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LOS ANGELES — If the Rams didn't really belong to Los Angeles before, they surely are L.A.'s team now.
This is what happens when a community is rocked by the events that have unfolded during the past two weeks in Southern California — a horrific mass shooting, followed by devastating wildfires — and an excellent pro football team in the backyard is simply caught up in the mix.
Yes, the Rams still have the next football game to play, which happens to be the most-anticipated matchup yet in the NFL this season, against the Chiefs.
Yet the potential Super Bowl preview between 9-1 teams on Monday night — suddenly relocated to Los Angeles Coliseum from Mexico City, given the risks of playing on a subpar field at Azteca Stadium — is nothing when put into perspective with real-life circumstances in California.
"Look, it's definitely a unique challenge to put on an NFL game in five days," Rams President Kevin Demoff told USA TODAY on Sunday. "But it pales when compared to a lot of challenges the people of the community are dealing with."
Demoff is reminded of what Rams coach Sean McVay repeatedly preaches to his team about the culture they are establishing: Be connected.
Now that has a bigger meaning than ever, throughout the entire organization.
That's why Andrew Whitworth, the sage of a Pro Bowl left tackle, is donating his game check from Monday to families of the 12 victims from the tragedy at the Border Line Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, which is near the Rams training facilities. It's why all-pro punter Johnny Hekker, who raised money and delivered relief supplies for victims of wildfires last year, visited with first responders last week. It's why several Rams players recorded video messages for a fundraising drive the team, two local TV stations and the United Way collaborated with to raise more than $1.17 million for relief efforts. A handful of former Rams, including Eric Dickerson and Jackie Slater, joined Rams cheerleaders to man telephones. It's why the Rams, expecting perhaps 70,000 on Monday, have given thousands of tickets to first responders.
And it's why Demoff says that one of the greatest lessons he's learned over the past two weeks revolves around the heart of the people throughout his organization. In crisis, you tend to learn a lot about people with how they respond.
While the games go on. As much as they want to beat the Chiefs, though, there's a greater purpose.
"You want the game to have importance and meaning to it," Demoff said.
Sure, we've heard it before. If a football game can provide a brief respite that allows people a temporary break from the real-life issues, it is a good thing. Demoff won't dispute that, but quickly adds another layer of context: "Hopefully, we can help. But that's a microcosm of what you're seeing throughout Southern California, with so many people coming to the aid of others."
Staging a game, with such short notice, is no easy venture. While the NFL mandates that for international games the designated home team must have its stadium available as a contingency, that's never been put into practice until now. After the NFL pulled out of Mexico City on Tuesday, the first item on the Rams' checklist was to get clearance from Southern Cal to waive the condition in the team's lease that prohibits night games on school nights.
Then it was a matter of lining up security, police, concessions personnel and hotels. There was no time to print tickets, so every seat is an e-ticket. Parking will be on a first-come basis. And without the capability to use scanners in the lots, parking will be cash.
The Rams business operations staff, meanwhile, hasn't had an office for more than a week. The team business headquarters, in Agoura Hills, is in the evacuation zone.
McVay's team spent the week practicing at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which was the original plan to help prepare for the thin altitude of Mexico City. The Rams stuck with the plan after the game site was switched, with an alteration added: Rams owner Stan Kroenke chartered a second airplane to transport family members of the players to Colorado, preventing separation of families.
Such adjustments have become part of the deal for the Rams. The day the fires began in Ventura County, McVay canceled practice to allow players to tend to their families. Some players and staff members had to evacuate. Before their home game against the Seahawks last week, the Rams secured the hotel the team uses before home games a day earlier for players and staff.
Never mind the notion that disruptions to the typical NFL routine is some sort of distraction for the Rams. It can't be an excuse. Not here. Not now. Although the game can provide a sense of normalcy, for players and fans alike, it's bigger than football.
"The main thing you want to do," Demoff said, "is show your best."
Winning with a best effort on Monday night wouldn't hurt civic pride.
After all, the Rams are without question an L.A. team now.
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