Throughout the history of franchise relocation in the NFL, no moving process looks like any other. Depending on a number of factors -- recent success, historical success, timing of the announcement or a fanbase's relationship with ownership -- the emotions of fans can range from anger to sadness to indifference. No one is ever happy that their favorite team is moving, but there is understanding if circumstances are dire.
The worst feeling as a fan is helplessness. Relocation removes whatever sense of agency a person has. Investing in tickets, jerseys and memorabilia ought to grant fans some say in the matter. Yet, in the past, the whims of one man, the owner, could dictate the happiness of thousands. Today, any team moving to Los Angeles will need the approval of the league office and NFL owners, but that still leaves fans in the cold.
Players have a unique vantage of the relocation process, nestled between the owners who pay them and the fans who adore them. They tend to be more diplomatic when talking about what's right and wrong about relocation as a result, even though perhaps no one is more affected. Relocation means finding news homes, new schools for children and leaving ties to old communities. It's just like anyone else who has to pack up everything for a new job.
Over the course of reporting for a story on the three teams potentially moving to Los Angeles -- the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams -- I spoke with four former players about what it was like to be part of a team that moved. Unfortunately, I didn't get to use much of the material as I'd have liked, so I've compiled their quotes here as sort of an oral history.
The four players are:
Al Del Greco -- Spent 17 seasons as an NFL kicker, four with the St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals (1987-1990) and 10 with the Houston/Tennessee Oilers/Titans (1991-2000).
Mike Jones -- Linebacker for the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders from 1991-1996 and the St. Louis Rams from 1997-2000.
Isaac Bruce -- Hall of Fame candidate wide receiver for the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams from 1994-2007.
Earnest Byner -- NFL running back for 14 seasons, seven of them with the Browns, from 1984 to 1988 then from 1994 to 1995. He moved with the franchise to Baltimore.
Players knew only slightly before fans did
Players were rarely privy to discussions about their franchises relocating. They usually found out about ownership's decision a little before the rest of us. After sitting down in a meeting room. The meetings were usually informational, no-nonsense affairs -- like any other in preparation for an upcoming matchup. They went over the boring details, like what the team would pay for as far as moving expenses, what players needed to file and what players would be responsible for covering on their own.
For the most part, players accepted their fates.
Isaac Bruce: We didn't have a true idea of what to expect as far as going to St. Louis. We heard the rumors, but we didn't get the quote-unquote go-ahead until that Spring.
There wasn't much talk between the players. You're talking to a guy -- I was 21 at the time, and I was a probably a good third receiver, and my biggest concern was getting on the field and making sure I knew my assignments and being on time. Just having the wherewithal to be thinking about moving from LA to St. Louis, the cost of living in both cities, I didn't think about that stuff. I don't think many guys were having long conversation about St. Louis in the locker room at that time.
Bruce's teammates felt like he did.
Bruce: I don't think guys were upset. I think guys were shocked that it finally happened, it was announced. 'Okay, we're getting ready to go, so therefore, what do we do now?' I remember Coach [Rich] Brooks in the meeting room announcing the little suburbs around St. Louis. I still remember him saying, 'Okay, these are the high rent districts right here where you'll guys will probably end up living' and that type of stuff.
Rams players heard rumblings throughout the year that the team might move to St. Louis, so they weren't caught entirely off guard. The same couldn't be said for Browns players.
Earnest Byner: I had no idea. Maybe teammates did, but I had no idea. I don't know if any other player had an idea that it was going to come about. It was a shock. You could hear a pin drop in the room. Mr. Modell did the best that he could to try to settle our minds, talked about the relocation process, talked about helping us through the process. But the thing was, it was really unsettling. To try to focus on football or what your job is, and you know that the team is moving, and you don't know how it's going to affect each individual.
It was difficult. We found a way to get through the year, but we were basically a shell of ourselves as far as football players were concerned.
The Browns began the 1995 season 4-5. Then the announcement came and the team went 1-6 to close the season.
