Last night at Union Station in downtown St. Louis I, along with thousands of other fans, joined in the celebration of the 15th anniversary of the St. Louis Rams winning the Super Bowl. It was a night full of joy, happy memories, tears (I mean Dick Vermeil was there so that’s expected), and great stories. While the Rams organization has not had much success in the years since that season and are currently in the midst of discussions on where to play in the future, the night did not focus on those valleys. Rather the theme, the mood of the night was certainly the peak of popularity for the Rams, that magical 1999 season.
Let’s go back 15 years to see why this team will forever be etched into fans memories and hearts. It was not simply because the team brought a championship to St. Louis. It was how they did it, when they did it. Fifteen years ago the sports scene was much different in the Gateway city. The Rams had just moved to St. Louis in 1995 and seen their record get progressively worse each year (7 to 6 to 5 to a 4 win season in 1998) and were on the verge of firing their second head coach (Dick Vermeil) since the team’s move to St. Louis. The St. Louis Blues were in their consecutive playoff appearance stretch but were still stuck in that all too familiar second round loss. And the St. Louis Cardinals were in the pits, having made just one playoff appearance in the previous 12 years. The St. Louis sports fan base was desperately seeking some joy.
And then here come the Rams. A team coming off a 4-12 record in 1998 with a coach that was forced to make drastic changes because he was on the cusp of losing his players. The Rams brought in a “Mad Scientist” in Mike Martz, who would change NFL offenses for the future, traded for a quarterback to run that scheme (although another quarterback would write his own story), drafted a potential Hall of Fame wide receiver (Torry Holt), signed a veteran leader on the offensive line (Adam Timmerman), and made maybe the most lop-sided draft day trade in NFL history getting Marshall Faulk for a 2nd and 5th round pick. Put all of that together with the motivation that Dick Vermeil provided and history was made.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for the Rams early on, going 2-2 in the preseason. The offense looked better, as did the defense. They were expected to compete but nothing more. After winning the first three games of the season, led by Kurt Warner becoming the first QB to throw 3 touchdowns in each of his first three games, the Rams still had yet to be taken seriously. Then they faced the 49ers, a team that beaten the Rams 17 consecutive times….and the Rams whooped them 42-20. And the city had some joy. The town was in a frenzy and each Sunday become a must watch event, to see what the Rams would do next.
The Rams were piling up points, the defense was dominating, and the special teams was special. That is what made this team the Greatest Show On Turf. It was the fact that all three aspects of the team were forces to be reckoned with. Torry Holt had the quote of the night in regards to the Rams offense “Mike just drew up some crazy s**t and we went out and ran it.” Kurt Warner echoed that sentiment saying, “We may have never practiced a play before and Mike would call it in a game and we would score. We just trusted each other that much.” The Rams offense led the NFL in scoring and yards. But they weren’t just throwing the ball down field. They started the revolution in the NFL by using the pass to set up the run, finishing 5th in the league in rushing.
The Greatest Show On Turf defense is often overlooked but were record setters themselves. They had the best rush defense in the league, tied for the league lead in sacks (57), and interceptions (29). Yes you read that right they had 29 interceptions! Now get this they also had the 3rd most interceptions returned for touchdowns in league history with seven, adding an eighth defensive touchdown on a fumble. Kevin Carter led the NFL in sacks and had 59 quarterback hurries, no typo that says 59. The Rams had 15 different players that recorded a sack that year. While the offense was led by an unheralded, undrafted quarterback setting records the defense was charged by the same type of man on their side in London Fletcher. “What Kurt meant for our offense, London made that same impact on our defense,” said Dick Vermeil.
The Rams special teams unit was not to be outdone. They had three touchdowns themselves, two on kick returns and one on punt return. The excitement that season on special teams came from Tony Horne and Az-Zahir Hakim. That duo also provided one of the highlights last night, performing the Rams’ bob-n-weave one more time for the fans.
Horne was a speedster that hit the hole on kick returns with abandon and didn’t let the opponents ever rest. This was none more notable than when he returned the opening kickoff of the second-half in the Rams playoff game against the Vikings. A game the Rams were trailing at half-time but would never trail again after Horne’s 95 yard return. Hakim on the other hand was a water-bug on turf. The shifty receiver was a fourth round pick in 1998 but saw action in just 9 games that year. In 1999 however he played in 15 games joining one of if not the best grouping of wide receivers in league history. Hakim was that slot receiver and return man that looked to take it to the end zone each time he touched the ball. “I knew that punt returns were really the only time I had to really prove myself. It was just me with no one else and I wanted to keep my spot on this team,” said Hakim. The Rams also featured Jeff “Money” Wilkins, who finished his career with the second best percentage in NFL history for field goals over 50 yards. It as a true team.
I am glad that I was able to be a part of last night’s celebration. It brought back memories that will never fade. The Greatest Show On Turf will always be a special team for St. Louis fans. It wasn’t just that they won a championship. It was that they brought the championship at a time when the city hadn’t had a championship parade for any sport in 17 years. It was the journey that the Rams took the fans on that year, going from “same old sorry Rams” to a team that could score at will, beat up opposing teams, and provide something you may have never seen before. It was the group of men who battled through down times and undrafted players rising up to become future Hall of Famers. It was the dedication instilled by coaches such as Jim Hanifan molding Orlando Pace and bringing together the Donut Brothers. It was seeing the first “St. Louis Ram” draft pick (Kevin Carter) becoming a true NFL star. It was seeing the professionalism that Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt provided. The patience of Ricky Proehl, biding his time. And witnessing smartest and most talented football player I have ever seen in Marshall Faulk. It was seeing Dick Vermeil, a man who coached with his heart, reach that pinnacle every coach yearns for, a Super Bowl title.
And I know the Rams players and coaches that came back this weekend enjoyed it as well, telling their stories and seeing the love from the fans. You could see it on their faces, the fact that Dexter McLeon brought his five year old son on stage because he wanted him to remember this night. The way the tears formed in Dick Vermeils eyes at the beginning (of course the players behind the curtain could be heard “saying of course he’s crying). Hearing Coach Hanifan’s stories of bringing the offensive linemen to his house and eating a wax donut he found in the Rams locker room. These men were a special family and it was a pleasure to witness their get together, to be a part of the night. So here is to 1999 and the whole team that was The Greatest Show On Turf!