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Rams' presence in Southland a moving experience for L.A.'s NFL fans

Rams' presence in Southland a moving experience for L.A.'s NFL fans
St. Louispunter Johnny Hekker gets off a kick with aLos Angeles Rams banner in the background during a combined practice session with the Dallas Cowboys. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Sal Martinez was a hundred miles from where he lives, but truly at home.

He turned his back to the practice field Monday and looked into the stands lining one side of the Dallas Cowboys' training camp. It was three hours before the St. Louis Rams made their way onto the field for the first of three days of practices, and already hundreds of nostalgic Los Angeles Rams fans had found spots in the bleachers.

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"The original Rams fans, we're like the California Condor," said Martinez, 53. "We're an endangered species."

Sure didn't look endangered on this day, as fans carried tall flags, belted out chants — "Whose house? Rams' house!" — and proudly wore the throwback jerseys of their football heroes: Eric Dickerson, Henry Ellard, Jack Youngblood, Jim Everett and others.

According to Cowboys estimates, there were about 2,800 people in the bleachers where the Rams fans were sitting.

Former Rams quarterbacks Everett and Vince Ferragamo were among the VIP guests of the team Monday, close enough to practice that they had to sidestep stray players running off the field.

"They were here for a lot of years, so those feelings run deep," said Everett, who lives in Orange County. "But there was a Super Bowl won in St. Louis, so there are some deep roots there, too. Who knows what happens, but it's fun to see the Rams here. I'm just excited they invited me out to be a part of it."

Since the NFL put strict limits on the number of practices teams can have in training camp, it's become increasingly common for teams to pair up for combined sessions. When the preseason schedule was released in the spring, the Rams said they looked into joint practices with Indianapolis and Chicago, but opted for the Cowboys — a decision that set off alarms with people concerned about them leaving St. Louis for Southern California. There's no denying that decision dovetailed with their owner's ambitions to return the team to the L.A. market.

Twitter chatter spiked Monday when Rams owner Stan Kroenke made a rare appearance at practice, looking casually nondescript in jeans and a blue Oxford shirt. He surveyed the scene with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, one of his staunch supporters among NFL owners.

Although Kroenke didn't speak with reporters after practice, Jones did. He was asked if the Rams' longstanding connection with L.A. carries any weight among the owners. He pointed out all three of the teams exploring a move to the Los Angeles area — the Rams, the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders — have some connection to the nation's second-largest market.

"The key thing is, that was then and this is now," Jones said. "To be a part of sports, you've got to respect tradition, you've got to respect the past, but you've got to recognize that all that counts, frankly, is tomorrow."

In the stands was the ubiquitous Kroenke head, a giant cardboard cutout as big as a basketball backboard — call it Stan on a Stick, or maybe Flat Stanley.

The turnout was even more robust during the 2014 season, when the Rams visited San Diego in a game dubbed the "Relocation Bowl," pitting two of the three teams eyeing a move to the L.A. market.

Kroenke intends to break ground on an Inglewood stadium in December. The owners of the Chargers and Raiders are backing a competing stadium proposal in Carson. The NFL has yet to give anyone the green light to move but is expected to make some type of decision on the matter by the beginning of 2016, if not earlier.

Meanwhile, the enthusiasm and anticipation of L.A. Rams fans only grows. They share a feeling that a return is inevitable, even as St. Louis is prepared to commit more than $400 million to a proposed stadium there.

"People say this isn't a relocation, it's a restoration," said Mike Harden, a retired police chief who made a six-hour drive from Modesto to watch Monday's practice. "The Rams deserve to be in L.A. If St. Louis gets a team, great, fantastic. But the Rams belong in L.A."

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Inglewood Mayor James Butts echoed that sentiment as he watched from the media area — a tennis court where various radio shows set up shop for the practice under a collection of white tents.

"The Rams are the team that most of us as children grew up with," Butts said. "Roman Gabriel, Jack Snow, the Fearsome Foursome. That is part of our DNA growing up. So there is no team that can claim they are more integrated into the psyche of the people who were old enough to attend football games than the Rams. That's hands down. And anybody who tells you there's another team that's more a part of that generational psyche, they're fooling themselves."

Butts noted the land on which the proposed Inglewood stadium would be built on the old site of Hollywood Park racetrack has been worked on since January 2014.

"It's been graded, the sewer connections are being made, utility drops are being made, the grandstand has been imploded," he said. "It's my understanding the land will be ready to start construction on the stadium in the next 118 days," which would be mid-December.

Former Rams defensive lineman D'Marco Farr, who began his NFL career in L.A. then moved with the team to St. Louis after his rookie season, knows the difficulty of a relocation and said he's pained by the thoughts of the franchise moving again.

"I remember when we won the Super Bowl, we couldn't wait to bring the Lombardi Trophy back for that parade," said Farr, now a radio host in St. Louis. "That was huge. That wasn't just lip service. That was the entire city together on that Super Bowl run.

"When you get from that point to here, and that could leave? Just rips your heart out, man. It just hurts. But, the NFL's a business. You can be cut any day. Teams move. It's just sad."

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