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Commentary: This football fan takes a timeout

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In deference to everybody’s least favorite high school teacher, let’s begin today’s column with a pop quiz. How many of the following people can you identify?

Dale Meinert, Sam “The Rifle” Etcheverry, Billy Stacy, Bill Koman, King Hill, Luke and Don Owens.

Unless you’re a local sports fan of a certain age, you probably didn’t know that all of these men played professional football in St. Louis during the early and mid-1960s.

Today, Rams fans who claim to be old school invariably hearken back to the “Cardiac Cardinals” days of Don Coryell to establish their gridiron creds. That golden interlude of unusual success began with a hard-fought win over the Philadelphia Eagles on the opening day of 1974, and ended abruptly after a merciless beating at the hands of the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving in 1977.

Those fleeting years propelled Dan Dierdorf and Roger Wehrli to the Hall of Fame and made household names of Jim Hart, Conrad Dobler, Terry Metcalf, Mel Gray and the rest of the gang. But those of us who were around from the beginning remember the history that preceded that renaissance. And even a casual fan should recognize Larry Wilson and Jackie Smith — two other St. Louis members of the Hall who arrived in town before Coach Coryell.

I was in the fifth grade when the Big Red relocated here from Chicago in 1960. As is the case with kids generally, my agenda was largely set by the adults around me. When an uncle stopped by to take me to a Cardinals’ game on a bright Sunday in early September, I left the house planning to see baseball and returned home the newest fan of the NFL. Apparently, the adults who ran things had decided we would have professional football in town and I was instantly hooked.

I grew up with the team, and memories of its triumphs and travails are inextricably intertwined with the DNA of my youth. A future U.S. attorney and I danced in the street after the Cards beat the dreaded Cowboys 38-0 on Monday Night Football in 1970. 

Alas, good times never last. Having failed to persuade civic leaders to build a new stadium for him, owner Bill Bidwill decided to search for greener pastures in the desert after the 1987 season and moved the team to Arizona.

By that time, I was a full-grown adult but was once again relegated to the plight of a child because the fate of “my team” was determined by factors completely beyond my control. As a working cop with four kids to support, there simply wasn’t enough slack in the family budget to underwrite construction of a football stadium.

I won’t bore you with details of the Byzantine incompetence associated with the city’s two subsequent failures to win an expansion franchise from the league. Suffice it to observe that at the end of the process, St. Louis — the largest TV market without a team at the time — was left with a brand new publicly financed domed stadium and no one to play in it. Again, I watched like a kid while the adults made a mess of things.

Finally, the Rams were lured here from LA with a sweetheart lease that was the envy of the NFL. That deal was secured when a local rich guy, Stan Kroenke, wrote a large check for a minority interest in the franchise. It was also made possible by idiot fans like me who agreed to purchase personal seat licenses for the privilege of buying tickets to sit in a stadium we’d already paid to build. The PSLs, incidentally, sold out overnight — thus refuting any notion that the region won’t support football.

In the ensuing 18 years, the Rams have recorded four winning seasons, 12 losing ones and two in which they broke even. During the days of “the Greatest Show on Turf,” the team went to two Super Bowls and won one.

Unfortunately, like the Coryell years, that era was short-lived. The Rams haven’t had a winning season since 2003 and from 2007 through 2011, won 15 games and lost 65 —he worst five-year record in the history of the NFL.

Presently, Mr. Kroenke has become majority owner and installed a very capable head coach and a new general manager. Two successive drafts have yielded promising young talent, and quarterback Sam Bradford has the potential to be one of the greats. The future looks bright.

Regrettably, that future could unfold elsewhere.  An obscure clause in the fore-cited sweetheart lease stipulates that the Dome must remain a “top-tier” league facility. When signed, most fans thought that agreement simply meant the city would adequately maintain the structure, performing repairs and updates as needed.

Nobody seriously believed it obligated us to build a new stadium every 20 years but that’s the way the lawyers now read it. The Rams will thus be free to leave town after the 2014 season — or, just when the emerging young team figures to reach its promise. Business, after all, is business.

May 1st marked the deadline for season ticket renewal.  For the first time since I bought my PSLs, my check was not in the mail. Unlike Howard Beale, the tortured protagonist of Network, I’m not mad as hell. But like him, I’m not going to take it anymore. After a while, you get tired of being treated like a kid.

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