Byner: We had a our foundations rocked, because with football players, we're paid to play football, we're paid to play at a high level, we're professionals, but when something that's life altering comes about, it takes a while for you to adjust. We still went out and competed, but if I had to say I think our preparation process, our playing, we became somewhat of a shell of ourselves as far as the overall team was concerned.
The prospect of uprooting one's life to another city isn't appealing, either, but players accept that possibility the moment they enter the NFL.
Al Del Greco: There were a few people that obviously had lives and had careers based in Houston and would have like to have stayed there, but for the most part, most of the players knew that it wasn't our decision. You were hired, you were an employee of the organization, and if that organization moved you either had the ability to move with it or you could find something else to do like any other company.
Fans were not happy
In Houston, fans had already been in a contentious relationship with Oilers owner Bud Adams for years. When he announced that the team would be going to Tennessee following the 1995 season, Houston fans abandoned ship. In 1996, the Oilers played home games in front of fewer than 20,000 people.
Del Greco: From a player's perspective it was difficult. You play the home game, there was nobody in the stadium. The people that were there, some of them were mad that the team was leaving and they were going to lose their Oilers. It was kind of just turmoil, to be honest with you.
You had a job to do, and you still went in and did what you needed to do. Practice was always the same, it was in the same practice facility, it was open to the media but closed to the public. So that didn't change. It was just disheartening to play in front of that few amount of people, and you kind of just really felt like 'Man, the love affair is gone. The 'Love Your Blue' days are done, and this is real now. We're leaving.'
The Los Angeles Rams didn't leave behind as much acrimony. The fans who showed up, even though they were supporting a team that hadn't posted a winning season in five years, were simply depressed.
Mike Jones: The sad part is the only people who really get the short end of the team are in the city that you leave. You can't really be mad at the players because that's their job. You're playing for an organization, and the organization decides to leave that's just what you've got to deal with. But it's sad because the team leaves, organization leaves and a lot of people -- I have friends in Los Angeles that wanted football -- football players, fans that supported us, it was tough for them to see games.
Fans never blamed the players.
Del Greco: There was empathy there for the fans. I think we understood 'Wow, you guys are losing what's been there for a long, long time, I don't blame you for being upset.' They really didn't take it out on the players so it wasn't like we were getting caught in the middle of something. But going to Phoenix and having it be new and them welcome you in, and then going to Tennessee and the success that we had there, it made you appreciate the fact that what a loyal fanbase and a raucous fanbase is all about.
Jones: As players you keep moving. You sign with the team and play the best you can, hopefully finish there. Whereas as a fan, you find a team that you love and then it's almost like they're taking your best friend away from you.
Our fans still supported us. Still went out there and we had fans in the stands. They wanted to see a winner and fortunately by year five, after we moved to St. Louis, we got the fans a Super Bowl.
Cleveland might have been the worst situation for fans and players. The announcement that the franchise was moving to Baltimore came in the midst of a middling season, meaning that the team had to endure three more home games in front of a freshly betrayed fanbase.
Byner: I did some appearances after that and had some fans that were red-faced, they were so pissed off. They would be yelling in my face about the move.
I don't think they were mad at me, just mad in general. The ones that did that were expressing their frustration. I didn't feel that they were mad at me. I just stood, listened, and consoled the best I could. ...
At times it was almost eerie, but at other times it was downright contentious with the things that were being said about Mr. Modell. There were a lot of ranges of emotions that were prevalent there, so it was really the energy that was drained, gone.
Players know the business well
Del Greco: It would have cost somewhere around $180 million to do what Mr. [Bud] Adams wanted to get a new stadium and do all that. By the time they relocated and franchised the Houston Texans, I think it cost the city almost $320,000. So obviously it cost them a heckuva lot more. But I think there were a lot of people in Houston who were kind of glad Mr. Adams was gone, too.
