Running back Todd Gurley (30) carries the ball upfield during the Rams’ first workout on Saturday at UC Irvine.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rams tigh end Temarrick Hemingway (84) blocks defensive end Matt Longacre (96) during a drill at the team’s first day of camp.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A fan snaps a selfie as Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson (22) signs autographs during the team’s first day of workouts at UC Irvine.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rams defensive back Jabriel Washington meets fans who are seeking autographs at the first day of training camp in Irvine.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rams running back Todd Gurley signs autographs for the fans at Crawford Field during the team’s opening workout at UC Irvine.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Orange’s Tom Bateman, director of the Bring Back the Rams movement, carries his poster of team owner Stank Kronke’s head at training camp.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Mike Griffen, a Garden Grove resident of "RockStar Rams” fame, greets Alfredo Prieto, left, of Los Angeles and David Macias, right, of Riverside at the first day of training camp.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Sporting different era jerseys, Rollan Moran, 9, and father Eric made the short trip from Anaheim to the Rams’ first practice of summer camp.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Ontario’s Danny Wechsler (29) and 6-year-old son Benjamin Wechsler head to Crawford Field at UC Irvine for the Rams’ first practice.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A fan sports a customized Jared Goff jersey to the Rams’ first practice session at UC Irvine.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Manuel Moreno of Santa Ana and the RWO Rams Central booster club strolls along Crawford Field during the teams’ first workout.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Nicholas Manzella has been a Rams fan since the “Fearsome Foursome” days.(Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)
This whole business about the Rams returning to Los Angeles?
It just got real.
On a cloudless, scorching Saturday afternoon at UC Irvine, it filled bleachers surrounding two makeshift football fields with nearly 10,000 folks who sprinted to their seats early and stood screaming for autographs late.
All for a Rams event that had no score, no statistics and no drama.
It was just a practice. It was just a dummy-thumping, horn-rattling, saggy-sweats practice.
But this being the Rams’ first training-camp practice as a Los Angeles franchise in 22 years, it was horned gold.
“The people in St. Louis were like, we can’t root for the Rams because we’ll all be at the beach . . . well, I guess not,” said Randy Troy, a member of the former Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams group and one of many fans wearing a sweaty jersey and a sunscreen smile.
“This whole scene is amazing,’’ said former Rams quarterback Jim Everett, watching from under a tent behind the end zones.
As it grew hotter, it grew more amazing. The fans audibly gasped when rookie quarterback Jared Goff lost consecutive fumbles on bad snaps and let loose with a loud expletive. The fans then screeched after he threw an interception. When a couple of fans began derisively chanting his name — “Ja-red, Ja-red” — they suffered the indignant stares of the masses and quickly quieted.
“This is unbelievable,’’ said former Rams offensive tackle Jackie Slater, also hanging out under a tent. “It’s unbelievable how much everything has changed.”
At one point, so many fans were crowding the railing to get closer to the players, a security guard barked, “Move from the bench line and come back to your seats.”
Nobody listened. They hung on the railing throughout the final drills, then crowded it after practice to roar at the departing players as if the padded, slick-faced behemoths were walking a red carpet at Hollywood and Highland.
“To walk out here and see the stands like this, we are super blessed to be there,” said Rams punter Johnny Hekker. “Sometimes you put in hours and hours of work and there’s nobody there. Then you see something like this, we are so appreciative, we’re just soaking it all in.”
This whole business about the Rams returning to Los Angeles just got real, so real that some early truths about these Rams have become immediately obvious.
Even if they are as lousy as everyone thinks they will be, they are going to have a rollicking honeymoon here. Even more than wanting them to win, it seems fans are just thrilled to see them show up. This feeling could be stretched out with each wave of new fans that enters the Coliseum throughout the season. It was a feeling that dominated the stands Saturday on a basically dull sports afternoon that offered nothing more than newness.
“You want to see the logo with L.A. on it, you want to see players wearing the L.A. uniform and competing, you just want it to sink in, that’s why many of us came here,” said Andre Jeanbart, another member of the Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams group and one of many fans who drove several hours to sit in 85-degree heat and watch guys play catch.
The other truth is that even when the interest in the Rams begins to wane, which it surely will eventually do if the losing overwhelms the curiosity, the franchise will be carried by the power of the NFL.
Much to the surprise of fans who have only ever watched USC or UCLA football practice, this wasn’t just a workout, it was an NFL production.
There were tented attractions set up around the edges of the field, stands selling everything from shaved ice to kettle corn, giant bouncy houses for kids and a memorabilia shop for the die-hards. Fans could buy a hot dog for $4, bottled water for $2.50, and a Goff jersey for $149.99.
The entire event, which will be repeated at 15 more open-to-the-public practices this summer — free admission with $10 parking — felt like a small-town company picnic surrounding gladiators engaged in this country’s most popular sport. Even though no outside food was allowed in the stands, guards relented to allow some old-school Rams fans to bring watermelons to wear on their heads.
The NFL wasn’t like this when it left town, huh? What a difference a two-decade drought makes.
“Looking seriously at this, comparing this to the 1990s, the NFL has grown leaps and bounds,” Everett said, glancing out to the fields. “This is what it is. You’re seeing the growth of the NFL right here, right in front of us today, this is how they roll.”
And so a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in 12 seasons will roll into late summer underneath the sort of fire usually reserved for champions. It is their job to make it last.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, a long way to go with the football team, but the atmosphere is certainly going to help,” Coach Jeff Fisher said. “It will help them focus, help them to prepare. It’s different. It’s very good for them.”