Rankman tried his best to act like he didn’t care when the Rams bolted for St. Louis in 1995. It was the journalist in me, feigning indifference to another money-grubbing owner ripping a local institution from its historical moorings. But of course I was pissed off and could not even stomach watching Georgia Frontiere lift the Lombardi Trophy after winning a Super Bowl for St. Louis. The LOS ANGELES Rams came on to my radar as a boy around 1966, when lip-licking coach George Allen raised my NFL consciousness in leading our heroes to the pinnacle of greatness. It was a period of thrilling highs and gut-wrenching heartbreak and all my memories are in black-and-white. Rankman was lucky to end up covering the Rams, for the L.A. Times, in the period roughly from 1983 until 1990. With the Rams coming home after all these years, I thought it would be fun to roll out my top-25 list of all-time favorite Rams. Your list should be different.
25: Don Hewitt. He was the Rams’ equipment man from 1967 through 1994 and the leader of the unsung heroes who are vital to daily operations. I used to love to watch Don, and his tag-along-son Todd, take care of the team’s daily chinstrap needs. When the Rams went to Japan in 1989, Don had to wash 80 uniforms using the laundry service of the team hotel. What I remember admiring most: the Rams did not retire uniform numbers but Don took it upon himself to never issue No. 85 after Jack Youngblood retired. Amen to that.
24: Fred Gehrke. He was an excellent halfback for the early Cleveland and Los Angeles Rams, but that’s not why he’s on this list. Gehrke is the man who, as a player in the 1940s, came up with idea to paint horns on the Rams’ helmets. Owner Dan Reeves loved what he saw and asked Gehrke to paint 75 helmets, by hand, for one dollar each. Gehrke’s master work led to the greatest team logo in sporting franchise history. Thank you Fred.
23: Dick “Night Train” Lane. He played only two seasons with the Rams but he grew to become my favorite nickname of the early era, with apologies to “Deacon” Dan Towler, Paul “Tank” Younger and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. Night Train was the son of a prostitute and a pimp who talked his way into a tryout with the Rams. As a rookie in 1952, he intercepted an NFL-record 14 passes. Lane reportedly earned his nickname because it rhymed with teammate Tom Fears’ favorite jazz song. He could have been nicknamed “Nightmare” for his ferocious play. Lane’s signature clothesline tackle, dubbed “The Night Train Necktie,” was later outlawed by the NFL. Lane is still considered by many the greatest defensive back in league history.
22. Merlin Olsen. The younger generation may remember Merlin as Dick Enberg’s NBC side kick, or as “Father Murphy” on “Little House on the Prairie.” Olsen, though, brought the house as a member of the Rams’ legendary “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line of the mid-1960s. Olsen and Deacon Jones formed the best end-tackle tandem in NFL history. Anyone want to argue?
21. Eric Dickerson. Truth: Eric and I did not get along, at times, when I covered him in 1986 and 1987. As the beat reporter for the top newspaper in town, I often had to ask the tough questions and Eric could be, well, Eric. He once spit part of his tuna fish sandwich at me in a heated discussion on the asphalt at Rams Park that had to be broken up by a few players. These were not happy times for Dickerson who, looking back, WAS woefully underpaid and probably had good reason to force a trade to Indianapolis on Halloween night, 1987. I deserve some blame for being a young, headstrong reporter trying to make my name in sports journalism. So we sometimes head-butted like, um, two Rams. What never swayed was my admiration for his abilities. He truly was amazing to watch, a tall running back who ran upright and was fast as a gazelle. Dickerson remains on my short list of all-time greats. As Dieter Brock, the great Canadian quarterback and Dickerson’s former teammate, would say: no hard feelings…eh?
Up next: favorite Rams: 16 through 20