Rams rule gridiron, but fans haven't learned to swagger

In St. Louis, being a step from the Super Bowl is unheard of, and

The St. Louis Rams have all the weapons of a championship football team: a dangerous pass attack, a durable running game, a solid defense, and a sparkling young quarterback. The team has no glaring weaknesses, no big question marks, except one: the fans.

Don't blame the locals, who are loyal to the core. It's just that they have endured so many bad football seasons they're still getting over the shock of becoming an overnight powerhouse. It takes time for a city to develop a championship strut.

Instead, St. Louisans retain a kind of wide-eyed awe at the possibility of beating Tampa Bay at home this Sunday and going to the Super Bowl. Although the city has won numerous baseball championships and come close in professional hockey, this is different. St. Louis has never before fielded a football champion. Until this year, it had never even hosted a playoff game.

Understandably, fans remain a little off-balance.

"How can this team that was so bad - the worst team of the decade - all of a sudden become the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl?" asks Chuck Link, owner of a neighborhood restaurant. "It's astounding!"

Sudden success has pushed St. Louisans into a crash course on football bravado. So far, they've met with mixed success. Consider:

After the Rams shellacked the Minnesota Vikings, 49-37, last Sunday to win their first playoff game ever in St. Louis, you'd think downtown would have been drowning in the team's trademark blue and gold. Not so. Merchants have begun to sport "Go Rams" signs, but they're mostly tiny and restrained, not the big and gaudy outpouring found in other perennial championship cities.

Sales and prices of Rams paraphernalia are up, but not off the charts. At the counter of one local store, a manager volunteers that the $30 and $40 price tags attached to rookie trading cards of quarterback Kurt Warner are "overpriced."

Overpriced!? For a little-known backup quarterback who suddenly emerges as the league's most-valuable player and throws more touchdown passes in a season than anyone but Dan Marino? (Note to St. Louis shopkeepers: Your city has joined the big leagues. It's OK to speak softly, but carry a big placard. And never sell your local sports heroes short.)

Throughout the regular season, local media raised persistent questions about fan support. Ticket holders would show up late to games in the Trans World Dome. And even within its noise-capturing confines, their cheering could be underwhelming at times.

Fortunately, that's changing. "All you have to do is walk into the Dome and you feel the energy," says David Eagleton, a season-ticket holder and investment banker with A.G. Edwards. Last week, "virtually every seat was filled in the Dome a half-hour before the game."

That spirit marks a complete turnaround from a year ago. Then, the team chalked up four wins and 12 losses. Fans voiced doubts, saying second-year coach Dick Vermeil was over the hill and out of touch.

But off-season trades and signings and shrewd draft choices changed all that. Suddenly, the young team was beefed up with talented running back Marshall Faulk, stalwart offensive guard Adam Timmerman, up-and-coming quarterback Trent Green, and a rocket wide receiver named Torry Holt. When Green was injured in the preseason, Warner stepped in and, much to the fans' amazement, led the team so well that it went 13-3 and is currently considered the best in the league.

Fans have responded, snapping up Rams paraphernalia and tickets. Season tickets, which were practically going begging last summer, have suddenly become hot property.

Compared with last season, "it's like night and day - from people wearing their colors to the intensity of the team," says Ron Graham Jr., who runs St. Louis Sports Collectibles with his father. Warner paraphernalia currently outsells even local baseball hero Mark McGwire, he adds.

Last Friday, Mr. Link noticed a group of five people in his restaurant, three of whom were wearing Rams sweatshirts. Before, "you would never see that," he says. "Our first couple games were not sellouts because people were still skeptical. Then when it got going, it was the hottest ticket in town. Our town had something to rejoice about. It happens so seldom. It's just a feel-good thing for everybody because life is tough, life is hard, and this is something to be happy about."

Even his wife, Carol, tuned in to last Sunday's game with Minnesota while running errands. "She listened to it on the radio in the car, and she came back and knew what was going on," Link says in amazement. "That's off the charts."

So is St. Louis, at the moment, in its zeal to become a real football town.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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