As he made the familiar drive down I-70 to downtown, the memories came flooding back for Mike Martz. Game-day memories of years gone by. All kinds of old images entered Martz’s head, including his brother Steve’s tradition of sitting outside the Edward Jones Dome, smoking a cigar three hours or so before home kickoffs for the St. Louis Rams.
Yes, Martz felt a tinge of game-day butterflies Friday as he headed to the Four Seasons Hotel just across I-70 from the Dome where the Rams were champions once upon a time.
“So many great memories here, and every time you come back they become more vivid,” Martz said. “From a distance you don’t think about it a whole lot, but when you come back into town it just comes back.”
Every year at about this time former Rams receiving great Isaac Bruce holds a gala charity fundraiser for his foundation, which provides scholarships and college travel funds among other things for youth in St. Louis. This being 20 years since the St. Louis Rams rocked the football world by going from worst to first to claim Super Bowl XXXIV over the Tennessee Titans, Bruce decided to make it a reunion of that championship team.
Only about 15 members of the ’99 Rams made it to Friday’s festivities at the Four Seasons. Many of those Rams are involved in coaching, broadcasting, or have sons and daughters involved in high school or college sports. But lots of coaches showed up, from Dick Vermeil to St. Louis coaching icon Jim Hanifan, Martz, Al Saunders, John Ramsdell, John Bunting and Mike White. Longtime Rams trainer Jim Anderson was in the house, as was former strength and conditioning coach Dana LeDuc, and former security director “Chief” Dan Linza, among others.
And the ballroom at the Four Seasons was packed — about 400 fans eager to mingle with their gridiron heroes of the past, hear the stories, and bid on memorabilia. For many who remember the “Greatest Shown on Turf,” this stroll down memory lane never gets old.
The Rams are now in their fourth year in Los Angeles after Stan Kroenke took the money and ran, a development that still rankles many ’99 Rams.
“One of the greatest periods of my life was here,” said White, who was as much consigliere to Vermeil as coach in St. Louis. “And I don’t mean to throw some old wounds out, but to have a team leave St. Louis has gotta be a bunch of trash.
“Because this is a great city. People are great, and they’re loyal and it is something that just upsets me a lot.”
Interesting comments, especially considering White, now 83 and long retired from coaching, lives in Newport Beach, Calif.
“With the team moving, which is a sad thing obviously for me personally, it sucks,” said former offensive guard Tom Nutten. “One of the reasons for coming back to St. Louis was always obviously the team.”
But the team is gone.
“For me, it was devastating,” former safety Rich Coady said. “Especially with my kids, to be able to bring ‘em up here and have them go to games. And now that’s taken from us. It’s just very different now that we’re in LA. But I get it. It’s a business. But I feel bad for the town of St. Louis.”
Coady was a standout for Texas A&M in the 1998 Big 12 title game played at what was then the Trans World Dome. He so impressed Vermeil and general manager Charley Armey in that game, the Rams drafted him in ’99. Now 43, Coady works for a real estate investment firm in Dallas.
Nutten, who did a masterful job blocking future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp in the NFC title game victory over Tampa Bay, is 48 and owns a restaurant — Lamoraga — in Naples, Fla.
Among the other players in attendance Friday, tight end Ernie Conwell, 47, lives in Nashville and works for the NFL Players Association. The electric Az-Zahir Hakim, 42, is wide receivers coach of the fledgling St. Louis BattleHawks of the XFL.
But a lot of big names from the ’99 Rams — Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Orlando Pace — weren’t on hand.
“People have obligations,” Bruce said. “Some of the guys are working. I understand that. But everybody who could be here, they’re pretty much here. I’m happy to see Coach Vermeil, Coach Martz. And the guys that the people probably don’t know, the public won’t know — the Dana LeDuc’s, the Jim Anderson’s. Those are my guys.”
If the team were still based in St. Louis, the Rams organization would take the lead in making nights like Friday happen. But with the team in Los Angles, it’s not the same. The Rams made a modest financial commitment for the weekend, which also included a private affair for the ’99 Rams on Saturday at Topgolf.
So it seemingly has fallen upon Bruce to bring the Rams together in St. Louis since the team departed after the 2015 season. His Legends of the Dome flag football game was a heartwarming “farewell” salute to fans here in the summer of 2016.
And on Friday and Saturday, he spearheaded the 20-year reunion of the only St. Louis team — and only Rams team — to win a Super Bowl championship.
“Events like this make it very special — catching up with the guys that are coming from all over the U.S.” Nutten said. “Whether it’s every year or every five years, it’s doesn’t matter. It seems like the relationships are just there and you can’t break those. . . . I’ve been looking forward to this for a long, long time.”
There was plenty of praise and warm feelings to go around Friday night at the Four Seasons, especially when it came to Bruce.
“Isaac was a standard-bearer for the best offense in our generation and one of the best in the history of football,” Conwell said. “He also had amazing years when we were not (so good). When everybody knew that we had one guy, and it was Isaac Bruce and we were gonna throw it to him. And he still would have 110 catches.”
(He had 119 catches for 1,781 yards in 1995, the Rams’ first season in St. Louis — and amazingly, didn’t make the Pro Bowl.)
Saunders, 72, who retired from coaching after the 2018 season, called Bruce the best route-runner in NHL history.
“He is the best receiver I’ve been around in 38 years (as an NFL coach), and I have five of them in the Hall of Fame,” Saunders said. “That man deserves to be in.”
But Vermeil said he’s just as impressed with the man Bruce has become post-football.
“When I first came here Isaac was a pain in the ass, OK?,” Vermeil said, only half-jokingly. “It’s amazing to watch him grow as a human being and a person, as a parent.”
Then, looking at Bruce, on the ballroom stage, Vermeil added: “What you have done and become beyond your football is so special. That’s what makes — (pause) — that’s what makes coaching and being part of this kind of situation so special. And you are special Isaac. But you have to admit there was a time you were a pain in the ass.”
Yes, Vermeil had to pause because he got emotional talking about Bruce. A vintage Vermeil moment.
Then Bruce took over the microphone and returned fire for the “pain in the butt” remark.
“Coach, I have to say the feeling was mutual,” Bruce said, bringing roars of laughter from the audience.
It was all in good fun. And that after all is what the ’99 Rams were all about.