By Howard Balzer
It’s been four days now, and with two more days until the BattleHawks play their second home game, we will take one more look back at a Surreal Sunday in St. Louis with some thoughts from others here at 590 The Fan.
First, though, bear with me a little more for this reason: I have been asked several times if Sunday was the most memorable regular-season day that I had witnessed in the town’s football history.
I can’t help remembering what former Houston Oilers head coach Bum Phillips once said when he was asked if Earl Campbell was the best running back he’d ever seen. In his signature Texas drawl, Bum said, “I don’t know if he’s the best, but he’s among ‘em.”
That’s surely the case when describing the venting of emotion by almost 30,000 people at the BattleDome (I love that name) Sunday. Many games and moments could be listed. However, the first time I was asked the question this week, another pro football debut popped into my head, one that in retrospect I should have mentioned in my story Sunday night.
It was Sept. 10, 1995, the first home game for the Rams in St. Louis. The previous week in the season opener, they had defeated Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in venerable Lambeau Field, 17-14. In a scoreless second quarter, Isaac Bruce blocked a punt, recovered it at the Green Bay 23-yard line and on the next play, Bruce caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Chris Miller for the first points in St. Louis Rams history.
Fast forward seven days to as glorious a day as you could have in September. The official NFL gamebook lists the temperature as 74 degrees and the humidity 46 on a sun-splashed cloudless day where temporary bleachers had been installed in the corner end zones of Busch Stadium to satisfy the demand for tickets. The usual football capacity there was just over 51,000, but for this game there were 59,724 tickets distributed with yes, a raucous crowd of 58,186 that hadn’t seen a NFL home game since 1987.
Late in the first quarter with the New Orleans leading 3-0, Bruce caught a Miller pass for 10 yards on third-and-7 to the Saints 43-yard line. Two plays later, Bruce scored the first St. Louis Rams touchdown at home on a 33-yard pass that resulted in the rabid crowd starting the “Bruuuuuuuuce” chant that would be heard here for 13 more seasons. The Rams won, 17-13.
On that day and many other days, including Feb. 23, 2020, the fans of St. Louis have showed the sporting world how wrong the persistent narrative is that questions it as a football town. May that belief RIP forever.
Now, we turn it over to some of those from our station that work tirelessly to make 590 The Fan the best it can be.
DAVID SOLOMON, REPORTER
St. Louis went more than four years without professional football, and the long absence only made the passion grow stronger. I started covering St. Louis’ previous professional team in 2005, so my memories consist of fans showing up for an imported team that had roots planted 2,000 miles away. I had seen tailgates in other NFL cities, including Kansas City and Cleveland not to mention some of the best in other sports. However, I had never seen that same fervor in St. Louis. … until Sunday.
St. Louis always has known how to party, and previous NFL tailgates were no exception. On Sunday, there was more too it as there was a unity that I have never previously seen prior to a football game in this city. The novelty of a new league starting from the ground up and a team that truly picked St. Louis as its home brought a fan base together that had been previously split by the likes of Bill Bidwill and E. Stanley Kroenke. Most notably, when I was walking through the tailgates prior to the game, it was hard to find fans who weren’t wearing BattleHawks gear or at least the team colors.
Inside the dome, the fervor continued. The whole day revolved around positivity and pride. Many fans would be hard-pressed to be able to rattle off 10 players on the team, but that hardly mattered to this rabid fan base. The BattleHawks showed they are more than just a football team, but a source of community pride. St. Louis’ NFL teams were both imports, coming to town with their own traditions with winning not necessarily playing prominent roles.
The overall pride was evident from fans snapping up all the available tickets days before the game to the “Kroenke Sucks!” chants that permeated through the dome at various points throughout Sunday’s contest. Those chants might have seemed out of place on the surface, but it was indicative of a bigger sense of pride.
The BattleHawks rewarded them on the field with a victory to cap off a seemingly perfect day on it. Only time will tell, if BattleHawks fever will stay strong and the team can continue to produce on the field, but for now it’s evident St. Louis is embracing a chance to support a professional football team from the ground up and it’s a joy to be along for the ride.
NATE LUCAS, PRE AND POSTGAME CO-HOST
Sunday afternoons at the dome were a tradition I long shared with my dad, an NFL season-ticket holder from 1995-2015. Section 416, Row EE, Seats 7 and 8. Through the good and (mostly) bad, we showed up, for the rare chance to watch an entertaining product – only to endure the same emptiness time after time after time.
