By Jeff Moeller
The location was the same. The scene very familiar.
However, something was vastly different.
Under the bright Southern California sun, the ball zipped in the air and the crashing of hard knocks echoed throughout the makeshift football complex. A sure sign that the NFL season was soon approaching, the football field in Oxnard was blue-centric, a common and popular sight in recent years.
But the balls being thrown did not glide out of the hand of four-time Pro Bowler Tony Romo. Instead, they were primarily being tossed by a highly rated first overall selection. And any on-field hitting did not come courtesy of Sean Lee, Dallas' leading tackler from one year ago, but by guys spending as much time navigating jumbled freeways as studying their club's playbook.
Fans were there, too, sporting their favorite team's logo. But the color scheme looked off a shade, with the oh-so-recognizable metallic silver blue of the Dallas Cowboys was not featured. New century blue was on display instead.
These were not your father's Dallas Cowboys. These were not your grandfather's Dallas Cowboys.
Heck, these weren't the Dallas Cowboys.
These were the Rams, the newly (re-)minted Los Angeles Rams, just months after a historic decision in which they departed St. Louis, a relocation process in which the Cowboys owner Jerry Jones played an integral role.
For three spring months, the River Ridge Playing Fields in Oxnard housed the Rams for their Organized Team Activity workouts. The facilities were a temporary but major step forward for the nation's second-largest market. After all, it was the biggest sign yet – actual football – that the absence of the league for more than 20 years was in the rearview mirror, not counting of course the 11 times the Cowboys have spent training camp there since 2001.
That "absence" will officially dissipate on Aug. 13 when the Cowboys make the one-hour trek south from Oxnard to serve as the Rams' opponent at the venerable Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for both team's initial preseason game.
But is this considered just another meaningless exhibition meeting? Hardly. This game is indeed significant, bringing back a flood of memories for long-time fans of both clubs.
The Coliseum is the long-time (and current) home of the USC Trojans and the former home of the Los Angeles Raiders (1982-94) and Rams (1946-79). It will serve as the Rams' temporary home for three seasons while their flashy new stadium is built in the L.A. suburb of Inglewood.
The relocation by the franchise of course did not happen overnight, but the possibilities of the mega-move had been in place for months. Last year, the Cowboys hosted a pair of what could politely be called feisty scrimmages with the then St. Louis Rams in Oxnard. Interest was high, though, for the joint practices, which featured overflowing crowds.
It was also around that time when Jones' public comments strongly backed the Rams' desire to move west. He was one of the campaign's greatest cheerleaders as Rams owner Stan Kroenke's grand vision slowly became a reality.
Seeing the Rams and the Cowboys together also carries a great deal of nostalgia and history. The teams practiced together in California dating back to the 1960s in what Gil Brandt believes to be the first training camp scrimmages in league history between two different franchises.
"We called it the 'Three Ring Circus,'" said Brant, the vice president of player personnel for Dallas from 1960-88 and a scout for the Rams' front office from 1955-59. "The format to this day is basically the same as when the two teams met in Oxnard last year. It is better organized now, of course, but there are still the same amount of fights."
On-field skirmishes are one thing, but death threats are another.
"I remember when we played them in Anaheim on a Monday night and Tom Landry had to leave the field during play. Police said there was a death threat against him."
The Cowboys came out winners in the end, though, as the Rams secondary got shredded by quarterback Gary Hogeboom, who threw for 343 yards in a 20-13 victory.
The early years were indeed colorful with exhibition games taking place in unusual places like South Dakota, Iowa and Oregon. That game game in Pendleton, Ore., a town of just 4,000 people, drew 11,000 to the game, which took place on the grounds of a rodeo. The Cowboys players, in fact, dressed just a few feet from the rodeo cowboys.
And the games back in California would also be quite an attraction, with crowds of 100,000-plus packing the Coliseum, although one such preseason matchup saw a sparse crowd in the cavernous stadium because of massive local unrest.
"One year the game was delayed a few days as the city was under duress with the Watts Riots," recalled Brant. "Driving to the game, we saw tanks in the neighborhood and machine guns."
Those moments also served as a precursor to some classic regular-season and playoff tilts. From 1973-85, the teams met in the postseason eight times, including twice in the NFC Championship.
They have had a lot in common on the whole.
"The Los Angeles Rams were really the forerunners of the Dallas Cowboys," explained Brandt. "Dan Reeves was with the Rams then and was what Jerry Jones of the Cowboys is now. The Rams were ahead of their time in the promotional game to help fill the seats at the Coliseum, and Tex Schramm and I were there together with the Rams before we went to the Cowboys."
That's right. Schramm, the legendary president and general manager of the Cowboys and a native Angelino, spent the first 10 years of his pro football career with the Rams before embarking on a Hall of Fame career with Dallas.
"Unless you were there," continued Brandt, "you don't know how pro football was at that time and how things have changed since then."
For sports fans in the area, some the memories of the Rams – or the Raiders or even the Chargers, who played one season in Los Angeles before moving to scenic San Diego – being their home team have faded. The enthusiasm for their return, however, has not, the Rams having already sold 70,000 season tickets.
And for other enthusiasts in the City of Angels, where the entertainment and sports landscape is crowded – surf the Pacific Ocean in the morning and snow ski in the afternoon in the nearby mountains – an entire generation has basically grown up without a local NFL team for which to cheer.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was born and raised in nearby Rosemead. On the roster offensive tackle Tyron Smith is from Los Angeles. So too are cornerback Orlando Scandrick and fullback Keith Smith. And Jake Brendel, an undrafted center from Plano, Texas, played his college ball at UCLA.
"It is such a huge market just to begin with, and we sort of ran the city in a football sense with both UCLA and USC," Brendel said. "At the same time, the fans have always wanted more. They have given the big colleges all the support they need and then some, but there is also something about the fans reppin' the NFL in some manner as well.
"I feel the Rams coming back is a big move for all parties."[embeddedad0]
Said Smith, a multiple All-Pro since being drafted in 2011: "When I was a kid growing up in L.A., I did not necessarily pay attention to the NFL. I know family members and friends who would find a favorite team, but I was too busy working really."
He also said proudly that his alma mater was like an NFL Factory.
"I know it means a lot to the city. For, me my first NFL game was the Raiders in the Coliseum. For the most part, though, USC has been like an NFL team there."
With the Rams and two college powerhouses in the Trojans and Bruins, the region could see three games totaling nearly 265,000 fans over two days.
"There is a deep love for football and for sports and for competition in this city," said Brendel. "I felt it on Saturdays, and I think we will now feel it on Sundays."
Jared Goff, the first overall pick out of the University of California, had played in L.A. as a visitor in college. He now calls the city home after being selected No. 1 overall, which has only added to the local excitement.
"Walking on the field was cool, seeing a lot of people out here, people yelling and screaming," Goff he said on the first day of the Rams' training camp in Irvine, located 100 miles south of Oxnard in Orange County. "It's awesome to be back in L.A., and what looks to be a pretty big fan base that we have. For them to all be out here, it's really exciting for not only me, but for the whole team, and the whole city."
But despite the Rams returning to a high-profile area in a high-profile transition, don't think for a second that the Cowboys will take a hit to their huge and passionate fan base. The Rams are indeed back to stay and, ironically, they are building a new permanent training facility in Thousand Oaks, where Dallas trained from 1963-89. But the Cowboys have a near 40-year history of holding training camps in Southern California and that does not seem to be ending any time soon.
The location was the same. The scene very similar.
However, something really was – and is – vastly different.