 50 or so friends and family waiting in the empty parking lot.
“Even if I wasn’t a free agent I still would’ve done what I did,” Weddle says of the two-and-a-half hours he spent signing autographs, “because they deserve it. It was my one chance to say thank you for their support. Fifty years they’ve been here, and they’ve had it rougher than us. We’re in a bubble; they hear it every day. No progress, nothing going on with the city and us—and it wears on them.”
At the tailgate, Weddle is greeted as a conquering hero. His mom begs off photographs as he works the crowd. His dad, who spent much of his childhood in San Diego, where his father was a general contractor, is overcome with emotion. He says he cried when Eric lay at midfield, but his answer to the San Diego question is sober and composed.
“Nothing has gotten done in 14 years,” says Steven Weddle, “and probably the only reason anything got done this year was Kroenke moving into Inglewood. That put the Spanoses into a corner, and they didn’t want to give up their so-called 25 percent in Orange County.
“The fan base is good here, but when Philip Rivers has to go to a silent count when we’re on offense, it’s not a home game. It isn’t a home field. You go to Green Bay and Baltimore and you say, Wow, this is what it’s really about.”
As quickly as he arrived, Eric ducks into his black Camaro and revs the engines. Everybody knows what comes next: the Weddle Goodbye, one last time. Squealing rubber and laughter and that melted-Pirelli odor fill the air.
Donuts put The Murph to bed.
* * *
OAKLAND — I remember the day I began to understand what the Raider mystique was all about. It was January 6, 2001, a crystal clear 60-degree day for divisional playoff football between Rich Gannon’s team and the visiting Miami Dolphins, and I was sitting in a corner section of the Oakland Coliseum.
I was 13 and making yet another pilgrimage from the East Coast to Oakland to see my grandmother’s team with her. The Raiders had jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead when, out of nowhere, a face-painted Raiders fan produced a Dolphins plush toy the size of a Labrador. He raised it above his head and handed it to another fan, who produced a six-inch blade and gutted the dolphin from jaw to tail, spilling an avalanche of Styrofoam filler beads onto some nearby Miami fans, who promptly left.
It was ugly and mean and more than a little bit immature. And it was fun. Part of the mystique, it seemed to me, was intimidation. Raiders fans got a reputation for that in Los Angeles to the extent that players on both teams warned their families not to attend homes games. Two decades later I saw the dolphin murderers as iterations of an atmosphere and a team befitting the Black Hole moniker.
As I grew up, the reputation grew less amusing. The annual Raiders-49ers preseason matchup was discontinued after the 2011 game, which was marred by fan violence, including a pair of shootings in the Candlestick parking lot. With an eye on relocation, no doubt, new owner Mark Davis, son of Al, oversaw strict enforcement of a new fan policy. “Over the past two seasons,” writes Vincent Bonsignore of Los Angeles Daily News, “dozens of season-ticket holders have been banned after fellow fans reported them for poor behavior.”
On the final home game day of the season, Thursday night with the Chargers in town, I make my way to the media gate at the Coliseum and up to a cramped press box overlooking the house that Al built. There I meet Sam Alipour, an ESPN writer from the East Bay who was asked to do a five-minute SportsCenter hit on what this game means as a Raiders fan. He’s a staunch defender of the likes of Dr. Death and The Violator.
“They’re all just sweethearts,” he says.
Many of those Raiders fans are from Los Angeles. I find Wayne Mabry—a.k.a. The Violator, who attends games in silver and black face paint and shoulder pads with spikes—at the Bad Boyz of Barbecue tailgate at the front of the RV lot under a tent, next to a grill churning out smoky morsels of chicken.
“For 20 years I’ve made the road trip,” says Mabry, who hails from Moreno Valley, about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles. “Territory does not define our identity because it covers the globe. We’re like an infection.
“It was a traumatic experience for me when they moved in ’95. I couldn’t function for two weeks when I got the news, but I had to find a way to get it done and get to games.”
