About an hour before the Rams and 49ers kicked off Thursday night, a horde of fans made its way into the Dome at America’s Center in downtown St. Louis. They weren’t clad in blue and gold, though. There was no face paint, and no jerseys. Instead, hundreds of women sported T-shirts with slogans like “God Over Everything.” They debarked Vandalia Bus Line and Central States Trailways shuttles by the dozen and piled into entrances that bore welcoming signage: “Attention: You are entering a happy zone.”
From September 21-23, the stadium and home that the Rams abandoned last year is playing host to the Love Life Women’s Conference in the Joyce Meyer Ministries tour. The 67,000-seat dome built for the Rams in 1995 still gets some use, security guard Kevin Schroeder says. Over the next two months, it’ll be the site of a weekend-long marching band competition and a food festival celebrating United States cuisine. Nowhere, though, is there a trace of the team that left St. Louis behind.
Nearly every neon sign, every Rams banner, and every team photo has been stripped from local bars. At Friendly’s, a dive in Tower Grove South replete with shuffleboard and foosball, the employees were allowed to make off with every piece of memorabilia after the franchise left for Los Angeles. At the Cecí Unique Gallery, a souvenir shop just around the corner from the dome, a collection of 11 Rams sweatshirts and jackets hang among a half-dozen four-way racks filled with Cardinals and Blues gear. The hoodies are still full price: $69.99. In the city that claimed the Rams for more than two decades, the team has been mostly scrubbed from existence. “Honestly,” Schroeder says, “I don’t think many people are that sad to see them go.”
Following a disastrous first season in L.A., the Rams have opened the 2017 campaign at 2-1. They looked revived after beating the Niners 41-39. In St. Louis, their latest show of resurgence was met with indifference.
“I was bitter,” Tom McLaughlin, a part owner of Friendly’s for the past 20 years, says of the Rams’ 2016 move to Los Angeles. “Very bitter.”
McLaughlin is old enough to remember when the Cardinals football team left for Arizona in 1988, under what he calls “the cloak of darkness.” When he learned that the NFL was returning to St. Louis before the 1995 season, he was ecstatic. Now, he spends his Sundays at the bar with a host of pro football expats. Fans of the Giants, Steelers, and Saints, among others, fill the stools. McLaughlin says he cheers as much for players as he does teams; a love of Russell Wilson prompted him to adopt the Seahawks as a rooting interest after the Rams skipped town. Every week, he pulls for Seattle to win, but it means a little more when the team plays against the Rams. “I want [the Rams] to lose every weekend,” McLaughlin says. “I love looking up there and seeing 319 people at the game.”
The South County location of the Missouri sports bar chain Hotshots sits about 9 miles southwest of Friendly’s on Highway 55. The place feels like it’s out of another era: A handful of pool tables are scattered around the main floor, and smoke from Salem Green Labels and Decade Golds lingers in the air. Tim Margulis, a 32-year-old fire-protection sprinkler fitter who has a toddler at home, is spending his first night out in months here, watching the Cardinals baseball team take on the Reds. Margulis was 10 when the Rams came to St. Louis. “I went from being a Cowboys fan to a Rams fan overnight,” he says.
When the Rams transformed into the Greatest Show on Turf in 1999, they had been in St. Louis for fewer than five years. That wasn’t enough time for deep-seated traditions to form or for rabid fandom to develop. But the majesty of Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk inspired an entire generation of football lovers. “[Before 1999] it was almost like being a fair-weather fan,” says Bryan Sherwood, a 32-year-old financial planner from South County who’s also spending this Thursday at Hotshots. “You went and did dishes, and then you watched TV. But then suddenly, they were really good.”
The life span of the St. Louis Rams came and went in an instant. The Packers will celebrate their 100th season in Green Bay in 2018; the Rams barely survived their teenage years. It’s that limited history that makes Sherwood believe that St. Louis will become a football town reminiscent of snowbird cities like Scottsdale and Ft. Lauderdale. Those who care about the sport will shift their allegiances elsewhere. On Sundays, bars will house a multicolored swath of jerseys. The Rams will be just another team playing its games halfway across the country. “St. Louis fans are loyal. You see that with baseball,” Sherwood says. “But football was new.”
Even as the rumblings about the franchise moving grew louder in late 2015, Margulis never believed relocation could happen. For years, Stan Kroenke had been the owner who cried wolf. If the league wanted a Los Angeles presence, it followed that the teams based on the West Coast would be the ones that would go. “Two of the three teams that needed to relocate were already in California, with built-in fan bases,” Margulis says. “Why are you stealing our team from the Midwest when the Raiders and the Chargers have refused to build a stadium for decades?” After hearing the news of the Rams’ exit in early January 2016, Margulis swore off the franchise—and the NFL—for good. He says he hasn’t watched one minute of the league since the announcement. He left the fantasy football league he shared for a decade with a group of childhood friends.
Locals here understand the muck the Rams were trudging through by the end of their run in St. Louis. When the words “Jeff Fisher” and “7-9” spill from their mouths, each syllable drips with poison. But for many who live in the city, mediocrity didn’t ease the pain of Kroenke’s betrayal. “There are 32 pieces of gold in the country,” Margulis says. “Some of them are pretty dirty. Ours was pretty dirty. But it’s still a piece of gold. Any way you look at it. You can shine it up eventually.”
From Margulis’s seat at the bar, only a handful of TVs are visible. Most are tuned to the Cardinals, who will go on to beat the Reds 8-5 in Cincinnati, and one is devoted to keeping tabs on the first-place Cubs. In a joint with at least 30 screens, only two show Rams-Niners. The closest is in a corner of the seating area near the bar, visible to no one except the bartender. Barely 18 months after they skipped town, this is what the Rams have become to most of St. Louis: just another blip on a screen, another familiar logo in a passing sea of them.
With some prodding, the anger and resentment in St. Louis comes through, but for the most part the city has moved on. The Cardinals are fighting to make the playoffs, the Blues have begun their preseason games, and there’s no obvious sign that this isn’t the way things have always been. After taking a drag of his cigarette, Margulis makes a crack about Kroenke being the worst owner in sports before turning his gaze back to the Cards. On the TV in the corner, Jared Goff hits Sammy Watkins for a 1-yard touchdown. No one in the bar makes a sound.