OXNARD, CALIF. • The setting was surreal and almost certainly unreal for Rams fans keeping tabs in St. Louis.
Twenty years ago, the Rams stepped off busses for their first training camp practice in St. Louis to a standing ovation from fans.
On Monday at Dallas’ training camp headquarters, Rams players stepped off their team busses for a training camp practice against the Cowboys ... to a standing ovation from fans.
Asked when’s the last time that happened to him, Rams quarterback Nick Foles chuckled and replied: “Probably in high school.”
Foles’ high school memories not withstanding, the one difference between 2015 and 1995 from a Rams perspective: These were Los Angeles Rams fans this time.
“They told us there were going to be a lot,” Rams tight end Jared Cook said. “But I wasn’t really expecting that many. With the Rams, this used to be their home city. I wasn’t expecting to see that many people. It was pretty cool.”
There were 7,739 fans present for Monday’s session, or nearly 5,400 more than attended Sunday’s Cowboys-only practice session.
Officials did their best to keep the Rams fans seated on one side of the complex, which includes two 100-yard playing fields, and Cowboys fans on the other. There were at least as many Rams fans present Monday as Cowboys fans, if not more.
They chanted “LA Rams! LA Rams!” Then they shouted “Kroenke! Kroenke! Kroenke!”
Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who has yet to show up for a Rams training camp practice in St. Louis this summer, found the time to show up in Oxnard for Monday’s session.
He watched above in a tower with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a strong Kroenke ally.
Wearing blue jeans, tennis shoes, a powder blue long-sleeve shirt and a Rams cap, Kroenke came down from his tower and strolled off the field after practice with team exec Kevin Demoff — as usual — serving as his wingman.
When asked by reporters for his thoughts on all the LA Rams fans in attendance, Kroenke laughed and kept walking.
These practice sessions on the outskirts of Los Angeles might all have been just a “coincidence,” as the Rams continue to insist. But for fans in St. Louis struggling with the possibility of the team’s relocation to the West Coast, Monday was not a Hallmark moment.
Ten days ago in St. Louis, during a practice session at Rams Park televised live by NFL Network, Rams fans were told by team security to either discard their large pro-St. Louis/anti-Kroenke signs or take them back to their cars. There was no such prohibition Monday, with fans waving large team flags, toting signs, and one carrying a huge “Fathead” poster of Kroenke.
Tom Bateman, who’s with the “Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams” fan club, termed Monday’s gathering of LA Rams fans: “A call to arms. We had fans coming all the way from El Paso, obviously northern California, some fans from Arizona and Nevada. It’s a pretty amazing gathering. Stan Kroenke made his case to the NFL. Now it’s our turn to make our case to show that the fan support here for the Rams is still very strong.”
Among the LA Rams fans in attendance was Inglewood mayor James Butts, who made the 60-mile trek to Oxnard to watch the team he hopes will be playing in his community in 2016.
Except for the Hollywood Park casino, all the land has been cleared in Inglewood for the 292-acre site — an area Butts boasted is “larger than the Vatican” — for Kroenke’s stadium and real estate development plan.
“Actually the utilities and sewer connections have been dug (on the site),” Butts said. “And the connections are being made.”
He said construction on Kroenke’s proposed $2 billion stadium can begin “in 118 days” — which would be mid-December.
Butts said the throng of LA Rams fans at Monday’s practice “sends a huge message to the Rams’ popularity here in Southern California. First of all, the Rams are the team that most of us as children grew up with. Roman Gabriel, Jack Snow, the Fearsome Foursome. That is part of our DNA.”
But why, Butts was asked, is he trying to help take a Rams team out of St. Louis — a Rams team that the Los Angeles area made very little effort to keep in terms of a viable stadium plan in 1995?
“I love St. Louis,” Butts said. “I have a beloved cousin and her children in St. Louis. And they’re absolutely Rams fans. But the reality is this: If the Rams choose to relocate. We’re there. Period.
“My apologies to St. Louis, but we are doing everything we can to do our part to let the NFL know that we want to be their solution. We don’t want to be an alternative. We want to be their solution.”
Coach Jeff Fisher’s parents live not far from Oxnard, and they attended Monday’s practice. He even had dinner, a home-cooked meal, from mom and dad on Sunday night.
During practice, Rams fans cheered loudly nearly every catch or play made by a Rams player, even for some plays that bordered on the routine. In the middle of practice, wide receiver Kenny Britt took the time to slap hands with several fans hanging over a fence and even signed a couple of quick autographs.
Fisher and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett brought both teams together at the start of practice and emphasized that they were there to get work in — not to fight. There were only a couple of very brief “scuffles,” if you’d even call them that.
Tempers flared once when Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson made an overly aggressive hit on a Dallas receiver, but the players quickly were separated.
There was a noticeable police presence, with officers ringing the field inside fencing that separated fans from the field. There were problems associated with the crowds last year when the Oakland Raiders came to Oxnard to practice against the Cowboys.
As for all the Rams fans, Fisher said: “The Rams used to be here. So we’ve got a lot of Rams fans obviously. It was great for them to come out. ... I remember last year when we played the Chargers (in San Diego) we had a great group pulling for us.”
But does Monday’s turnout and the mere presence of the Rams practicing in Southern California signal anything bigger to fans in LA?
“No,” Fisher said. “I don’t read between the lines. We open against the Seahawks, and our focus is on getting better so we can compete with them.”