From St. Louis to SoFi Stadium, only six Rams complete the journey

Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers started their Rams careers in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis and have finally made the transition to a brand-new Los Angeles stadium. Tom Gannam, File/AP

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- More than four years ago, former Rams coach Jeff Fisher gathered players at a two-hour team meeting inside a Manhattan Beach Marriott. The relocation process from St. Louis, where the Rams played 21 seasons, to Los Angeles was a little more than a month underway.

Fisher, along with general manager Les Snead and chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, shared moving information and logistics, then gave players a glimpse of their future stadium.

Players were impressed by the blueprints and renderings of the multi-billion dollar project, but many couldn't shake an uncertain feeling.

"Me and some of the older guys left the meeting thinking, 'Oh man, these rookies are going to love that thing,'" punter Johnny Hekker recalled recently.

But even younger players -- such as then-second year running back Malcolm Brown -- had a similar thought.

"I was like, 'Man, this thing isn't going to be built by the time we even get to see it,'" Brown said. "The jokes were going around. We were like, 'Man, this is nice, but we're not even going to see it for real.'"

Perhaps that sentiment surfaced because players were aware an average NFL career lasts a little longer than three seasons and can often span several teams. The new stadium was projected to take a little less than three years to build.

But when the 2020 season opens Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, six players -- Hekker, Brown, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, Rob Havenstein and Jake McQuaide -- who once were members of the St. Louis Rams will take the field at SoFi Stadium as Los Angeles Rams. The opener will mark the culmination of a 4½ year journey after the stadium took an extra year -- and a few extra billion -- to complete.

"There ain't too many of us left," said Donald, referring to the few teammates who remain from the move from the Midwest to Southern California. "Definitely got the guys that came from St. Louis, it's been a long, long ways, you know, a long ways, from where we started to where we at now."

Hekker and McQuaide, a long-snapper, will take their special-teams posts against the Cowboys.

"I really don't think it's really hit me that we're playing in that stadium this year," said McQuaide, a 10th-year pro.

Two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Donald will man the defensive line along with Brockers, who returned for his ninth season with the Rams after a free-agent deal with the Baltimore Ravens fell through.

"I always wanted to be back with the Rams," Brockers said. "Always wanted to stay here."

Havenstein, a sixth-year pro, will resume his role at right tackle after recovering from a knee injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season.

"When we first moved out here from St. Louis, it seemed like forever until this point would come," Havenstein said. "But, lo and behold, it's here."

And, perhaps most unexpectedly, Brown -- an undrafted free agent in 2015 -- will be the starting running back after the Rams opted in March to cut Todd Gurley II, who was expected to act as SoFi Stadium's main attraction after he signed a four-year, $60 million contract in 2018.

"Just in general to be in this league for so long, that's a blessing in itself," said Brown, who entered the NFL with Gurley in 2015 and served as his backup the last five seasons. "Just to see almost the entire transformation of moving from St. Louis, being in these facilities, and seeing the whole entire stadium be built, it's special."

But SoFi's debut won't be exactly how the players envisioned it.

When the season opens -- and until further notice -- fans will not be allowed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"That's what you feed off, the fans," Donald said. "So, you make big play on a third down ... you hear the crowd go crazy, man. That's what you're going to miss."

Gurley isn't the only player once considered a mainstay who won't be playing for the Rams on Sunday. Receiver Brandin Cooks, who signed a five-year, $81 million contract in 2018, was traded to the Houston Texans. The Rams also made long-term commitments to receiver Tavon Austin and linebacker Alec Ogletree shortly after arriving in L.A., only to move from both after the 2018 season.

And, of course, there's Fisher, who coached the Rams four seasons in St. Louis before he was fired with three games remaining in their L.A. homecoming season in which the Rams went 4-12.

"That's just this business," McQuaide said, when asked about the numerous teammates who once expected to suit up at the new stadium. "You kind of get used to it, and it's weird because there's a human element, but you almost have to separate yourself from it."

From the outset of the relocation process, Donald said he never thought about endless possibilities of which teammates and coaches would be remain by the time the stadium opened.

"I just played and went with the flow," Donald said. "Because you never know what can happen."

When Havenstein recently thought back to the Manhattan Beach relocation meeting in 2016, he remembered one protruding thought.

"It's like, 'OK, is this thing ever going to get [built] for real," Havenstein said.

"Flash forward, and this thing is real. And we are ready to go."