A trio of Rams players remembers the transition from St. Louis to L.A.
During a 2016 team meeting in a Manhattan Beach hotel ballroom, Rams players glimpsed renderings of a new Inglewood stadium for the first time.
The Rams were two months removed from the NFL approving their move from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Their meeting, which preceded a news conference and house-hunting excursions by players, was the first step in the return-to-L.A. process.
The conceptual drawings of what would eventually become $5-billion SoFi Stadium impressed players in the abstract. Yet veterans, accustomed to the league’s annual roster turnover, were circumspect that they still would be members of the Rams when the stadium was completed.
“Every guy that’s kind of older on the team, you’re elbowing each other thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be great for those young guys to be able to play in in the future,’” punter Johnny Hekker said.
Hekker, star defensive lineman Aaron Donald and starting right tackle Rob Havenstein are the only players who played in St. Louis that remain on the Rams roster.
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All three have played pivotal roles for the Rams throughout their careers, and all will be in the starting lineup when the Rams play the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium next Sunday.
Hekker, Havenstein and Donald occasionally reflect that they are still together.
“We joke once in a blue moon about it,” Donald said. “You never know what to expect. You hope to be at this point and have success like this.”
Donald, 30, has enjoyed enormous achievement in Los Angeles. He was voted NFL defensive player of the year in 2017, again in 2018 — when he helped lead the Rams to Super Bowl LIII — and again in 2020, joining Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt as the only three-time winners.
Before coach Sean McVay replaced the fired Jeff Fisher in 2017, the Rams had the then-30-year-old McVay speak with Donald.
“You know that Aaron was a really important factor because part of the interview process entailed me meeting Aaron, and him being like, ‘All right, I guess this little guy can maybe be a head coach for us,’” McVay said.
Havenstein, 29, was a second-year pro when the Rams moved to Los Angeles.
Along with veteran Andrew Whitworth he is a bookend tackle for an offensive line that protected quarterback Jared Goff for five seasons, and now Matthew Stafford.
“Rob has really asserted himself as a great leader,” McVay said.
This season’s team is similar to the 2018 Super Bowl team, Havenstein said.
“One of the biggest things, like 2018, is we’re really connected,” Havenstein said. “Guys genuinely care for each other and … that’s something that can’t be faked.
“It’s one of the key strengths of this team.”
Hekker signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and is the team’s longest-tenured player. He was a two-time All-Pro before the Rams arrived from St. Louis, and he also earned All-Pro honors in 2016 and 2017.
“He was really a great leader from the time that I got here,” McVay said, adding, “Somebody that intentional about doing things the right way, perfecting their craft but also making a positive impact on their teammates, that’s Johnny Hekker.”
Hekker’s future with the Rams appeared in doubt last offseason when the Rams signed punter Corey Bojorquez. Hekker was sidelined for part of training camp after testing positive for COVID-19. But after he agreed to restructure his contract, the Rams traded Bojorquez to the Green Bay Packers and brought back Hekker for a 10th season.
Hekker, 31, said that his, Donald’s and Havenstein’s staying power comes into focus when he attempts to reminisce with other teammates about a funny event or personality from St. Louis.
“You get this blank stare back and you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, I can only talk about this with Rob or A.D.,” said Hekker. “It’s a real honor to be considered with those guys, and how long we’ve been able to stay with one organization is a real blessing.”
Now they will play together again in another Super Bowl.
In the Rams’ 13-3 defeat by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, Hekker punted nine times.
“It was pretty disheartening after the game watching the other team’s confetti falling down and them celebrating,” he said. “But afterward I was still filled with sense of pride and accomplishment over the season we had.
“I just like I had a belief in my heart we’d be back. And here we are.”
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