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Sacco Sez: A glimpse of the fascinating history of the Los Angeles Rams


The National Football League is full of history, but I think the Los Angeles Rams, whom the Denver Broncos play Saturday, have some of the richest, most significant and most colorful in NFL history.

They began as the Cleveland Rams, but not in the NFL — they were in the short-lived second American Football League (not the third iteration, where the Broncos began) in 1936 before joining the NFL the following year.

In 1945, they won the NFL title and the following year became the only American pro team in history to move the season after a championship. They also became the franchise that opened up the West Coast to major professional sports.

Dan Reeves (the future Hall of Fame owner, no relation to the future Denver coach of the same name) felt that in the long run, his Rams could not keep pace with the newly formed Cleveland Browns for fan interest.

Interestingly, in their championship season, future Denver Broncos general manager Fred Gehrke, then a Rams halfback, led the entire NFL in average rushing yards per attempt. Way before he became the Broncos' GM, Gehrke was the Rams' starting halfback.

Upon moving to L.A., their hope was to play in the fabled Los Angeles Coliseum, but before that came to pass, the Coliseum board suggested that is was not appropriate for a team that did not have any Black players to play at a stadium that was funded by taxpayers of all races. When word reached Reeves, he opened the Rams to players of color, eventually signing Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, and pro football became integrated. Interestingly, in the same year the Browns did the same, with Bill Willis and future Hall of Famer Marion Motley.

Sometimes good things happen all at once, or so it feels like, which is what happened in Cleveland and Los Angeles.

Later in life, acknowledging the difficulty of integration, Washington said, "If I have to integrate heaven, I don't want to go."

Strode later became an actor of note, appearing in a number of action-adventure Westerns and becoming quite close to Academy Award-winning director John Ford. In fact, when Ford was in his final days, Strode moved in with him and cared for him until the famous director and his good friend passed.

Interesting stories, I suspect you agree.

But I feel like very little matches up with the day Gehrke walked into Reeves' office, and put a leather helmet on his desk, one on which Gehrke had painted the now-legendary Ram horns.

Reeves was taken aback and told Fred (as relayed to me by none other than Fred himself), "I will pay you one dollar for each helmet if you paint every one of the team!"

Fred had been an art major at the University of Utah, and he was delighted to take on the project.

But the nature of the game is that the paint got nicked in every game, so after each game — hard to imagine but true — all the players tossed their helmets into the back of Gehrke's pickup truck and the starting halfback drove them to the garage of his suburban home, where he touched them up for the next game.

To say the new look was an immediate sensation would be an understatement.

"There was no press announcement or anything," Fred later told me. "But the first time we took the field for warmups wearing the horns, the crowd 'oohed' and 'aahed' like you hear at a fireworks display."

And the Rams had changed pro football. By the end of the decade, logos on helmets were a staple of the uniforms of most college and pro football teams.

By the way, he also invented one of the game's first face masks ("I was getting damn tired of having my nose broken") and also created the net into which kickers practice on the sidelines.

And noted for his toughness, Fred's nickname was "Leather."

In fact, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame created its Pioneer Award to honor those who had significantly changed the game, Fred was the first winner in 1972 and hence became the first Bronco honored by the Hall.

But that's not all.

It never is when the Rams are involved.

During the early 1950s they alternated starting quarterbacks, with both of them to be selected to the Hall of Fame. That astonishing duo was Norm Van Brocklin (considered tough as leather, but I have stories that document his heart of gold) and Bob Waterfield. And beyond his greatness as the Rams quarterback, Waterfield showed a touch of Hollywood in his marriage to Jane Russell.

Each of these is another story, even a book.

The Rams played in the Coliseum (still my all-time favorite venue) between 1946 and 1979, then played at Anaheim Stadium from 1980 to 1984.

Then they moved closer to their ancestral home, playing in St. Louis from 1995 until 2015, after which they moved back to Los Angeles.

Along the way, they won some and lost some, winning the world championship in St. Louis when they were known as "The Greatest Show on Turf," with head coach Dick Vermeil, who this past week was named as a coaching finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Rams were featured in football-themed movies in the 1950s, and in the 1978 film "Heaven Can Wait," Warren Beatty played a fictional quarterback for the Rams. That movie, by the way, was the remake of one of the greatest and most charming sports love stories of all time, "Here Comes Mr. Jordan."

The real-life Rams have had too many characters for me to count and discuss here, but they range from 2,000-yard rusher Eric Dickerson to "Bootin' Ben" Agajanian, who was, until his recent passing, the oldest living Ram and the first kicking specialist in pro football.

So this is just another final preseason game before another NFL season with hopes and dreams for all, but there is nothing ordinary about the opponent.

The Rams have some of the richest history in the game, and I hope that readers got a glimpse at that history in this column.

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