The Los Angeles Rams are back where they belong.
No matter what other storylines and controversies await during the NFL’s 97th season — when the “Star Spangled Banner” before an exhibition game sets off a national debate, you get the sense 2016 will be another rocky ride — the league already has done something right.
It has fixed a wrong.
The Rams never quite fit in St. Louis, a baseball town where the public’s devotion to the Cardinals required their NFL counterparts to either sustain championship-level excellence or deal with indifference. Although Rams owner Stan Kroenke might rank as despised a name in St. Louis as umpire Don Denkinger, losing the franchise to the market from whence it came hurt more like a sting than a knockout punch.
And so it’s on to Southern California, where the Rams competed for almost half a century while establishing themselves as under-the-radar pioneers.
First modern NFL team with an integrated roster? That would be the L.A. Rams, in 1946. As a condition of using the publicly owned Los Angeles Coliseum for home games, the Rams were required to sign a black player. The Rams signed two of them, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode — former UCLA football teammates of Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947.
First team enabling an American pro sports league to be represented on two ocean coasts? The Rams. They preceded the relocated Brooklyn Dodgers in Los Angeles by 12 years, and the relocated Minnesota Lakers by 10.
Under their late owner Dan Reeves, the Rams were the first NFL team to employ a full-time scouting staff, the first to understand the potential of TV — the 1951 NFL championship game, a 24-17 Rams victory over the Cleveland Browns, was the first league title contest broadcast to a national audience — and the first to wear helmets adorned with a team logo.
The Rams’ signature horns were the idea of halfback Fred Gehrke, who had majored in art at the University of Utah. In 1946, he drew them on a picture board presented to Reeves, who was intrigued but wanted to see how the design would look on a leather helmet.
Gehrke painted one helmet navy blue with gold horns. Reeves liked the result but as this was the NFL, he figured something as novel as a helmet logo needed the approval of the commissioner Bert Bell.
“It’s your team,” Bell told Reeves. “Do what you want!”
Gehrke spent an entire summer putting logos on 75 helmets in his garage. He was paid $1 per helmet, which covered the cost of the paint.
The Rams turned the debut of their new-look helmets into a spectacle. Prior to an exhibition against Washington, a night game before a Coliseum crowd estimated at 105,000, they warmed up without helmets.
Upon the team’s reappearance from the locker room for the kickoff, the Coliseum lights were dimmed and then turned back on, emphasizing the significance of the moment. A five-minute standing ovation reportedly followed.
Seems far-fetched, no? Leather helmets with gold horns compelling 105,000 fans to stand up and cheer for five minutes?
But then I think about it: This was the summer of 1946. The Rams were new in Los Angeles — participating in a pro sports league that had franchises in such larger markets as New York, Chicago and Detroit was new — and yet here were the Rams, defying convention before their inaugural season in L.A. had started.
The Rams still have the horns on their helmet. And until they move into a stadium scheduled for a 2019 opening on land previously occupied by the Hollywood Park racetrack, they’ll still be playing in the Coliseum, which has undergone more face-lifts than all the movie stars whose mansions can be viewed on a tour bus.
The 2016 Rams profile as they typically did during their final St. Louis years — a 6-10 record, maybe 7-9, worth third place in an NFC West where the Seahawks and Cardinals rule and the 49ers live in squalor — but however they finish, the record will be obscured by a more salient development.
They’re back where they belong, restoring an NFL team in America’s second-largest metropolitan area after a 20-year hiatus.
A few decades from now, sports historians yet to be born will wonder: What was that about?