Whatever problems fans had with ownership, players were usually thankful for the people who employed them and sympathetic to their decisions.
Byner: One thing about the game, and I think it's very similar to military life, is that it teaches us to adapt, to adjust. And that was something that I guess was one of the things that I was able to do conceivably, and that was another one of those times where we had to adapt, had to adjust to the game conditions.
Mr. Modell had done an excellent job of supporting his players, me, a whole bunch of other players, so I was more than willing to be a part of helping to try to build the fanbase there.
Del Greco: You've got to remember this is around that time that owners started getting new stadiums, and in order to compete, free agent-wise, with what you wanted to do monetarily, you had to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak. And because of that, that's what he was looking at. He had a structure that, yes, had been kind of refurbished a little bit, but it was still -- how many years old was it at that point. Almost 30 years old?
So I wouldn't say it was him being selfish. It was just him realizing that, 'Look, for me to do this and for us to be successful, we need to do what everyone else is doing, and it's time.'
Still, saying goodbye is hard
Players couldn't do much more than say a few words and walk away.
Del Greco: That last game, when it was all said and done, they knew it was the end ... The last time we had an away game and a last home game, they were very disappointed. It was hard to walk away. Just 'thank you' and 'good luck' and 'I'm sorry, you guys have been great, and I'm sorry the team's leaving.'
Byner went above and beyond to console Browns fans after the last game in Cleveland Stadium. The Browns beat the Bengals and Byner had one of the best games of his career. Towards the end of the game, he hatched a plan.
Byner: I told [offensive tackle] Tony [Jones] that I'm going over to the Dawg Pound. I was just going to go over to the Dawg Pound. I had no intention of going around the whole stadium. I went over there just to thank the Browns fans for what they meant to me, did for me, give them some respect for being good fans.
But then all of a sudden I was halfway around the stadium [laughs], but it was one of those things where I just wanted to thank the fans, and it was fun. We didn't even talk about it until Tony and I spoke about it on the sideline. I ran over, and then, and I didn't even realize it, that the other guys came over, too, Steve Everritt, I'm sure Tony came over, and gave Browns fans the respect they deserved.
Some people didn't want to turn me loose.
So is acclimating to a new environment
Especially when you're simultaneously going through a coaching change.
Bruce: The coaching change, that was talked about more from the veterans than the actual move LA to St. Louis, than anything. We had had Chuck [Knox] that year, and Chuck was kind of laid back, we were 4-12, we didn't do much. Then you get the new coach [Rich Brooks] who comes in kind of wanting to lay the hammer down. Some of the veterans took the lead and made sure that the young guys, that we were doing everything Coach Brooks asked us to do. From there, we went fully.
For the Oilers (still not yet the Titans) the move was even more chaotic. Because the decision came abruptly, the team had no home of its own in Nashville. It had to wait out the construction of Adelphia Stadium through one season at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis and another at Vanderbilt Stadium.
Del Greco: The whole situation in Memphis was such a fiasco that most of the people in the crowd were for the other team there, too. So we were almost a team in limbo for a little while, and I've always said that's one of the things I admired about Coach [Jeff] Fisher so much was we never used it as an excuse, we never used it as a motivating factor. He always kept it where all we had was each other, and this organization and the people in this locker room are the ones that can make something of this and can get by. And I think because of that that's why we were such a close team a couple years later.
When we got Nashville they had a big welcome celebration, there were thousands of people there, that part was good.
The Memphis situation was so bad, the Oilers actually had to cut their stay short.
Del Greco: They knew it was going to be a temporary thing. They knew they weren't going to be the Memphis Oilers or the Memphis Titans. It was a stopgap until they could get a stadium built in in Nashville. We were supposed to actually stay there for two years, and the last game we played there that first year was against Pittsburgh and I think there about 58,000 people at the game, and probably 45,000 of them were Steeler fans. And that was one of the few games Mr. Adams came to and he made the decision that day, I heard -- 'We've got to find a way to play at Vanderbilt, we've got to find a way to play in Nashville because this just isn't going to work.'
