ST. LOUIS -- With the future of their favorite football team hanging over their heads, about 1,500 St. Louis Rams fans turned up at the NFL's first town hall hearing Tuesday to offer their pleas to keep the team from relocating to Los Angeles.
The hearing offered fans a chance to speak directly to executive vice president Eric Grubman, vice president of corporate development Chris Hardart, senior vice president of public policy Cynthia Hogan and league attorney Jay Bauman.
The result was a meeting in which fans talked in three-minute bursts (occasionally going over) for three hours, with passionate questions and comments about how much the team means to the community.
"I think it's a very emotional night," Grubman said. "I think for them it's clearly the time to express their point of view and their passion, and, frankly, I think for the NFL employees, it's hard. It's hard to hear that kind of passion come through and not have answers that make people happy."
The meeting started with Hogan introducing St. Louis stadium task force leaders Dave Peacock and Bob Blitz, who walked on stage to a loud standing ovation. Peacock encouraged those in the crowd to express their feelings but do it respectfully.
Peacock, Blitz and the St. Louis stadium task force were not available to media but issued a statement after the hearing.
"We thank the sports fans of St. Louis for their passion, support, eloquence and class at tonight's NFL hearing," the statement read. "The fans who spoke this evening represented the St. Louis community and expressed our love for the Rams in an incredibly powerful and convincing manner. We thank the NFL for the opportunity to be heard, and we are extremely humbled and proud to represent St. Louis in this effort."
Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff was then introduced and walked on the stage to lighter applause with a few boos mixed in. Demoff told the crowd he looked forward to hearing what fans had to say.
From there, the fans took over, with podiums set up on either side of the theater. Fans of all ages and backgrounds took their turns at the podium, with many of the comments focused on whether the Rams meet the NFL's relocation guidelines and some harsh words directed at owner Stan Kroenke.
Early in the proceedings, 81-year old fan David Collins, who has "World's Oldest Rams Fan 1946" stitched on the back of his wheelchair, tried to speak, but his emotions got the better of him, and his wife Mary took over. She told the story of the couple moving closer to St. Louis for her to take a job and gaining her husband's approval because it was closer to his favorite team.
"We cannot move back to Los Angeles because prices have gone sky-high," Mary Collins said. "Please do not take my Rams away from me again. They belong to the fans like me. The owners are just the caretakers."
Despite plenty of negativity toward Kroenke, a few fans made it a point to say a relationship between the owner and the city could be salvaged if Kroenke would agree to invest in the St. Louis stadium proposal.
"If Mr. Kroenke inks a 30-year lease, I guarantee you, all of this will be forgotten," one fan said. "We want him to be successful here."
Hashim Raza, a local doctor, recounted the story of his family moving to the United States and the Rams helping him and his family feel like part of a community.
"I don't know 95 percent of the people in this room, but they're all my brothers and sisters," Raza said. "They all love the Rams."
Another fan read an impassioned plea in the form of a poem and made it a point to hammer home the team's involvement in community initiatives, which drew praise from Grubman.
"[I've] watched a lot of people try to describe how team gets woven in a community," Grubman said. "I have never heard anybody describe it like that."
Tensions were mostly held in check for the duration of the meeting, though at one point a speaker questioned what the NFL was going to do to help with racial inequality in St. Louis. As she spoke, a group of people unfurled a banner reading "Fund Schools, Not Football" while chanting.
The fans in attendance responded by yelling "Let's go Rams" repeatedly as the group of protesters was escorted from the building.
Whether the night's event or similar hearings taking place in San Diego and Oakland, California, this week ultimately mean much in the final equation is up for debate, but Hogan offered some words of encouragement to the fans in attendance.
"It's hard for me to imagine there's a city in the United States that has a better fan base," Hogan said.
The league executives will head to San Diego and Oakland for meetings Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. When the town hall hearings in all three markets are complete, executives will compile the questions they received, identify common themes in the comments made in person as well as submitted online and attempt to gain a glimpse of how things are in each city.
"Best we can, we'll try to represent for the owners what it is like in those markets and how strong the passion is," Grubman said.
In that regard, how did St. Louis fare?
"I come away impressed with the passion," Grubman said. "How could you not?"