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VINTAGE RAMS ’79

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Rams, 9-2 and the best thing to happen to St. Louis since tape-measure home runs and the beer tap, have nothing planned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance.

A telephone call to the Rams’ public relations office about the 1979 team brings little information on the whereabouts of the most accomplished group of players in the team’s history--only a snide remark about a 40-16 loss to the San Diego Chargers that season.

These Rams seem to have little use for those Rams, an imperfect group that was 9-7 in the regular season before beating the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC playoffs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers ruined the ending, defeating the Rams in Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl, 31-19. But even in that game, the Rams led in the fourth quarter.

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And then they were gone. The next season, the Rams moved from Los Angeles to Anaheim. In 1995 they made the bigger move, to St. Louis.

Now there is only Jack Faulkner’s office in Santa Ana. A backfield coach 20 years ago, Faulkner, 73, is an advance scout for the team.

“Thank God they’re starting to win,” he said. “Geez, it’s been a long time.”

So why remember Vince Ferragamo when there is Kurt Warner to celebrate?

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After deciphering film on a recent day, Faulkner watched “Monday Night Football” at a Newport Beach hospital, where his wife was being treated for lung cancer that two weeks later would take her life. He and Rich Saul, the Rams’ former Pro Bowl center, passed each other in the hallway, Saul back for another chemotherapy treatment.

At the same hospital, the old Rams had held a reunion of sorts in April, a quiet affair for family and close friends.

It was held in Saul’s room, where the volume of cards and flower arrangements left a few of the visitors out in the hallway.

*

On the third floor of the Hoag Cancer Center is a room with a single bed, two chairs, an IV stand and one very defiant man.

Rich Saul is fighting cancer, fighting helplessness. But over the course of two hours, his broad shoulders and massive chest slowly sag. His eyes dim. His words and gestures grow weary.

Saul is melting. A plastic tube rushes poison into his right forearm, the needle just a few inches from his clunky Super Bowl ring, still a brilliant blue and gold after two decades of wear.

It looks, however, as though life is running out of him, out of that sturdy forearm, up through the clear tube and into the plastic bag that hangs above him.

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Saul, a veteran leader on the Rams’ Super Bowl team, had surgery shortly after his colon cancer was diagnosed April 15. He has three more outpatient chemotherapy sessions to complete the required 24. Shaking his head slowly, he looks softly at Eileen, his wife of 30 years, and says, “I know for sure ain’t any of us getting out of here alive.”

He is reassuring her. Reassuring himself. They talk about God, and he quotes Billy Graham about the brevity of it all.

She smiles back. They met between classes one day at Butler High in Western Pennsylvania more than half a lifetime ago. Their daughter, Jaime, graduated last spring from Notre Dame. Their son, Josh, is a biomedical engineering major and heavyweight wrestler at Northwestern.

Josh was born shortly after Super Bowl XIV, the one his father played in, the one the Los Angeles Rams played in.

And now the Rams are the talk of the NFL again, only they are in St. Louis, and Los Angeles no longer has a football team, and Saul is drowning in poison in a room with pictures of sailboats on the walls.

*

During surgery last spring, doctors removed a foot of Saul’s large intestine, along with 48 infected lymph nodes. They left 23 staples in his stomach.

As he lay in his hospital bed, the reunion grew around him for four days. Rams dropped by. Rams called. Rams sent messages.

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Georgia Frontiere sent a plant. “We miss you and need you on the team,” read the card. “Love, Georgia.”

Ferragamo and Faulkner visited. So did Jackie Slater, Dennis Harrah, Jack Youngblood, Lawrence McCutcheon and Don Hewitt, the team’s longtime equipment man. Tom Mack, an all-pro guard who retired the year before the Super Bowl, was a regular.

The relationships have held, but the battles and the battlefields have changed.

Cancer didn’t crouch down opposite Saul, big and harsh, like Mean Joe Greene did that day in Pasadena, Jan. 20, 1980.

