With XFL's BattleHawks, St. Louis gets a chance to avenge loss of the Rams

Will we see the NFL return to St. Louis? (1:42)

Mike Tannenbaum, Victor Cruz and Field Yates discuss if there's a chance an NFL team could return to St. Louis. (1:42)

FOR THE FIRST time in 1,529 days, the tailgate lots are filling up in downtown St. Louis. The air smells of charcoal as fans wash down their bacon, eggs, chicken wings and brats with bloody marys and Budweisers just after 10 a.m. on game day, four hours before the XFL's BattleHawks kick off their home opener.

Brett Brown, in white and blue face paint, surveys the scene from the corner of a tailgate lot. He and his cousins paid $80 for tickets to today's game -- the cheapest ones they could find -- and now Brown can see why. "We waited way too long to buy tickets," he says. "We didn't expect --"

Brown motions toward the packed parking lot, where people are dressed like birds and pilots, with BattleHawks hoodies and T-shirts, playing beer pong or cornhole on tables and boards already printed with the BattleHawks icon. "We didn't expect this big of a turnout," Brown says.

Nobody did -- not even the XFL. Since its inception, St. Louis has led the way for the league, from booming ticket sales to record attendance to social media followers. Local brick-and-mortar stores have struggled to stay stocked with team merchandise, and online inventory has been depleted. The lower bowl at The Dome for today's home opener is completely sold out -- the XFL's first -- with secondary market prices shooting past $100.

A few lots over from Brown is John Hofman, who is tailgating with the same friends in the same parking spot he did for all 21 Rams seasons here, with 34 tickets to the game in the same section they once sat in.

There's Karl Sides -- aka "Ram Man," the guy who dressed like a Ram, with horns and everything, for every St. Louis Rams home matchup -- now dressed in "Top Gun"-esque attire for his BattleHawks, a getup he calls a "work in progress."

Farther away, there's a piñata made to look like Stan Kroenke -- the Rams' billionaire owner who uprooted the team to Los Angeles -- that's about to be struck by a metal chair. There are homemade "F*** STAN KROENKE" BattleHawks jerseys and signs that say the same. In the North Lot of the stadium, there's a small, black smoke fire burning on the gravel beneath a 40-foot inflatable gorilla. Every year the Rams played in The Dome, Don Bolinger and his 100-plus group of tailgaters manned this spot with their iconic ape adorned with a giant Rams banner ("So we could tell people, 'Meet us at the 40-foot gorilla'").

Now, two hours before kickoff, the Rams banner has melted in the fire and a new, blue BattleHawks banner is tightly strapped to the gorilla's chest.

"It's been 1,529 days," yells Bolinger, sipping a Bud Light as Nelly's "Country Grammar" blasts from eight speakers. "Football is back. And it shouldn't have ever left."

FOR MOST ST. LOUISANS, Randy Karraker was the voice that brought the bad news. The longtime St. Louis sportscaster and host of the Rams' pregame show on 101 ESPN was reporting live from the Westin hotel on Jan. 12, 2016, in Houston, where NFL owners were voting on the relocation proposals of the Rams, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers.

He started that day in Houston with high hopes. He knew the Rams wanted to leave, but he trusted the integrity of the NFL and its strict relocation guidelines. St. Louis had done everything the league had asked to keep the Rams in town, highlighted by a splashy new riverfront stadium plan that already had cost the city more than $16 million. Karraker had done what he could too, speaking at a town hall meeting with NFL representatives to voice his frustrations over Kroenke and stress the community's passion for the Rams.

When news broke that the owners had voted 30-2 to relocate the team to Los Angeles and to Kroenke's proposed multibillion-dollar stadium, along with the Chargers or Raiders, Karraker went live on air from the hotel's makeshift media room.

"It's over," he said. "The Rams are moving to L.A."

Soon after, he tried to get reactions on the vote from team owners in the hotel lobby. The Cowboys' Jerry Jones nursed a glass of whiskey as he smiled at reporters. The Dolphins' Stephen Ross proclaimed, "Everybody wins."

"What about St. Louis?" asked Karraker, who grew up going to St. Louis Cardinals football games with his dad and took his own kids to almost every home game after the Rams arrived in 1995.

"Well," Ross said, "not everybody."

More on the power struggle that brought football back to Los Angeles: Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr.

And just like that, professional football had left St. Louis -- again. Karraker still remembers vividly when the Cardinals left for Phoenix in 1988, and since this second exodus, he hasn't watched a single NFL kickoff. Even today, he gets calls and tweets from fans who are angry with Kroenke and the NFL. Many understand why the Rams left -- it was a business decision. Instead, the anger stems from how they left -- and what Kroenke said in his relocation proposal for why he needed to move the team.