And part of me says I don't blame the people of Memphis for that. For a better choice of words, they knew they were being used for a couple years.
The two teams that moved out of Los Angeles, the Raiders and Rams, had shockingly good starts to their first years in new markets -- the 1995 Oakland Raiders went 8-2, the 1995 St. Louis Rams went 5-1 -- before fatigue hit them hard. The Raiders would finish 8-8, the Rams 7-9.
Jones: Between a new head coach and the stuff of being, getting used to a new head coach to the transition of moving from playing games -- that's the only thing, we flew up Friday, Saturday night and we still were in LA, training camp was still in LA, only thing different was Saturday you flew up to Oakland you were staying in Oakland on Sunday.
I think it caught up with us at the end of the season. At the beginning of the season, we started off well I think for 10 games. The first half of the season we were 6-2, and one of the games we lost [laughs] on a pick-six to the Chiefs in Arrowhead, so we were playing well, and it's just ironic because we were still in LA.
It doesn't take long for a new city to feel like home
After the Memphis fiasco, things worked out okay for the Oilers in Tennessee.
Del Greco: The year we played at Vanderbilt it felt normal even though we knew, again, we were just going to play there for that one year while they were building our stadium. At least we were in Nashville, at least you were playing at home and you could leave your house and go to a hotel the night before the game like normal and not have to get on a plane to fly to Memphis to go to a hotel for a place to sit in before a home game.
It didn't take long for Rams players to find their place in St. Louis, though that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Jones: I got there after the honeymoon was over. We had a new coach, Coach [Dick] Vermeil, and you know the team had been in St. Louis for two years. They had been winning, so we come in under Coach Vermeil ... there was a lot of transition for all of us. Coach Vermeil transitioning from when he coached back in the mid-80s to now he's coming back in '97. ... Those first few years were lean, just trying to get, trying to set a standard.
I think they realized that building a winning program, building any type of program, takes some time. Now, the thing about St. Louis was, because we played next to the baseball Cardinals, you know, they have a loyal fanbase, so St. Louis fans wanted to see winners. Then you add the fact that they supported the St. Louis Cardinals football team, and they never had a playoff game at home, they never made it to the Super Bowl, there was, you know, I don't want to say animosity but it was people wanted to see a winner.
Fans had wide open hearts at first
Though Oakland Raiders fans had their team taken away from them at the beginning of the '80s, they never stopped being loyal to Raiders players, even to seemingly extreme extents.
Jones: The ironic thing for me was I played in the World League in Sacramento, so I played one year in Sacramento during the time I was playing with the Raiders. We had a good turnout of Raiders fans that would come out to see me play when I was playing in the World League. The people that were up in the Bay Area and Northern California, there was a loyal contingent of Raider fans that were still there that were really excited about the Raiders coming back.
St. Louis Rams fans, too, were dying for football.
Bruce: When I say immediately, it was immediately. From every practice being jam-packed, to every event that you showed up to where you were probably doing an autograph session, you had fans there waiting on you. All of that culminated into the first game that we had against the New Orleans Saints in Busch Stadium. The stands were jam-packed and people were just going nuts. And to add on to that we had won I think four out of five games, the city was ecstatic. Everything was about the Rams. It's the first time I've seen, in St. Louis, top billing over the Cardinals at that time. It happened again the last Super Bowl year. The newness of the team come to town, the players come to town, and football was back in St. Louis -- I think it was just amazing for the city.
If the Raiders and Rams ever end up in the same city again, things could get pretty contentious.
Bruce: We were a little distracted from the game watching the fights that were taking place up in the stands. You had your Raiders fans and your Rams fans going toe to toe in the stands. I guess when we saw each other in public, the Raiders and the Rams, we were cordial, but that game it was pretty tough. We had a couple former Raiders that were playing for us at the time -- Joe Kelly. He was intense about beating the Raiders and it spilled over when we played. But as far as being in the same city sharing the city, you know, LA is big enough to hold two. And if you're winning, it can support two.
