Professional football has a new look in Los Angeles-it is the game of soccer, known as football throughout the world outside the U.S., and its human face is that of David Beckham, the English star whose impending debut with the L.A. Galaxy has prompted much hyperventilating by the media multitudes.
Coincidentally, some grizzled old faces of American-style pro football gathered at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum last weekend. The NFL’s Rams, who played in Southern California from 1946 to 1994, celebrated their 70th anniversary (they started in Cleveland in 1937) with a reunion of surviving players and coaches.
“We’d been seeing each other at funerals,” said Merlin Olsen, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle. “We thought it would be better to get together at a party.”
Before sitting down at an invitation-only dinner, the Rams met with a small and equally grizzled gathering of media. I had to be there. I was born in L.A. a week before the Rams made their debut in the Coliseum. I regularly attended their games for 20 years after my father bought season tickets.
The team’s glory years in L.A. were the ‘50s. They were the city’s first big-league team, preceding the arrival of the Dodgers by 12 years. They won the NFL championship in 1951. They drew several crowds in excess of 100,000. They had a colorful cast of characters with nicknames like Crazylegs, Night Train, Deacon Dan, Jaguar Jon, and Tank. Their answer to the newly arrived Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice, was Jane Russell, the glamorous wife of quarterback Bob Waterfield.
Waterfield’s record as the Rams’ coach in the early ‘60s was not quite so attractive. The club endured seven straight losing seasons before George Allen took over in 1966. Allen said that losing was worse than death-“because you have to live with losing”-and he brought a winning attitude to the team. It helped that he inherited the marvelous defensive line known as the Fearsome Foursome-Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier, Merlin Olsen, and Deacon Jones (pictured above left to right). All but Lundy, who is deceased, appeared in fine fettle last Saturday.
I’ll never forget the last two games in the Coliseum in 1967. The Rams stunned the Packers 27-24, blocking a punt in the final minute to set up the winning touchdown on a Roman Gabriel-to-Bernie Casey pass. Then the late Jack Snow’s long TD reception triggered their 34-10 victory over the formidable Baltimore Colts. But then the Rams had to face the Packers in the playoffs on their frigid home turf. Green Bay won 28-7.
“One of the problems with George Allen was that he liked older players, and at the end of the season we’d be so beat up,” said Olsen, whose career spanned 15 seasons. “George didn’t believe in shortening practices. We’d be out there almost four hours.”
Chuck Knox succeeded Allen and took the Rams to the brink of the Super Bowl in 1974, when they lost the NFC title game to Minnesota, 14-10. A phantom penalty cost the Rams a chance for a touchdown. “It was painful,” said Tom Mack, the Hall of Fame guard who was blamed for the false start. “I didn’t move. Nobody moved.”
Mack said the Rams had the makings of a Super Bowl team in those days. “The problem was Knox kept changing quarterbacks,” Mack said. “If we had four years of James Harris instead of two, we would have won the championship.” Harris, the 1974 starter, was periodically replaced by Ron Jaworski and Pat Haden.
Vince Ferragamo was the QB when the L.A. Rams made their only Super Bowl appearance after the 1979 season. Their defense, led by ends Fred Dryer and Jack Youngblood, shut out Tampa Bay 9-0 in the NFC title game. They took a 19-17 lead over the Steelers in the Super Bowl, but lost 31-19.
That was the last hurrah of the L.A. Rams as I knew them. The next year they moved to Anaheim, a decision that brought the ill-suited Raiders to the Coliseum. Both teams fled in 1994, leaving L.A. without a live NFL presence.
The reunion last weekend brought back sweet memories of yore, a reminder of the late columnist Jim Murray’s assertion that the Rams belonged to the Coliseum “as surely as Caruso belonged to La Scala.”