"He said St. Louis was a town that couldn't support three sports franchises," Karraker, 57, says. "And sort of gave the perception that it wasn't a football town."

In fact, the opposite is true, Karraker says. "St. Louis is a sports town. It's what we do best." The Dome was packed during the Greatest Show on Turf and dipped only when the team was mired in 12 straight non-winning seasons. On the same night the Cardinals hosted the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the 2013 World Series, the 3-4 Rams outdrew them for Monday Night Football.

Two years ago, the city recorded one of the largest crowds in PGA Championship history. It consistently fills the seats whenever the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament comes to town. During the Blues' Stanley Cup run, more than 25,000 fans sat in the pouring rain at Busch Stadium for a Game 7 watch party on the jumbotron. The city is buzzing about its new MLS team.

After the move became official, Kroenke released a statement affirming his love for the city and his home state. "This move isn't about whether I love St. Louis or Missouri. I do and always will," it read. "This decision is about what is in the best long-term interests of the Rams organization and the National Football League. We have negotiated in good faith with the Regional Sports Authority for more than a decade trying to find a viable and sustainable solution. When it became apparent that we might not be able to reach an agreement, it was then and only then that we looked at alternatives."

The apology did little to quell the city's anger toward Kroenke and the move -- and it's that anger and insistence to prove him wrong that's played a significant factor in the BattleHawks fervor, explains Karraker.

"It's the way he did it," Bolinger says as freshly caught crappie fries in a pan at his tailgate. "He didn't just say, 'I'm a majority owner now, I'm going to move the team.' He played the game all the way through, made us think we had a hope or a chance, and then he ripped those hopes and dreams away and took our team."

"Honestly," Sides says, "this is the biggest thing that St. Louis could do to say 'F--- you, Stan.'"

But the disdain for Kroenke is only part of the story as to why a city has fallen for a team that many didn't even know existed until a couple of months ago.

"Are people wanting to show the NFL that we support football? Absolutely," Karraker says. "But I think it's more about the fact that it says 'St. Louis' on the back of the helmet."

WHEN XFL COMMISSIONER Oliver Luck and league founder Vince McMahon assigned the league's eight franchises in December 2018, St. Louis was the only market that didn't have a professional football team. As Luck says, they knew the city was "fertile ground for pro football," and they were looking to hire a team president for the city who could capitalize on it.

In came Kurt Hunzeker for an interview, a St. Louis native who was working for Minor League Baseball. He knew the league had likely come up with its own plan on how to attack the St. Louis market, but he walked into the interview prepared with his own PowerPoint anyway.

"I'm sure you have really smart people building business plans for all of these markets, but did whoever make St. Louis, are they from St. Louis?" he asked Luck during the interview.

"Well, I don't think so," Luck said.

"Then you kind of need to tear it up," Hunzeker said. "Because St. Louis is very much community-driven, grassroots."

Hunzeker got the job in June 2019. He had exactly seven months and one week until the first game of the season and no team logo to work with yet. So he created the brand "St. Louis Born and Raised." Unlike the other two football teams that had relocated to the city (the Cardinals from Chicago and the Rams from Los Angeles), this team would start right here. Early ticket sales were promising. He would attend 51 area high school football games and host countless happy hour Q&A's to introduce himself to the community and listen to what the fans wanted. One concern he received over and over was the fear of falling in love again with a team only to see it leave. Hunzeker's response?

"Totally fair. Let's go out on one date."

And then there are the surges in interest in the BattleHawks that had nothing to do with careful planning. Back in August, the team revealed its logo -- a sword with wings -- in a teaser video that featured an airplane hangar and a hawk. From there, two unofficial Facebook fan groups took opposite corners of a fervent disagreement on what the name actually is. One page believes a BattleHawk is a fighter aircraft. The other believes it's a bird, spawning the chant "KaKaw." (To gain entry into the pro-bird Facebook page, you must answer three questions, one of which is: "Is Kaw the law?" Another is: "How many generations does BattleHawk fandom go back in your family?")

Hunzeker won't officially crown a winner. "You're both right, and you're both wrong," he says when anyone asks. But "KaKaw" has taken off.

"At first, I wasn't 100 percent bought into it," starting quarterback Jordan Ta'amu says. "Everyone thought it was a joke."