Players never rebelled over relocation
Sports are filled with examples of players who have refused to play for reasons other than money. To name one, Eli Manning threatened to sit if had to play for the San Diego Chargers before being drafted No. 1 overall in 2004. Telling several dozen players that they have to move their lives at once ought to spark some blow-back, even just a bit.
For the most part, however, players made the best of their situations. Veteran players had it hardest because they had already established themselves in their towns. Young guys were much more easy-going.
Del Greco: I do think there was a bit of skepticism about Nashville, but once we got there, there were very few people that were very upset about the fact that we were going to be there. I think people kind of really warmed up to Nashville very quickly, the lifestyle, what there was to do -- it was different from Houston. And the other important thing was, Tennessee's another no state tax state. So that was one of the things that I think a lot of guys were concerned with at first was, 'We don't pay state taxes in Texas, are we going to have to do that if we go to another state?'
Bruce: For some of the veterans, like Jackie Slater, he had spent most of his career -- all of his career -- out in Los Angeles. Now to be moving to St. Louis, and he ended up playing there for two years, that had to be difficult not only for him but his family as well. ...
What I had known about St. Louis was that I had once met a person from St. Louis growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, she came down for summer break. And I knew Red Fox was from St. Louis, from Sanford and Sons. And I also knew the arch was in St. Louis. So that was about it.
There were big culture changes, but not because of the city
Athletes can be hesitant to promote one city over another, but that doesn't mean that their experiences don't vary. Whatever differences there were may not have had much to do with each city's personality, however. A winning culture, a nice stadium and the novelty of a new team all played a role.
Jones: I think most players will tell you, unless the facility is absolutely -- and it's not even really the facility, it's the locker rooms if anything people were complaining about -- that's where the complaints would come if you had a complaint. On the field, most fields, especially grass fields, they're pretty good and most guys like playing on grass fields.
The stadium was bigger, of course, the Coliseum was much bigger. But other than that a Raider fan is a Raider fan. They're going to wear the Silver and Black, they're going to have the skull and crossbones, so those things won't change no matter where you're at and wherever the Raiders play at. Their fans are going to be their fans. I don't think you'll ever see, 'Well, the fanbase in this city is better than that for a Raider fan' because all Raider fans are alike.
Bruce: There were really diehard fans there, true fans, the Melonheads were in the house, and there were times where they showed up, showed out to the game. You could see the numbers dwindling in the stands from the very first game of the season vs. Arizona down to the last game vs. the Washington Redskins, it had dwindled tremendously. I think we only had two sell-outs, one with the Raiders, one with the 49ers. And by the time that happened, it was pretty much like the fans in LA were saying 'Don't let the doorknob hit you.'
As contrast, that's what I try to preach to the St. Louis fanbase, is don't take that approach. Stand behind your team and fight for the team.
That said, moving can have some perks.
Bruce: I did notice the upgrade going into the Edward Jones Dome. It was plush. The turf was there. It's controlled climate, thank God for that because the very first day we went into the dome it was 29 degrees and snowing outside. Not many of those guys were used to playing in that, including myself. So it was a welcome sight. And we made that place rock. That place rocked. I mean, it was hard for guys to hear, the opposing opponents to come in and hear and execute plays.
Anaheim was great, the Edward Jones was awesome.
At the end of the day, players support the organization that helped them, wherever it may be
Bruce: I wouldn't even part my lips to ask Jack Slater or Eric Dickerson if they're an LA Ram or St. Louis Ram. I was drafted to be a Ram, R-A-M, and if it's in Minnesota, if it's in Los Angeles, if it's in St. Louis, I will always be a Ram. They invested in me. They got my blood. We did great things together. So, it's called Ram Nation, so I'm very, very pleased to be a Ram, and I'll be a Ram until the day I step off into eternity.