Cancer sneaked up on him. And now Saul’s battles are fought from a bed with a pink blanket.

“I’m glad I didn’t die, because I would have missed [the reunion],” he said. “You’re in a bed, it gives people an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, Rich,’ and that was pretty nice. I let them put their arm around me. It was a pretty nice deal.”

Like an old Ram coach used to tell all of them, “There’s no guy in a red suit and white beard going to give you anything. This is not Christmas. You’re going to have to take it.”

*

In the fall-winter of 1979 there were a teenager named Gretzky in Edmonton and an American League West title for 71-year-old Gene Autry in Anaheim.

Larry Brown was basketball coach at UCLA. Charles White was running the ball for USC.

Magic Johnson joined the Lakers, Larry Bird the Boston Celtics and Ann Meyers the Indiana Pacers.

Baseball was talking about canceling part of its next season because of labor strife and the New York Times canceled a Red Smith column that supported a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

In the NFL, O.J. Simpson was in San Francisco, Earl Campbell was in Houston, Larry Csonka was in Miami and, in Chicago, Doug Williams of the Buccaneers and Vince Evans of the Bears were the first black quarterbacks to oppose one another in a regular-season game.

So the Rams didn’t merit much attention, not for a while, not the way the current Rams have turned an otherwise ordinary season into something worth watching.

The Rams were aging. McCutcheon was nearly 30. The team wasn’t the same--wasn’t as good actually--as the ones that had routinely won 10 or 12 games, then routinely lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs.

“Of all the teams that I played on with the Rams at that time, that team was probably the most unlikely one to get to the Super Bowl,” McCutcheon said. “We had a lot of injuries that year. We had a lot of adversity. But we managed to find a way to win and do things at the correct moment.”

Ferragamo, who suffered a broken hand early in the season, was the quarterback because Pat Haden had suffered a broken finger on his passing hand. Youngblood played defensive end despite a broken fibula, the smaller of the two bones between the knee and ankle, in his left leg.

But the Rams hung in there.

Asked after the NFC championship game, a 9-0 victory in Tampa, Fla., if his leg could hold up for one final game, Youngblood sneered, “Will I be able to play the Super Bowl? Shoot, I might be able to fly by then.”

And they nearly did.

“The team that was never supposed to go,” Saul said. “We just kept going.” And going.

“The team bonded together and really grew, mentally and spiritually at that time,” McCutcheon said. “It was a fun year, a very rewarding year.”

It ended in the final quarter of the final game of the season, a quarter that began with the Rams leading, 19-17. It ended with Ferragamo throwing an interception, then a 73-yard touchdown pass play from Terry Bradshaw to John Stallworth and a one-yard touchdown run by Franco Harris.

It ended with the Steelers winning their fourth Super Bowl and the Rams keeping their dignity.

*

McCutcheon never left the Rams, even after his retirement in 1981. He is their scouting director, and so he has a personal stake in their resurgence.

Faulkner, too, has been able to enjoy the team’s surprising ascent.

The rest of the guys? Eh.

This isn’t exactly Yogi Berra riding in a World Series float along the Canyon of Heroes. Or Paul Hornung flipping a coin at Lambeau Field. Or Jerry West marveling at the skills of Kobe Bryant.

Anaheim or Los Angeles, wherever the Rams are from, was jilted and never seemed to care much for professional football again. But the players continued to care for each other. They just had nowhere to meet on Sunday afternoons in the fall.

They are Kurt Warner fans. They respect Coach Dick Vermeil. They watch Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce and a strong defense and recognize the uniforms and the blond matron on the sideline.

But the product does not feel as though it came from them, not the way the Atlanta Braves came from Hank Aaron and the Boston Celtics came from John Havlicek and Bill Russell.

Maybe it is the distance, 1,860 miles by moving van.

“It’s their deal,” Saul said. “They’re doing it. I love to see success and I don’t want to see Dallas and San Francisco and Denver. It’s fun to see some different teams, get behind them. It’s hard not to get behind a Dick Vermeil, a Kurt Warner. They’re my kinds of guys. They’re from the old school.”