The odors of marijuana and six different nationalities of barbeque dissipate as I walk over to Oakland’s version of the corporate Fan Zone. Former Raiders Otis Sistrunk and Lincoln Kennedy are doing something of a chalk talk for the audience. “Now,” says Sistrunk emphatically as he bows off the stage, “I’m not going to go drink cognac.”
Otis Sistrunk is going to go drink cognac. But first, a question: Are we about to watch the last Raiders game at the Coliseum?
“I hope it’s not,” says Sistrunk, 69. “I think when they went to L.A., they lost a lot of fans and didn’t get them back when they came back. There used to be 20,000 people trying to get on the [season-ticket] list here. Now they’re running away.
“I don’t blame Mark Davis, because this is about business. If it was my business I would go where the money’s at.”
Such sentiment toward Davis seems common. There are plenty of “STAY IN OAKLAND” signs on display, but these are the only fans on the final-game tour who don’t chant about the overall suckitude of the owner. Maybe that has something to do with Al Davis’s legacy as the progenitor of the franchise’s rebel spirit. Or maybe Raiders fans don’t want to mar another farewell on this night.
The big draw on this Christmas Eve is the retiring Charles Woodson, whose winding NFL journey took him from Oakland as a brash and overconfident rookie sensation to Green Bay as a dominant veteran and back to Oakland as the elder statesman solidifying his Hall of Fame credentials.
In the second quarter, Alipour, the ESPN writer, and I ditch the press box and dive into the stale-beer-smelling lower concourse, weaving between Raiders fans—nothing but Raiders fans—to a pair of unattended seats in the Black Hole, that end zone destination for Raider fanatics.
As he was introduced, they’d chanted “Wood-son! Wood-son!” and they’re screaming louder now, making life miserable for Philip Rivers and a San Diego offense pinned to its own end zone. In the era of Gannon and Tomlinson, you might have called this rivalry one of the fiercest in football. Now the two teams are postseason outsiders and prospective bedfellows in a bid to bring the NFL to Carson, Calif.
Asked about the oddity of such an in-division partnership, Raiders veteran fullback Marcel Reece chuckled, “Of course it’s odd. It could be an odd marriage. There’s mutual respect, but never any love.”
The game goes as you might expect between two rivals walking near-identical emotional tightropes: overtime. On the first possession, second-year quarterback Derek Carr, arguably the brightest of Oakland’s three young stars (along with Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack) leads a seven-minute drive that brings the Raiders in range for Sebastian Janikowski’s go-ahead field goal. Then the Woodson-led defense stumps Rivers on fourth down, and the Coliseum implodes. Woodson receives a Gatorade shower, then is handed a microphone.
“I just want to hear it one more time,” he says. “RAAAAIIIIDDEEERRRRRSS! RAAAAIIIIDDEEERRRRRSS!” The crowd joins him in that familiar swoon, an out-of-unison droning that brings me back to 13 years old, on a sunny day in Oakland, falling in love with football.
Rookie defensive end Shelby Harris feels something too. He’s among a dozen players, including Reece and linebacker Malcolm Smith, who stay on the field to listen to Woodson, the same way the locker room gets quiet on a typical Wednesday when the veteran starts telling war stories.
Harris looks up at the Jumbotron, then at Woodson with the microphone.
“Damn,” he says. “That’s how you go out.”
Teammates had probed Woodson all week, trying to persuade him to take back his words and play for a 19th season, at age 40. Now it’s real, and other, more global realities are beginning to set in for all involved. “I thought about it towards the end,” says Smith, the Oakland linebacker. “Seeing Wood go off the field, guys hanging out there a little bit—it’s hard to imagine us not playing here.”
An hour after the game ends, a Chargers staffer, among the last to leave the stadium, walks onto the turf for a final look at the field and shakes his head. “Thursday night. Full moon. Raiders-Chargers at the Coliseum. They’re gonna get rid of this??”
From certain seats at the Dome, and The Murph, too, it was difficult to imagine pro football packing up and bolting for L.A., and that faraway promise of untapped riches. From these seats it’s fair to wonder if they’re leaving behind something more important.