The St. Louis Battlehawks and their rowdy fans are back in town after the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and the subsequent collapse of the first iteration of the XFL.
Nearly 40,000 fans at the Dome at America's Center rooted for their team in the home opener against the Arlington Renegades — an XFL attendance record shattered.
Despite the re-imagined XFL's scheduling that resulted in St. Louis' home opener being pushed to the fourth week of the season, fans said this was something they couldn't miss after the abrupt ending three years ago.
"It's surreal," said Andy Smith, a 38-year-old fan from Fenton, who was tailgating behind his SUV with the vanity license plate KAKAAW. "I was devastated back in 2020 when COVID hit and the league folded, and this has just been three years of wishing, and wishing, and wishing, and my dreams have finally come true."
Quarterback A.J. McCarron turned around a less-than-stellar performance last week, going 20 of 27 and passing for 214 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He and running back Brian Hill, who ran for 89 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, led the Battlehawks to a 24-11 victory over the Renegades.
Fans packed parking lots surrounding the Dome at America's Center for traditional tailgating festivities, some even driving more than 10 hours to do so.
Ted Ricci, of Duluth, Minnesota, is one passionate fan who is mostly known as "BallHawk1" and traveled to Missouri for the game. Ricci said the Battlehawks were the closest team to him in 2020, and he decided to stick with them — even to the point where he got a tattoo of the team's logo on his forearm. "It wasn't a choice," he said. "It was going to be all Battlehawks."
As the players stepped off their coach bus and walked toward the Dome at America's Center, the fans were all roar. "Kakaw!" many of them belted out as head coach Anthony Becht led the team through a tunnel of fans and the Liberty High School Marching Band spanned across Baer Park. Typically paired with the battle cries of Battlehawk faithful was the callout "Kaw is the law!" — which has become an unofficial motto for the franchise.
Sporadically through the event and even through the game, booming chants denounced Stan Kroenke, owner of the Los Angeles Rams.
The multisports franchise owner drew the ire of St. Louis fans when he moved the National Football League team from St. Louis back to California, ultimately resulting in a $790 million settlement in a lawsuit that accused Kroenke and the league of not following the league's relocation guidelines, breaching contracts and misleading the public.
"I know a lot of people were bitter for what [Kroenke] did to the city," said Joey Kosulandich, a 51-year-old football fan from Herculaneum. "So I think this [turnout] is us getting back and saying: 'Hey, the hell with you. We're going to do it our own way. We got the XFL.'"
In the eyes of Clyde Mason, a 76-year-old Battlehawks season ticket holder from Bellefontaine, St. Louis fans can easily support a football team. "They have supported two already and both did very well here," he said. "People hated Kroenke. [The Rams] made a lot of money here. They had championships here. It was a good team here, so I don't know why Kroenke did leave. That didn't make sense, but probably because he could!"
With St. Louis City SC's recent home opener sellout, Smith said St. Louis is more than home of the Cardinals and Blues. "St. Louis just is a sports town in general," he said. "Don't get me wrong, but St. Louis is a football town as well."
The Rams were a borrowed team, Smith said, so the move wasn't surprising. "They came from LA and they went back to LA, you know, but, but for me this is it," he said. "When the Rams left, that left a huge hole in our hearts, and it just gave us something to rally behind."
Aside from many Battlehawks fans' disdain for Kroenke, they share a passion for football and a love for St. Louis.
Karlee Schmitt, a fan from Carondelet, went to the game with her husband, George, and said the fan atmosphere and experience was unlike any she had experienced before. "Get ready for the camaraderie of your entire life," she said. "Everybody in the city and outside of the city comes here to all have one interest in mind — just have the time of their life."