Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bradford creates a buzz for St. Louis Rams

Bryan Burwell 314-340-8185 | Posted: Sunday, August 1, 2010 12:05 am

It was just a little before noon, and already the Rams' marketing department worker bees were busy scrambling about in a focused fury, transforming one corner of the parking lot in front of Rams Park into a makeshift, interactive football carnival.

Over there, they were scurrying about stocking the shelves of the merchandising trailer with new Sam Bradford jerseys. And over there, they were pounding a life-sized color cutout of their new rookie quarterback into the soft green grass just in front of the entrance gate.

And what was that over there?

Why step right up and get your digital photo taken in an authentic Bradford game jersey and regulation Rams helmet.

If you didn't know any better, you'd think going to Rams Park on Saturday afternoon was a pretty big deal or something. More than three hours before the franchise unveiled its nouveau riche No.1 draft pick in his first official practice of training camp, Rams fans were already lining up just outside the facility gates, eager to be among the first to get an up-close-and-personal glimpse of the kid with the newly minted $78 million contract and the outsized professional expectations. Eventually, nearly 1,300 spectators would walk through the Rams Park gates, buzzing with an excitement that isn't often felt around a team coming off a 1-15 season.

They would come in their Bradford Rams jerseys and their Bradford Oklahoma jerseys. They would come clutching photographs and mini footballs and helmets and small scraps of paper and just about anything else with a flat surface for young Mr. Bradford to autograph.

But all of that was three hours away, and right now the only thing that was of the utmost concern to Rams executive vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff was those dark and ominous storm clouds that were gathering over Earth City, threatening to ruin the show.

"I told (coach Steve Spagnuolo) this morning, 'I don't care if it's a torrential downpour and lightning bolts are striking the goal posts. We're practicing outside today, OK?'" Demoff joked.

OK, now based on the consistently wretched recent history of this ill-fated franchise, this is where we would honestly expect storm clouds to gather, a twister to come rolling over the horizon and lifting Rams Park into the air like a scene out of "The Wizard of Oz," then have it come crashing down right on top of our young QB phenom, crushing him like he was the wicked witch, and Demoff would be left to curse his fate and mutter, "Ohhh, what a world!"

But if you are looking for signs that the fortunes of the woebegone Rams might actually be turning, maybe this was it. A gentle wind blew the clouds off to the north, and the largest crowd in recent years to watch a Rams practice poured into the facility and got to see exactly what they were looking for. All Sam, all the time.

Really, the best sign that things were changing around here was the simple fact that Demoff delivered Bradford to camp with a complicated six-year deal that makes Bradford's contract the richest rookie deal in NFL history, and he did it without a protracted holdout. When the full squad of rookies and veterans walked onto the field shortly before 3 p.m., Bradford was with them.

That nothing bad or crazy or weird or goofy or tragic or just plain stupid cropped up at the 11th hour to keep Bradford from reporting on time might not seem like a miracle to anyone who doesn't follow the Rams closely. But to long-suffering Rams loyalists who have spent an eternity hoping for the best but always, always expecting the worst, this was a refreshing change of pace.

And that explains why one particularly excited and grateful fan approached Demoff in the parking lot, and upon discovering that he was the Rams executive who was responsible for Bradford being signed, sealed and delivered, the fan actually bent down on one knee, clutched the VP's hand and shouted "THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!" much to the obvious embarrassment of Demoff.

Eventually, all the clever marketing and skillful negotiations in the world won't matter nearly as much as a team delivering victories on football Sundays. But for the time being, doing things the right way, the smart way and the sensible way off the field can't hurt. History shows that far too often in the past, good things happened to the Rams in spite of their efforts, not because of them.

When things like this happen, when you see the franchise find a way to not only get the Bradford deal done on time, but also without any unnecessary trepidation about the blow back of giving the kid the sort of money that the current market bears for a quarterback drafted No.1 overall, it makes me think that I can lose that reflex action that expects something bad to always happen to the Rams.

And it helps that there are some legitimately hopeful signs on the field, too. Bradford just might be as good as advertised.

"How 'bout that bleepin' kid?" eight-year veteran offensive tackle Adam Goldberg said as he watched Bradford walk off the field after practice. "I mean, how 'bout him, huh? He's so cool and calm for a rookie. Doesn't act like anything gets to him. I couldn't believe how even-keeled he was out there. Walked into the huddle like he'd been there all his life. Now we'll have to see how that all works when another team's blitz package is thrown at him. But man, today he walked right into the huddle and took control. (Veteran center Hank) Fraley and I looked at each other and both of us said, 'Hmmmmm.' We noticed right away how the kid had immediate command as soon as he came into the huddle."

One day down, a career to go.

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