A Golden Season

For the Rams and their fans, the rise to championship status was as improbable as it was entertaining

The pope booked his arrival months in advance. Mark McGwire served notice from Day One. But no one saw the Rams coming. 

Not Larry Kirchner, who was so disgusted that he ran an ad in this newspaper in December 1998, offering his personal seat licenses for sale.

Not local retailer Mike Redmond, who loaded up on Atlanta and New Orleans jerseys for his sports apparel store in February.

Not the Rev. Jeff Perry, who enjoyed far more notoriety than the scruffy-haired third-string quarterback who sat in his office a year ago.

Not Susan Arnott, who had not even a passing interest in football as little as a few months ago.

And not Brother Jacob Israel, the self-styled "ghetto" superfan and talk show caller who was hoping for a 9-7 season.

Sweet unanticipation. Sudden transformation. That's what made the run to the Super Bowl so exhilirating. Where once we were lost -- a town of saps and suckers who overpaid in civic treasure for a band of misfits and miscreants -- now we were found -- a city swathed in blue and gold proudly proclaiming our love for a team that praises the Lord and prances in the end zone.

All we had to do was raise a din at the Dome, find ever more intriguing ways to paint our bodies, sculpt our hair and party the weekends away.

Or so it might appear as the snow melt washes the last of the blue and gold confetti from our downtown streets.

But can we make a case that this is more than civic narcissism? How many events have occurred here in the last 100 years that involve more than 90 percent of our population, as the Nielsen television ratings suggest? We're talking serious tribal behavior here -- a field day for anthropologists, sociologists, theologists and mental health professionals, if they so choose.

Looking just beyond the hoopla, we run into some cosmic questions about who we are. None of us could sit back and enjoy the show without pondering for at least a moment:

The role of religion in sports and in our lives.

The cost of sin, the price of redemption.

That which brings us together; that which pulls us apart.

As with all the big issues in life, we came to terms with this by degrees. Renowned psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book defining how humans go through a series of stages as they deal with their mortality. We armchair clinicians don't pretend to be in her league. Even so, we offer -- somewhat sheepishly -- a more impressionistic look at the Seven Steps to Euphoria.


Larry Kirchner couldn't take it anymore. It wasn't any one play or any one game that caused him to start thinking about giving up his PSLs. But he made his move not long after watching the formerly feckless Atlanta Falcons eviscerate the Rams in the second-to-last home game of the 1998 season.

The Rams should have rolled. The Falcons started a second-string quarterback, and all the Rams had to do was key on all-pro running back Jamal Anderson. But Anderson ran over, around and through the Rams for 188 yards. Cascades of boos rained down on Rams quarterback Tony Banks as he completed 10 of 21 passes for only 95 yards. Coach Dick Vermeil pulled him from the game in the third quarter and sent in Steve Bono, who fared no better.

More than 16,000 ticket holders found something better to do elsewhere that day. Kirchner figured maybe they were on to something.

These games were giving him flashbacks. The worst involved Neil O'Donoghue's blown field goal attempt that denied the football Cardinals a chance to make the playoffs in 1984. Then just 13, Kirchner recalls nearly passing out from the stress as he watched the final moments in his living room.

After O'Donoghue's soccer-style kick sailed wide right, Kirchner swung his right leg straight and true into the speaker of his parents' television console.

Despite that debacle, Kirchner kept up his enthusiasm for football. As an adult, he started a business as a builder and promoter of haunted houses. The houses often attracted Rams players, and he got to know some of them well enough that they would share some locker room gossip.

None of the players spoke of Vermeil with much respect. All of them were pretty sure he wouldn't last long past the end of the season.

So Kirchner called the Post-Dispatch and placed a $20 ad:

3 PSL's, Section 425, aisle seats.Orig. $1500, $500/best offer, Call Larry . . .

He paid an extra $1.10 for boldface type, hoping to make the ad stand out from the others.

This newspaper, we hasten to tell you, moves mountains of products every day through its classified pages. But those PSLs were dogs that wouldn't hunt. Larry got nary a call.

Vermeil's father act fails

Vermeil called a season-ending team meeting for Dec. 28, the day after the Rams' final game. The season had ended ingloriously with a 38-19 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The coach wanted one more opportunity to find the right words to send his boys home on an upbeat note.

