by Kent Sterling
It might be more interesting to bitch and moan about accommodations and logistics while traveling for work with the St. Louis Rams, but all in all it’s a pretty damn good time and I would be lying if I wrote differently.
For the last two seasons, I packed a bag and rolled with the Rams for most of their road trips. Full disclosure – I balked at the San Francisco and Seattle trips in 2011 because the team was terrible, and the trips were as much a death march as a business trip. If they were able to, I think a significant portion of the Rams staff would have joined me in staying home.
One of the great changes made by coach Jeff Fisher when he was hired by the Rams was to leave for the west coast trips on Friday. A free day on Saturday helped everyone enjoy the stay a little more. I can’t speak for the players, but the hustle on the day prior to the game from the plane to the hotel on the night before the game was tiring. Getting to the city on Friday night gave us the opportunity for a relaxed Saturday. Getting to the hotel at 9p, to the buses the next morning at 9:30a, and back on the plane after the game at 4p was tough, and my responsibilities were minimal.
There was time for touring places like Alcatraz and the museums in Seattle, and more energy for a little fun on Saturday night. Six of us from the Rams Radio Network traveled with the team, and our group would often go to dinner with members of the excellent Rams media relations staff.
Here’s a breakdown of the different elements of the trip;
Oh boy, if commercial flights operated like NFL charters, many more people would fly. There is food everywhere and the flight attendants are incredibly friendly. As you step on the plane, you grab a sandwich or sushi, and then there is a lot of milling around. The media, sponsors, and staff get to the plane an hour ahead of the players and coaches, but everyone knows each other, so time passes quickly.
Once the preseason ends, and the roster is trimmed, space opens, and the middle seat is always empty. For obvious reasons, that makes the flight more comfortable. On the flight back from the preseason game in Dallas last year, I was assigned the seat between Rams play-by-play voice Steve Savard and analyst/former defensive tackle D’Marco Farr. Steve and D’Marco’s shoulders are plenty broad, and I was uncomfortably pinned between them for the two hour flight while they slept. They had a nice nap. I got back cramps.
The players are a serious bunch – quiet and unimpressed. These are business trips for the guys, not weekend long parties. They file on the plane quietly, win or lose. Once the players get situated, we get going pretty quickly.
Dinner is served, and soft drinks and juices are always available.
Transportation from Airport to Hotel
We are herded onto buses, and receive a police escort wherever we go. That was especially cool in Chicago last year, when we barreled through traffic on the Kennedy from O’Hare to the downtown hotel where we stayed. I’ve been stuck on the Kennedy hundreds of times, and to be a part of a caravan that forced traffic to the shoulders was heady stuff.
With Fisher as the coach, the team stayed in a higher quality hotel in most cities. The rooms were always a crapshoot. There seemed to be no pecking order at all in the way they were assigned. In London for the game with the Patriots, I had a small room with an incredible view of Big Ben and the parks surrounding Buckingham Palace, which was immediately across the street from our place.
We stayed in the same hotel as the players, and while we kept our eyes open for interesting player behavior, I only saw one small piece of weirdness during a preseason trip from a player who didn’t make the team. As I hustled toward an elevator, a player waved toward a woman who was dressed a whole lot like an entrepreneur who does a lot of business in hotels. They both hopped on the elevator, coming from different directions, at the same time I did. The player stood awkwardly on one side of the elevator, while she seemed disinterested on the other side. I was in the middle. He hit the button for a floor, but she did not. What happened after I disembarked is anyone’s guess. One hooker sighting is pretty tame stuff for a professional franchise.
One tradition that I did not enjoy was the ride to and from our dinners the night before games. Our engineer is Dodie Rahlmann, and he was always the driver of the van. He insisted on obeying the GPS regardless of external forces that would demand he ignore it – like being able to see the restaurant, or driving past it. “Dodie, IT’S RIGHT THERE!” was yelled by someone almost every trip. Dodie is a wonderful man and one of the most conscientious engineers in radio. He’s a key member of the team. As a tour guide, he caused veins in my forehead to explode. I should have learned to appreciate the absurdity, but chose to indulge in snarky remarks born of outrage.
I had a great time on game day. We would bus to the stadium about three hours before the game. The talent review their notes, and Hoss (the producer of the broadcast) would talk through his plans for the portion of the pregame that would originate from the stadium. Another police escort gets us to the stadium, where we are always greeted by opposing fans giving us the finger unaware that our bus is filled with media used to that treatment and sponsors who are baffled by the angst.
We get into the stadium a long time before ticket holders, and it’s a great time to wander around to get a taste of what the place offers. Cowboys Stadium is the best of all we visited. The attention to detail as the staff goes through their prep is unique among all facilities, and the rehearsals for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are a can’t miss sideshow. The players get loose, and it’s there that you can tell that these guys are preparing for war. There is very little chatter, and as gametime gets closer, players become more calm.
During the game, I was the spotter for Steve. A play would be run, and I would point to who made the tackle. If the Rams or their opponent changed personnel, I pointed that out. Steve was great to work with. I became competent once I bought a pair of binoculars, and learned that the first rule of spotting is – as in medicine – ‘do no harm.’ Never point to anything you don’t absolutely know to be true. One other thing I learned was not to write on the play-by-play guy’s chart. The Rams activated a player that wasn’t on Steve’s chart, and I grabbed a pencil to write him in. Steve shot me a look that clearly and quickly communicated his displeasure with my impetuous act. I stopped before writing, but if I hadn’t, Steve might have buried the pencil in my neck.
Like all media, we judge the quality of a trip by the press box food. The annual trip to Phoenix was always good because the press box food there is excellent. Breakfast is delicious, and the lunch is okay. Candlestick Park is a train wreck. There is no room for the buffet, and if you don’t get there quickly, the line is ridiculous. For a great city, the Niners fans are cranky morons. San Francisco was my favorite city to visit, but the fans there are the worst.
After the game, we hustle down to the buses because win or lose, the Rams aren’t terribly concerned with our presence. If we aren’t there, Fisher is not going to ask the buses or planes to wait. There is always food from a local restaurant that can’t be gotten in St. Louis. On the west coast, we got In and Out burgers. In Pittsburgh, we got sandwiches from Primanti’s. The flights home were always quiet, minus my tapping on the keyboard of my laptop. I wasn’t typing. I played Warblade to pass the time, and while I wore headphones, the tapping was a great annoyance to those seated near me. That didn’t occur to me until near the end of last season I was told by our sideline reporter Tony Softli.
Overall, the trips became more and more fun as I got to know more of the people in the regular traveling party. I’ll miss the guys this season until they come to Indianapolis to play the Colts. I will be Steve’s spotter one more time, and will try to make the broadcast a little bit better.