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Sundays with Sacco: The Rams are back


Preseason is an important part of the National Football League schedule, but it has way more to do with planning and preparation than with the standings.  It is a time for personnel evaluations and decisions.

With that in mind, I am happy to move past the loss to the San Francisco 49ers and leave that to the coaches and personnel staff.

Regarding the quarterback battle, my mantra remains the same:  In John and Gary, I trust.

Moving ahead to this week's game against the Los Angeles Rams, I must admit I relish typing that franchise's name.

With much respect to Cleveland, which birthed the Rams in the city they called home until owner Dan Reeves moved them in 1946, and to St. Louis, which was their home until this past offseason, my opinion is they are the "Los Angeles" Rams to all but the youngest of pro football fans. We live in a now-oriented nation, but the NFL and country of today have grown together since the end of World War II.

The Rams were the first franchise in baseball or football to head west, and it happened right after the war ended, coinciding with the first superhighway system in the world as well as other notable post-war societal developments such as suburbia and the shopping mall. The Rams were not only at ground zero of these developments, but they were the team that integrated football, beating baseball in that regard as well.

It was actually a tie between the Rams and Cleveland Browns in the 1946 integration of the game, with the Rams playing Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, while Cleveland had Marion Motley and Bill Willis make their debuts that same season.  The Rams were the first NFL team to integrate, as Cleveland was in the All-American Football Conference, a rival pro league. I think it is fitting that the Rams are playing in the Los Angeles Coliseum until their new Los Angeles stadium is completed. The coliseum remains my favorite NFL road venue when filled to the 90,000 capacity, and it is where Washington and Strode integrated the NFL.

The NFL took on a truly national appearance for the first time in the post-war season of 1946 when Reeves (no relation to former Broncos head coach Dan Reeves) was granted permission to move from Cleveland to LA, and West Coast fans responded with crowds teetering at the 90,000 mark to watch the defending NFL champions.

And that was before late Broncos general manager Fred Gehrke, then a starting halfback for the Rams ahead of both Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis and Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, went to Reeves with the idea of painting ram horns on the sides of their helmets.

Reeves gave the OK to the idea and paid Fred $1 per helmet for painting the horns on the leather helmets, which Fred did in his garage. He then transferred them to the Coliseum in his pickup truck.

Fred and I often talked about this, and he told me when the Rams took the field for the first time with horns on their helmets, unannounced and before 92,000 in the Coliseum, there was a crescendo of "oohs" and "aahs" that swept through the sellout crowd. The helmet logo was born, Fred Gehrke was on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Pioneer Award entrant, and within a decade every team (except Cleveland, of course) would have helmet logos.

The on-field product was just as exciting. Before the Fearsome Foursome defensive line (Deacon Jones, Merlin Olson, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy), before quarterback Roman Gabriel and the "Catawba Claw" (Bucky Pope), there was the most remarkably unusual rotating quarterback situation in NFL history. Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin alternated at quarterback for the better part of three seasons, including an NFL championship year (1951), and both alternating quarterbacks are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And one of them, Waterfield, was married to one of the most glamorous move stars of that or any era, Jane Russell.

At one time their placekicker was the legendary "Bootin' Ben" Agajanian, who had two shoe sizes (11 and 7 and 1/2). He had lost the toes on his kicking foot in a factory accident. Ben was the first kicking specialist in NFL history and is the oldest living ex-Ram.

Much of football is played in trenches, but the NFL did not truly explode on the national scene before it was a coast to coast game with glitter and glitz. And a heck of a lot of that glitter and glitz was tied to the postwar entertainment explosion coming from the West Coast.

No team symbolized that more than the Denver Broncos' opponent this week, the former and once again Los Angeles Rams.

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