Five players failed to show. Among them were some of the Rams' best: giant tackle and first-round draft pick Orlando Pace, reliable cornerback Todd Lyght, outside linebacker and mainstay Roman Phifer, and starting middle linebacker Eric Hill. The fifth player was not identified.

As public humiliations go, this one was in a class all its own. At press conferences, Vermeil had taken on the blame for defeats and found the silver lining in each player's performance.

For anyone who was paying attention, and by late December of '98 not many of us were, these peformances were poignant and pathetic.

Vermeil believed he could take bad actors like felon running back Lawrence Phillips and show them the righteous path. He could take engimatic introverts like Tony Banks and teach them leadership. He could take an entire team of underachievers and work them so hard they'd forge a bond that would carry them not just to victory, but to a better place in their lives. Vermeil as Father Flanagan.

Vermeil would model the behavior he wanted his charges to emulate. No one would be more focused and intense. No one would be more self-effacing. No one would be more constructive and postive than Coach Vermeil.

And what had he wrought? A 4-12 season and a public snub from his players. Flanagan had flopped.


The Rev. Jeff Perry -- his congregation calls him Pastor Jeff -- met with Kurt and Brenda Warner in his study shortly after the season's end. The Warners were church shopping, and they wanted to see if Pastor Jeff had a vision for his church -- "to hear the pastor's heart," as Perry put it, and decide whether it was God's will for them to join.

Not at first, but somewhere in the middle of the conversation, the Warners told Perry what Kurt did for a living. It didn't faze Perry much.

Perry's congregation is 3,000 strong, among them several professional baseball, hockey and football athletes.

Pastor Jeff is among those who believe sports idolatry is out of control in this country. Working in his realm, Perry is aware of the per ils. His youthful, exuberant preaching ("God bless you, man," he'll say.) has attracted followers in droves.

Perry, 43, had built his Sam's-sized, charismatic church practically from scratch beginning in 1988. St. Louis Family Church started as a "tumbleweed" congregation meeting in hotel ballrooms, high school gyms and various church facilities. Now it occupies 17 acres and is anchored by a 23,000 square-foot sanctuary at 145 Valley Center Drive in Chesterfield.

There are no celebrities in the kingdom of heaven, Perry preaches. God doesn't pick favorites. He responds to people who pick him. Pastor Jeff tells his flock that heroes are the people who change the diapers, the people who help park the cars on Sunday, who go home every night and stay faithful to their families.

Perry works hard at saying the right thing, not being intentionally provocative. Being real.

The Warners, it seemed to him, came by that authenticity naturally. Here was a man who was asking the right questons. Could the church accommodate his special-needs child? What kind of work did it do in the community? How could he play a role in spreading the word of God? Here was a man with no job security, yet wanting to sink roots deep into a new town.

Perry listened as the Warners told him they felt like they were in St. Louis for a purpose. At the time, it was kind of a mystery to them. They just had a feeling, they told Perry, that something was about to happen to them.

Rams piece together an offense

Among the first things to happen: The Rams left Warner unprotected in the expansion draft in February. The Cleveland Browns could have plucked him -- or starting lineman Tom Nutten, for that matter. But the Browns had their eyes on Tim Couch, a Heisman Trophy finalist from the University of Kentucky, and none of the five Rams left unprotected was drafted.

The Super Bowl had just ended with the Denver Broncos emerging victorious, and the Rams were working at getting their house in order.

Team president John Shaw met with Vermeil after the holidays urging him to take a new approach. Vermeil was to get out of the business of saving souls and focus on getting rid of ineffective perfomers.

He let eight-year veteran Roman Phifer go via free agency, released LB Eric Hill, traded underachieving wide receiver Eddie Kennison and gave a lot of thought to starting over with a different quarterback.

But not with Warner, a player whose NFL game experience amounted to one quarter. After firing offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome, the Rams hired Mike Martz from the Washington Redskins to head their offense, giving him the power to revamp a tired unit. At his urging, the team signed free agent Trent Green, who had just completed a breakout season with the 'Skins.

Green seemed a perfect choice for the Rams. He had the manner and clean-cut look of a choir boy, with the added virtue of being a product of our own Vianney High. He came home saying all the right things about God, family, and community. The Rams told Tony Banks they would find him another team.

Mike Redmond, regional manager for the Sports Avenue shop at Union Station, ordered no more than a handful of Trent Green jerseys.

