2019 Super Bowl: With Rams in big game, St. Louis is equal parts anger, apathy and angst
A bridge was burned when the Rams left for L.A., and locals are wondering if 'both teams can lose' in Super Bowl LIII
ST. LOUIS, Mo. – It's currently colder in this parochial Midwest town than Stan Kroenke's heart.
Wednesday morning's wind chills reaching 30-below were easier to tolerate. Ask around for a Super Bowl favorite Sunday and the reaction is equal parts angst, anger and apathy.
James Heredia is a proprietor of Breakfast, Lunch and Tacos, about a Kurt Warner bomb away from The Dome at America's Center downtown here, where the Rams used to play.
When asked who he likes in Atlanta, Heredia told me, "Is there anywhere in the rulebook that both teams can lose?"
It was like the Great Goodell In The Sky arranged this painful Super Bowl backhand for the Lou.
The Pats-Rams matchup is an agonizing reminder of what used to be in this town. The Rams bolted town for L.A. three years ago. The Patriots are both a dynastic retread and a remembrance of what could have been in St. Louis. (Super Bowl LIII is in Atlanta and it will air on CBS and stream here on CBSSports.com and the CBS Sports App for free on most connected devices.)
It was the Pats who upset St. Louis' "Greatest Show on Turf" in the 2002 Super Bowl. The 20-17 result effectively ended the Rams' chances of their own dynasty, despite two Super Bowls in three years. It also started the New England version of dominance that continues to this day.
"What the hell is St. Louis doing this week?" Bernie Miklasz asked rhetorically on his morning sports talk show on 101.1 WXOS FM.
For three decades Miklasz was a leading voice in the city as a sports columnist. Three years after the Rams departed, he carries the same fire on the airwaves.
"What are the emotions? Who are [St. Louisans] rooting for?" he continued. "Do we agree, based on everything we know, it's not scientific?
"As much as it could ever be [it's] a Patriots town."
Mostly, because it's not a Rams town.
Kroenke is the owner/villain who moved the Rams back to Los Angeles after the 2015 season. That, despite St. Louis ponying up $400 million in public funding for a new $1 billion stadium to replace the Dome that was barely 20 years old – and still being paid for.
"He totally lit a match," Heredia said of Kroenke. "Burned a bridge."
On his way out town Kroenke said in a league document that St. Louis lacked population and economic drivers to support a team.
"Any NFL club that signs on to this proposal [for a new stadium] will be well on the road to financial ruin," he wrote.
"Why do you have to do that?" Miklasz said Tuesday. "You won. It was rigged. It was a corrupt process. The relocation rules meant nothing. Declare your victory, smile, have a party and leave.
"He made this place like it was out of one of the Mad Max movies."
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As you can probably tell, they're not even close to being over it here. No one can say this isn't a good football town. The Cardinals (1960-1987) and Rams (1995-2015) were here a combined 48 years. That's more than five current NFL franchises have been in existence.
In that near half-century, there were 16 winning seasons, eight playoff teams, two Super Bowls and that 1999 championship under Dick Vermeil.
The two decades since that title make it seem so long ago.
During Miklasz' show, co-host Michelle Smallmon paused to read a listener's text.
"Why am I mad? My dad bought personal seat licenses in 1994 when I was 7. Our names are engraved on The Dome wall. When I turned 16, I got a job at a fireworks stand because I had to pay for my own tickets.
"We went to every game for 19 years spending thousands of hours and dollars supporting a very mediocre product. The worst part is those memories could have been happy, lifelong memories. Now they are tarnished with a disgust and indifference …"
Smallmon went on from there.
"This is the one and only week people will cheer for the Patriots ...," she said. "It's almost like [the Rams] stabbed us and then left as they watched us bleed out."
Remember that at your Super Bowl party of choice.
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"It's a business until it happens to you, then it's personal," said Mike Jones, who preserved that Rams' Super Bowl title by tackling Tennessee's Kevin Dyson at the 1-yard line 18 years ago.
Jones is a native Missourian, played at the University of Missouri, and after 12 years in the NFL coaches St. Louis University High School.
"I'm a Ram, I won a championship with the Rams," he said. "That journey, that Super Bowl, all the guys, it's the small things … We caught lightning in a bottle."
"The people in St. Louis aren't real happy," Jones added. "You've got a team that won the Super Bowl. It's not as if the people in St. Louis didn't want the team. It's not a good feeling."
Kroenke himself is a native Missourian, a billionaire who took over sole ownership of the St. Louis Rams in 2010. Whether by design or neglect (or both), the franchise sunk to the worst combined five-year record in NFL history (15-65) before departing for the West Coast.
Kroenke will be toasted a few times in Atlanta this week. The city he left behind, well, continues to torch him.
At about 11:15 Tuesday morning, Scott Cernik had just finished a pull on a Big Wave Golden Ale at Lester's, a sports bar in nearby Ladue, Missouri.
"I don't think I'll ever see another team in my lifetime," he lamented.
When the Cardinals left for Arizona 32 years ago, Cernik needed a new favorite team. He adopted the Patriots. Recently at Metal Container Corporation he helped manufacture souvenir aluminum bottles of Bud Light – 400,000 for each team.
Fans of the winner get a snazzy Super Bowl 53 keepsake. The loser feels a little bit like St. Louis. Those cans – and their souls -- will be crushed.
"When I was out in New England, I told them I was from St. Louis. You know what they told me, 'You got screwed,'" Cernik said.
Bob Costas, who was on Miklasz' show recently, adopted a more objective stance.
Asked about franchise relocation, he said, "It depends on whose ox is getting gored."
Meaning: The Rams who came here in 1995 arrived at the expense of Rams' loyalties back in Southern California. Then-owner Georgia Frontiere needed a new stadium that officials in California wouldn't build. Helloooo, St. Lou.
Back in those days, there were plenty of references about the apathy of the "Los Angeles" Rams, who by then were playing in Orange County in a half-empty Anaheim Stadium.
But the point was not lost. For every celebration welcoming a relocating team, there is a emptiness felt by those left behind. The Rams originated in Cleveland, moved to L.A. and then St. Louis before returning "home."
The first iteration of the Cardinals began in the 19th century in Chicago. St. Louis can weep about having two NFL teams ripped out from underneath them. That sadness is relative. Los Angeles has actually lost three teams over the years – the Raiders, Rams and Chargers.
"When the Rams moved here, the L.A. fans portrayed themselves as victims," Miklasz said. "We're portraying ourselves as victims. There is a big difference, though. They made no effort to keep the team.
"It does depend on whose ox is being gored, but not all oxes are the same."
By now it should be obvious that any thought that St. Louis isn't a good football town is short-sighted. If anything, the area around The Dome has grown without the NFL. Garth Brooks has sold out the venue for a March 9 concert. There are lofts filled with millennials, a trendy barbecue joint (Sugarfire Smoke House) and hopping Washington Street.
Football is coming back too. It's not the NFL, but the next-gen XFL has placed a team here for the league's reboot beginning in 2020.
"I also have a little sympathy for a city that loses their team," said Oliver Luck, the XFL's commissioner, who played quarterback for the Houston Oilers (now the Titans).
Is it the duty, then, of a second-tier pro league sprung from the mind of a wrestling magnate (Vince McMahon) to soothe St. Louis' football psyche?
"It's not up to us to do any psychological or psychiatric work," Luck said.
Enough damage in those two areas has been done.
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