Bring them back where they belong

Merlin Olsen (74), Deacon Jones (75) and their Rams teammates, here on the Coliseum bench in 1962, made the blue and gold as distinctly Los Angeles as the purple and gold of the Lakers today. Darryl Norenberg/USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Rams.

It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

While many in St. Louis might cringe at the thought, the truth is the Rams belong in Southern California. It was their home for nearly 50 years, and if things play out right, they may finally be coming back to the City of Angels next year after taking a 20-year hiatus in the Gateway City.

Last week's news that Rams owner Stan Kroenke bought a 60-acre tract of land between the recently renovated Forum and the out-of-business Hollywood Park racetrack certainly has raised the possibility the Rams may have found a new home in, well, their old home.

I'm normally against any and all relocation, but this isn't exactly like the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings or any other NFL team that has been rumored to be looking at a move to Los Angeles over the years. This is the Rams. And when I think of the Rams, I think of Eric Dickerson, Jack Youngblood, Jackie Slater, Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Norm Van Brocklin, Bob Waterfield, Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, Les Richter and Tom Fears.

The one thing each of those Hall of Fame players have in common is they were Los Angeles Rams, not St. Louis Rams.

As much as St. Louis has tried to accept and adopt the Rams' history prior to 1995, when they left Los Angeles, it's like the Oklahoma City Thunder trying to embrace the Seattle Supersonics' past as their own. It's one of the biggest complaints I've heard from former Los Angeles Rams players over the years -- besides, of course, the fact that their old team is no longer where it should be.

"There's still a distance between any player that played here in Los Angeles and gets kudos from St. Louis," Jones told me before he died in June 2013. "They aren't comfortable with it. I played against [former St. Louis Cardinals offensive tackle] Dan Dierdorf and other guys, and here we are sitting together like we were teammates, and that's not the way it was.

"I hate to see anybody screwing around with history, because you have to play history the way it falls. You can't change it, and that, to me, is a change."

When I sat down with Youngblood three years ago to talk about his career, he felt like a player void of a team and a city to celebrate his Hall of Fame career.

"We are their legacy, but they forgot us," Youngblood said. "They don't have anything to do with us, really. I find that unfortunate because you look at other franchises, even those that have moved, and they use their alumni in their marketing and in their organization. They use their Hall of Famers as an example for the players who are there today. They use their alumni, but the Rams have cut us out of the picture.

"I've been invited back twice since they moved to St. Louis, and once I invited myself back."

Fred Dryer, Youngblood's former teammate with the Rams, was sitting nearby during the interview and chimed in.

"I've never been back there, and I have no plans to go back there," Dryer said. "The L.A. Rams are gone. They're the St. Louis Rams now, and when I watch them, I have no connection to them at all."

That connection can be made whole again if the Rams returned home to Los Angeles.

One of the biggest problems with the NFL being gone from Los Angeles for the past two decades is the generational gap it has left with the city's sports fans. Anyone born after 1988 or so has no recollection of an NFL team in L.A.

It is a generational gap that can't be properly repaired with an expansion team or an established team with no ties to Los Angeles being relocated here.

Fortunately, there are local history lessons to be shared. There are fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers who can tell younger generations what it was like going to Los Angeles Rams games. The seeds for a loyal Rams fan base in Los Angeles were planted 70 years ago.

The Rams were California's first professional sports franchise when they moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland in 1946. That's 12 years before the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn and 14 years before the Lakers moved from Minneapolis.

While in Los Angeles, the Rams broke the color barrier in the NFL before the 1946 season -- a year before it happened in Major League Baseball -- when they signed running backs Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who were Jackie Robinson's teammates at UCLA. The Rams also became the first team with logos on their helmets in 1948 and advanced to the NFL title game in 1949 and 1950 before winning L.A.'s first professional sports title in 1951.

Through the years, the "Fearsome Foursome," Roman Gabriel, Vince Ferragamo, Pat Haden, Wendell Tyler, Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds and others became household names around town as the Rams won 14 division titles in L.A. and seven straight from 1973 to 1979. They lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 20, 1980, in front of a Super Bowl record crowd of 103,985.

"We were rock stars," Youngblood said. "We were absolute rock stars. Everywhere you went, people recognized you, and your face was on all kinds of marketing stuff. They loved us. Los Angeles loved their gold and blue."

The classic Rams uniforms were one of the best in NFL history and as distinctly Los Angeles as the Lakers purple and gold uniforms are now.

The blame for most team relocations lies with the owner and the facility it plays in, not with the city and the fans who supported them. That was certainly the case in Los Angeles.

The late Georgia Frontiere moved the Rams to her hometown of St. Louis in 1995 when she received a sweetheart stadium deal. It also was at that time when the late Al Davis moved the Los Angeles Raiders back to Oakland under similar circumstances. It's no fault of the football fans in Los Angeles that they were dealing with relocation-minded owners who were playing in outdated facilities they couldn't afford to refurbish.

While the Raiders, founded in Oakland in 1960, certainly made their mark on Los Angeles after Davis moved the team here in 1982, the truth is they are Oakland's team.

And as much as Los Angeles wants an NFL team, it wouldn't be right to pry away the Chargers, who have played in San Diego for 53 years after spending their first season in Los Angeles.

The Rams, however, belong in Los Angeles. They shouldn't have turned their back on a 50-year history in the Southland when they left, but they have a chance to make it right by coming back home next year.