The jersey purchases amount to a substantial bet for Redmond. They sell for $49 a pop, and they can either fly out of the place or sit there forever depending on who's hot and who's not. Redmond had gotten stuck with lots of Rams jerseys last year while his customers spent heavily on proven winners. Green might be a good player, but if the team stunk, no would want to wear his number.

So Redmond loaded up on out-of-town jerseys: Anderson, the Atlanta Falcons running back whose team was runner-up in the Super Bowl; Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, college football's all-time leading rusher and the New Orleans Saints' first round pick, and Randall Cunningham, the comeback quarterback who had led the Minnesota Vikings to a 15-1 season.

Word that Banks was out cheered many of the Rams faithful, but not Marshall Cohen and his wife, Carla Scissors-Cohen. Banks had donated money and done promotional work for their Lift for Life gyms.

The gyms, at 1415 Cass Avenue just west of downtown, and 4400 Vista Avenue in the Forest Park Southwest neighborhood, give boys and girls ages 8 to 18 a drug- and crime-free haven on evenings and weekends. The kids pump iron, participate in track meets and go on numerous outings together. When the couple went to the Rams for help, Banks responded warmly.

Who could replace him?

In April, the Rams traded their second- and fifth-round draft choices to the Indianapolis Colts for All-Pro running back Marshall Faulk.

Faulk arrived here not only with gaudy numbers but with a pouty reputation. He didn't think the Colts had shown him enough respect. He wasn't particularly engaging with the press, having been burned badly once in a magazine article that made much of what the author considered an extravagant lifestyle.

Given less attention was Faulk's intense interest in charitable work. Faulk was raised by a single mother in a New Orleans housing project. Football was his path up and out. After starring at San Diego State and getting drafted in the first round in 1994, Faulk set up a foundation to support inner-city children.

The Cohens knew about Faulk's roots and sent a letter asking for his help.

Late in August, Faulk showed up at the Lift for Life gym on Cass, just several blocks from the Trans World Dome. He tossed a football around with the kids, then asked 13-year-old Walter Jackson if he knew how to do chin-ups.

"I'll do a couple for you," Walter said.

"I did ten," he would proudly recall, "then two more came with it."

The Cohens had been told that Faulk would leave them with a check. When they saw the amount, they were floored -- $10,000, equal to 10 percent of their annual budget.

There would be more where that came from. When Faulk signed his new seven-year, $45.15 million contract, he pledged $500,000 to fund community projects in St. Louis.

The Rams' acquisition of Faulk, along with guard Adam Timmerman through free agency and wide receiver Torry Holt in the first round of the draft, inspired some hope. KMOX radio talk show host Randy Karraker went out on the limb, saying he thought the Rams -- with their soft schedule, a solid quarterback and a healthy Isaac Bruce -- might go 12-4.

But that was before Trent Green got injured in the second-to-last preseason game.

Green had sparkled against the Chargers, going 11 for 11 including a deep strike to Bruce. Then with 1 minute 42 seconds left in the first half, Chargers cornerback Rodney Harrison came flying in on a blitz as Green retreated in the pocket. Faulk threw a block at Harrison but didn't get all of him. Harrison careened into Green's knee just after he released the ball. Green left with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and damage to his cartilage. In other words, he was out for the season.

At no position were the Rams any thinner. They had Joe Germaine, a raw recruit out of Ohio State who had seen no NFL action, and Warner, who had played all of one NFL quarter. His statistics: 11 passes, four completions, 39 yards.

"It's the curse of the Rams," Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote the following day. "Saturday night, their season disintegrated into little pieces, looking like the inside of Green's knee. And you wonder how the coaches can put it all back together."


One by one, Warner's coaches and teammates stepped up to tell the media they had faith in their new first-string quarterback.

Isaac Bruce said all Warner would have to do is steer the car. "Just drive it. Be the head, be the eyes, and we'll be the wheels."

Vermeil promised that Warner would play better than "any of the No. 1 draft picks at quarterback this year."

Offensive coordinator Mike Martz added: "Kurt is well into this offense, he really is. He's further along than I would expect him to be at this time for just being in it for a spring and into camp."

And for his own part, Warner said, "I don't expect there to be a dropoff from Trent to me. I'm going in with the expectation that I'm going to lead this team, and I'm going to be as successful as Trent would have been in the exact same situation."

