The last time the Rams won the Super Bowl, wide receiver Ricky Proehl ran across the field, shouting with his hands in the air. Then he bolted behind the St. Louis Rams’ bench near the 20-yard line, where his family waited in the stands.
He hoisted his son Austin on his shoulders.
“I wanted him, Austin, to be a part of it,” Ricky said.
Wearing a too-big Rams jersey and backward Rams cap, Austin joined Ricky for the trophy presentation for Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000 after they defeated the Tennessee Titans at the Georgia Dome. It was Ricky’s way of rewarding his son for the Saturdays he spent cleaning helmets and fixing lockers when his father practiced.
“I was just, like, in heaven … soaking it all in,” Austin said. “I was happy, just didn’t really realize at the time what it all meant, but just knew that I was a part of it.”
Confetti fell like snow, blanketing the field, as 5-year-old Austin joined the celebration with players he had grown close with on the offense dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf.” He hung out in the locker room with the wide receivers all season. He cleaned Marshall Faulk’s helmet before every game, filling a role as Faulk’s good-luck charm.
“They’ll beat the Patriots; I’m gonna get on his shoulders,” Ricky said.
This week, Austin is learning to get more physical in his route running, standing in as New England’s Julian Edelman to help the defense prepare.
“So far, he’s done a great job, man,” cornerback Aqib Talib said. “He’s got the same movement as [Edelman] … so he can definitely get us a great look.”
When Ricky learned the Rams’ opponent was the Patriots, he said it brought back old nightmares. He has played in four Super Bowls, winning twice, with the Rams and Indianapolis Colts. Both of his losses were against the Patriots, with the Rams and Carolina Panthers.
The first loss came in 2002, when Ricky played for the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. He made a game-tying 26-yard touchdown catch with 1:30 to play, only to watch Tom Brady lead the Patriots down the field to set up a game-winning 48-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. It was Brady’s first Super Bowl, when he earned his first of four Super Bowl MVP awards.
Austin was there. This time, he waited in his hotel room to greet his father and the rest of the downtrodden Rams. When they returned, he did not bring up the game.
“I think sometimes you remember the ones you lose more than … you remember the ones you win,” Ricky said. “Just because they hurt so bad.”
Ricky is reminded of those losses each year before the Super Bowl, when reruns of games play on TV.
He talks with his son multiple times a day, and Austin considers his father one of his closest friends. In a recent conversation, Ricky gave Austin advice for the Super Bowl — avoid distractions in the days leading up to the game.
“They need to understand it’s a business trip and you’re there for one reason, and that’s to win,” Ricky said. “Because … there’s nothing like losing. It’s the worst feeling in the world.”
So far, Austin said his practice routine has remained similar, but that will change once the team travels to Atlanta. He will warm up on the field, but because practice squad players can’t dress for games he will watch his team face the quarterback who robbed his father of two Super Bowl rings.
Mostly, he wants to relish the moment.
“You look forward to it, but you know, it’s one of those things where you can’t hold your breath, ’cause … it’s very rare,” Austin said. “It’s very hard to get in this game.”
A former North Carolina receiver, Austin was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round but was cut Sept. 1. For almost two months, he had no team. He trained with his father in Greensboro, N.C., and attended combines and workouts, waiting for an opportunity. He finally got his chance in late October, when the Rams signed him to the practice squad. He said the team has embraced him since.
The NFL always has been his dream. As a child, Austin looked to the wide receivers on the Rams’ 1999 championship team as role models for how he wanted to play. Now, the work ethic that helped his Rams teammates reach the Super Bowl is shaping his professional career.
“The toughest thing for him is he’s not playing,” Ricky said. “But I think he’s realizing … the experience is still gonna be life changing.”