I found it ironic that Sunday was such a stunningly gorgeous afternoon; blue skies, sunshine, a sense of nostalgia in the crisp air. Ironic, because on the drive to the dome on similar type days, we’d pass a golf club, and even a lousy round of golf always seemed more enticing than another losing Sunday inside a warehouse on a sunny day.
But I wouldn’t trade this Sunday’s experience for much. I was so damn proud to walk into that dome. It was gratifying to pass thousands of tailgaters embracing a longstanding tradition with friends and family, one that had been stripped so unjustly and swift.
Sunday felt like a necessary healing process for so many of us who were innocent in the entire relocation process. Our city, our people, our fanhood – all of which were falsely condemned – sought peaceful revenge. Sunday was about restoring a reputation for people who became victims in a drive-by slander.
Saint Louisans are uniquely proud of our hometown, and rightfully so. It’s not perfect, but it’s not the wrecking ball portrayed on TV. Saint Louis is vibrant, and home to a budding food and beverage scene, with great parks and prominently positioned on the mighty Mississippi River. It’s an exceptional sports town, yet by no means dependent on their success.
Saint Louis likes a good party, and Sunday was a reunion bash where a football game broke out. It offered an opportunity to support a homegrown product led by people who seem to genuinely care about their customers and a chance for those same customers to flip the bird at the curmudgeon who couldn’t wait to leave. It was a perfect marriage.
Perhaps even more fitting was the return of an all-time great, Pro Football Hall-of-Fame finalist wide receiver Torry Holt, to further stoke the frenzy. Combined with a relentless rushing attack, hard-hitting defense, and innovative trickery on special teams, Sunday was exactly what the doctor ordered for those of us with Kroenke-itis.
PATRICK KELLY, WEBSITE REPORTER AND SOCIAL MEDIA COORDINATOR
I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I showed up Sunday. I knew it would be a fun atmosphere with all the tailgating but that is a big understatement. The first thing I couldn’t believe was the amount of people there. They were set up all over with people decked out in different feathery clothes as well as hawk masks and a lot of wrestling masks.
You could tell everyone was so excited and even had a degree of not knowing what to expect because they were 1-1 coming into Sunday. I went to maybe a Rams game or two per year since I moved to St. Louis in 2004 and that was by far the most fun I have had at The Dome. The best thing I could describe the feeling like was the Blues home games during the Stanley Cup Finals. People just couldn’t believe they were actually there. After all they had been through, after what they had seen they were just happy to be there experiencing it, knowing they will never forget it.
I know the comparisons sound off, but I really do believe a lot of St. Louis got a little relief Sunday. We proved that the NFL made a giant mistake, twice, and I am glad the XFL is here in its place. Going into the season I think St. Louis had just as much to prove as the XFL did and both of them answered huge.
DAVE ZOBRIST, SALES COORDINATOR
Sunday, February 23, 2020 was a long-awaited and much anticipated exhale of relief for football fans in the St. Louis area.
Since the day Vince McMahon announced he was launching the XFL for the second time around, St. Louis jumped all over the idea of being one of the initial eight teams. The day that STL was selected as a team I bought four season tickets for the 2020 season and the five home games at the Dome. I did not expect to have flashbacks of the Rams’ 1999-2003 seasons, but the fan enthusiasm did just that with a raucous crowd that made it hard to hear yourself think at times.
The home team delivered a 29-9 win over the New York Guardians by winning in all three phases of the game. The football product, which doomed the XFL’s launch in 2001, was surprisingly impressive. A kickoff return for a touchdown, a blocked punt, a vicious run game, and a 58-yard field goal were just a few of the high points.
The lines to buy BattleHawks merchandise had to be over 100 people deep at multiple locations. I was shocked at how many people already had the team gear. Many fans dressed up as birds, something I have never seen at a sporting event before. The PA announcer, Randy Moehlman, did a fantastic job in hyping up the crowd before third downs just like he does for Mizzou games. The crowd took out their frustration on Stan Kroenke by chanting “Kroenke Sucks” multiple times throughout the game. One tailgating fan had a Stan Kroenke pinata made and that was destroyed by a steel chair shot.
The football fans of St. Louis have been hearing for the last five years how they weren’t passionate enough to deserve a team. However, it takes two sides to make it work and the BattleHawks have listened to the community and delivered a quality product to a football-starved fan base that made Sunday, February 23, 2020 an unforgettable day in STL sports history.