Uh, huh. The team had no track record for success, and now it had a quarterback with hardly a track record at all.

Well, there was that stint in the Arena Football League, where the teams play on a short field and rack up pinball numbers. And Warner had wowed them in Amsterdam while playing in a league called NFL Europe. But the Canadian Fooball League had taken a pass on Warner, and the Packers and the Bears had both cut him.

None of this was lost on Larry Kirchner, who still had his PSL and an overdue invoice for $750 from the Rams. Kirchner needed to write the check soon or forfeit his PSL.

He never got around to writing that check.

On Sunday morning before the Rams' first game with the Baltimore Ravens, Pastor Perry asked the Warners to step forward. The Warners asked the congregation to pray for them. They said they believed that God was now providing a platform for them, and they would use it to glorify his name.

That afternoon, Warner performed just a tad better than your typical rookie first-round draft choice. He threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Rams to a 27-10 victory. His passing yardage was the third-highest total in the 1990s for a QB making his first start. In the locker room after the game, Warner told his teammates he'd made some mistakes, and he'd try to do better next time.

An auspicious debut, but it generated only mild enthusiasm across the area. The television ratings that day were down compared to the previous year. And interest did not pick up perceptibly afterward. Three thousand tickets remained at midweek for the second home game against the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. KTVI put up $40,000 to make the game a sellout so that it could broadcast the game locally. It marked the latest in a trend that had seen the team's television ratings steadily decline since the Rams first arrived in St. Louis in 1995.

The football fervor never flags, though, on the sports call-in shows. These shows are often sustained by a band of regulars, and none was more consistent, nor more colorful, than a caller who identified himself as Brother Jacob.

Brother Jacob Israel leads a triple life. By day, he works as a quality-control specialist for a local bank. He leads a Bible study class on Saturdays at the Hebrew Israelite Center at Page and Taylor avenues. And on Sundays, he sits alone in his living room in the Walnut Park neighborhood, chain smoking GPCs, alternately cheering and swearing at his 30-inch Hitachi television with the stereo sound as the Rams take the field.

On Monday morning, he'll dial up KFNS from his desk at work and deliver a two- or three-minute sermonette providing what he calls the "ghetto" point of view. His renderings are so polished that people have asked him if he writes a script before calling in. Brother Jacob says he does it "freestyle -- concise, precise, hard-hitting and to the point."

He can be acerbic. Last year, he got on Tony Banks' case and began calling defensive lineman Grant Wistrom "Can't Wistrom."

Brother Jacob frequently looks at the world through a racial prism. For instance, he noted that the players who failed to turn out for Coach Vermeil's end of the season meeting all were African-American. He puts a spotlight on the way African-American athletes are treated in the media as compared to whites. He points out that the Rams have priced many African-Americans out of the season-ticket market.

And yet, the Rams, he says, have an avid following in the inner city. Every ethnic group cheers for its own, he says, and most of the top players -- except the quarterback -- are African-American. He calls the team "my STL Rams."

At the beginning of the season, Brother Jacob predicted a 9-7 record for the Rams. As the season unfolded, Brother Jacob would adjust his prediction, and Wistrom would get his first name back.

Now, it was time for the 49ers.

The losing streak to San Francisco had lasted 17 games. It had gone on so long -- since 1990 -- that no current member of the squad had been around for the last win. Still, every member of the Rams felt the burden of losing to the San Francisco 49ers over and over again. Over the last few years, 49ers players had started to taunt the Rams near the end of their lopsided matchups. "Same old Rams," they'd say.

On Oct. 11, before a full house of 65,872, the Rams finally got their revenge. They strafed the 49ers for three first-quarter touchdowns. By the end of the fourth quarter, the Rams had so dominated the affair that their backup quarterback, Paul Justin, took a knee twice on the 49ers 1-yard line. Final score: 42-20.

Warner threw five touchdown passes in all, and Bruce caught four of them. The moment was nearly too much for Bruce. The cameras caught him weeping on the sideline after one of his TDs.

These were two franchises heading in opposite directions, though that was not clear at the time. The 49ers were 3-1 going into the game, so the margin of victory was shocking, even to some of the Rams.

"Maybe we are for real," center Mike Gruttadauria said.

On KFNS the next day, Brother Jacob declared, "It's Super Bowl or bust."

Part 2