McCutcheon experienced both worlds. Those Rams, the Super Bowl Rams, alongside these Rams, who only recently had lost more games in the 1990s than any other NFL franchise. They were at 99 losses for nearly two months, then lost their 100th game of the decade Oct. 31, when they became the last NFL team this season to lose.

“People in St. Louis, they’re excited about having the team in their city,” McCutcheon said. “They want [the team] to be identified with that city. [But] for the guys who played in Los Angeles, as Los Angeles Rams, those memories will never be taken away, regardless of what happens.”

Soon, Youngblood will attend a reunion of Florida’s 1969 Gator Bowl team. In Gainesville, they celebrate Gator Bowls. In St. Louis, they forget Super Bowls.

“It’s the St. Louis Rams now,” Youngblood said. “And we are history. We are the legacy of that organization. How much emphasis you put on that legacy depends on who’s in control.”

Said Ferragamo, “They still have the same color helmets. They have the same color jerseys. They are still the Rams, but they are not the Rams of Southern California.”

*

Some of the memories are fonder than others.

Ferragamo owns Touchdown Realty and End Zone Mortgage in Anaheim Hills and lives in Orange. He has three daughters, oversees an annual golf tournament that benefits the Special Olympics and runs a football camp.

Every once in a while, usually at the summer camp, someone will play the highlight tape from Super Bowl XIV. Ferragamo will feel the rush of it, even a generation removed. And then, every time, Jack Lambert steps in front of that pass and the Steelers score the last 14 points.

Every darn time.

Ferragamo still isn’t over that interception.

“That’s a play I’ll always come back to,” he said. “I’m looking back to that series of plays, we were doing so much. We were moving the ball. It gets to be second nature. Well, you’ve got to remember, experience always plays a big factor in those games. I didn’t have that. It was a mistake. Jack Lambert happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Every darn time.

“A lot of times I feel like turning that thing off early in the fourth quarter,” Ferragamo said of the tape. “But that’s history. You can’t go back and change it. If someone held something back, which nobody did, then you could feel bad about it. There was never a doubt we could have won.”

Youngblood, a special consultant to the commissioner of the Arena Football League, lives in Orlando, Fla., where he has two notable keepsakes from his Super Bowl season--a 16-millimeter tape of the game and the original X-rays of the broken bone in his leg.

“Clean through,” he said of the break. “Like snapping a pencil.”

He said he can feel it still, when the summer storms rise up along the coast. “Then again,” he said, laughing, “I feel them in my shoulders, neck, knees, elbows. . . . “

He e-mails his friend, Saul, more than once a week. They talk too. The mention of Saul stalls Youngblood’s enthusiasm for a conversation about the old days, the old Rams, an old Super Bowl that feels forgotten.

He sighs deeply.

Playing with a broken leg doesn’t seem quite so courageous anymore.

*

A continent away, Saul has a few more chemotherapy treatments and who knows what after that.

“In order to kill the cancer, they practically kill you,” he said. “It’s a hammer.

“My doctor said if it doesn’t come back in 10 years, ‘You may die of cancer but not from this tumor.’ The thing I want to do is make a mark. If I can put an arm around somebody, encourage some people, just give some people some hope, that’s what it’s all about.

“If it’s taught me anything, I don’t sweat the small stuff. I don’t care if Eileen squeezes the toothpaste from the top or bottom. I don’t care which way the toilet paper comes off the rung.”

It only matters that she is there, smiling, caressing, reminding the nurse that his nausea sets in about an hour after his treatments.

“I think I learned a lot more when I was playing on the Rams from the losses,” he said, “than I ever did from the wins.”

*

PACKERS: 20

49ERS: 3

San Francisco assured of first non-winning record since strike-shortened 1982 season. Page 3

REWIND:

WEEK 12

Touching scene: Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson exchanging pleasantries on Thanksgiving. Page 3


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