But these days, scream the word anywhere in St. Louis -- in a bar, on the streets, at a wedding -- and you're sure to have at least one person scream it back. In November, Hunzeker was in the airport wearing a BattleHawks sweatshirt when someone shouted it all the way down the terminal. Ta'amu has been asked to inscribe the words when he signs autographs. Karraker has a segment on his radio show where people can call in and squawk their best "KaKaw." The popular grocery store Schnucks included the word in the news release about its partnership with the team.

There are numerous unofficially licensed BattleHawks items for sale online that feature the slogan and creative variations, such as "Kaw Is the Law" hats and "Kaw and Order" koozies. One group of fans drunkenly adopted the ballad "Sweeeeeeet Caroline, Kaw-Kaw-Kaw."

In the days before the home opener, Hunzeker briefed the players and coaches to warn them that they'd likely hear the chant -- and that it was a good thing.

"Everyone's loving 'KaKaw' now," Ta'amu says -- including himself. "We might even name a play after it."

INSIDE THE DOME just before kickoff of the BattleHawks' first game, the PA announcer is reading off the team's starting lineup. Most of the 29,554 fans in attendance barely know the names he's reading out -- not that it matters, since their screams are drowning them out anyway.

Torry Holt, the former star Rams wide receiver, smiles from the sideline in a BattleHawks sweatshirt. There's a swarm of waving white towels hovering over the sold-out lower bowl, and he's getting goose bumps, returning to some of the best moments of his life. Holt loved playing in St. Louis, and he was disappointed when the Rams left. After the BattleHawks schedule came out, he asked Luck if he could attend the first game. "I know how much these fans love football," Holt says. "How much they love a team. How much they love the players."

After the starting lineups, offensive lineman Brian Folkerts, a former NFL player and a local who grew up a St. Louis Rams fan, grabs the stadium microphone. He was on the Rams when the team relocated to Los Angeles, and just by being on the roster, he felt as if he had somehow betrayed his hometown. "Football is back, St. Louis!" he screams into the mic now, and the fans yell even louder.

A stadium wide "Kroenke Sucks" chant erupts just after the national anthem -- loud enough that on TVs with subtitles, the words appear on the bottom of the screen. Just after kickoff, right before the first snap, the chant returns again.

But then the fans are focused on the football.

The BattleHawks score on their first drive against the New York Guardians, and many fans are wiping away tears. Lisa Donato, a former Rams season-ticket holder who sat in the front row near the 30-yard line with her husband, is one of them.

"The environment here," she says, "I feel like I'm part of the team."

Behind the end zone, Chris Pigg, a die-hard Rams fan who made the 45-minute drive from Festus, Missouri, chokes up. "This fills a void," he says.

The BattleHawks win 29-9, a dominant, highlight-reel victory that includes a kickoff return touchdown, a blocked punt and a 58-yard field goal. After the game, former Mizzou and current BattleHawks wide receiver L'Damian Washington addresses the crowd on the stadium mic.

"Thank y'all for y'all's support today," he says. "KaKaw!"

Fans filter out of The Dome and continue the party on The Landing, a nearby bar district by the Mississippi riverfront that used to depend on game-day foot traffic. At Big Daddy's, a former Rams bar, Jake Howes is working on his 10th beer of the day, wearing the BattleHawks sweatshirt his mom bought him for Christmas. He hadn't sat in this bar, or been to The Dome, since the Rams left.

"I never thought I'd walk back into that building," he says. "I can't wait to do it again."

The next weekend, the team draws 27,527 fans -- the third-largest crowd in the XFL this year -- in another win at The Dome, with game-day ticket prices hovering around $50. The high attendance numbers compelled the team to open up the upper bowl and sell more tickets for their next home game on March 21, which, coincidentally, is against the XFL's Los Angeles squad.

Karraker and everyone else are curious whether this mania will last. The team is 3-1, good for first place in the XFL East. But will fans still show up to an XFL game when the St. Louis Blues are gearing up for another Stanley Cup run and the Cardinals' baseball season is underway, when the BattleHawks will be the third team in a three-sport town? Karraker thinks it's possible.

The larger question is what will happen to the XFL moving forward. Spring football leagues have always failed. And in the first four weeks, leaguewide TV ratings have declined, with average home crowds for teams such as the Guardians and Los Angeles Wildcats below 15,000.

For now, no matter what happens, the love that St. Louis has shown the BattleHawks is entertaining and real, a perfect match between a fringe NFL city and a team of fringe NFL players.

"I don't think they could suffer any more pain than what was inflicted by the NFL," Karraker says. "St. Louis is going to be a shining light for this league. And if it doesn't make it, it's not because St. Louis failed."