The first thought I had was akin to the Cleveland Indians coach in "Major League:" "Who are these guys?!"
As the St. Louis BattleHawks, the short-lived yet highly invigorating XFL team, descended off the bus and into a crowd of fans, I couldn't name one player, not even the quarterback, Jordan Ta'amu. They were scattered faces, human beings that stood out due to their physical shape and not their past records and feats.
Here's the thing. St. Louis football fans turned these "nobodies" into "somebodies" for a few weeks. For five games and over a thousand loud "KA-KAW'S," sports fans brought The Dome alive for a football game for the first time in over four years.
A few years ago, Stan Kroenke took a highly flawed yet still exciting Rams team to Los Angeles, emptying the bank account of this town's football love while also aiming to lessen the integrity of St. Louis. He succeeded in just one of those things, but it was enough to dim the hopes of football ever returning downtown. He took the Rams, did as much as he could to kill the efforts for a new stadium, and is still building a long-delayed monstrosity out in Los Angeles.
But all of that changed this past winter with the BattleHawks. They wasted no time in endearing themselves to local fans, winning three of five games in a fashion that was the polar opposite of a Rams victory back in 2015. The BattleHawks finished second in the league, but first among popularity. The plan at first was to open just a portion of the Dome but by the end of the run, there were plans to open up more sections. As it is with most things in life, I wish they got more time to build something even more incredible in this town: sustainability.
That's the fleeting thing for St. Louis football fans. The Cardinals were here way back in the day, but they eventually went to Arizona. The Rams came here in the mid 90's, but were gone in 20 years. Hopes for an NFL team only exist on Twitter's Hot Stove. Every time the Chargers seem to have an issue in LA, someone connects them to St. Louis. False hope. The BattleHawks were definitely not false hope, but instead a bittersweet timeshare in fans' hearts.
Vince McMahon's league fared better this time than it did nearly 20 years ago, when it had more of an aggressive rugby/wrestling flair than actual football skill sets. But the longevity was always in question, right from the start. Some people didn't invest too deeply in the BattleHawks due to the fact that they could turn to dust faster than an Avenger after a snap of the fingers. I wasn't one of those people.
I found it easy to jump on the bandwagon for one simple reason: the northern end downtown was alive and kicking on a Sunday! There were tailgates. Crowds of happiness. A Kroenke pinata was being bashed to pieces with fans screaming all around. Beers were consumed, good times were had, and good football was the end result. The team embraced their newfound colors, wearing local team fabrics like the Cardinals and Blues to the pregame walk-up.
They invested time after the game, such as a player going up to a young fan and exchanging a football for a box of girl scout cookies. They smashed Bud Light seltzer cans after the game in the locker room. They made themselves well known on social media and connected with fans. The BattleHawks did their best to make a dent, even if they more than likely knew time was of the essence.
I do believe COVID-19 took out the XFL. I would have placed heavy bets on the league lasting at least 2-3 years due to the increased popularity every week. The fans showed up and continued to do so, at least in St. Louis. An eight-game schedule would have been finished and 2021 would have been even greater. If you think this would have failed even without a pandemic, your mind is living in 2001.
Here's what we learned from all of this. Football is still beloved in St. Louis. There's still legs there. It has little to do with the quality of the team. The BattleHawks could have been 2-3 and still fired up fans. It's the principle of it all. How a team and their ownership treats a city, not just the amount of touchdowns thrown on the field or yards picked up. It's how you reach out and connect with a city. The XFL was never meant to steal hardcore NFL fans or convert them to believers in this rugged league of misfits; it was meant to be fun and enlivening. Dessert for NFL fans, but an entire course for a city like St. Louis.
These days, it's more depressing downtown than it's ever been in my lifetime. Local businesses are shut down, sports are turned off, and the streets have named but no inhabitants. It's an odd look for a town that looks its best in the spring due to playoff hockey and the start of baseball. The BattleHawks would have signed off already, but there would still be talk about them. You'd see players at Busch Stadium or Enterprise Center.
They would be creating a personality in this town over the offseason, before the 2021 season even started to fire up. It would have happened. The BattleHawks proved that St. Louis has room for more than two sports.
That's the bittersweet aspect. What could have been? If the virus hadn't taken over the world, football would have remained in this town. It's not taking away from the heroic healthcare workers or the loss of life, but speaking more to the entertainment value those same doctors and nurses more than likely enjoyed during their downtime. Discussing the big game at the desk on Monday morning.
"Did you see what that player did yesterday? That throw!"
"Can you believe they knocked the head off the Kroenke pinata?"
All of that and then some. The St. Louis BattleHawks were more than a healthy distraction; they were a reminder of St. Louis' power source for sports and their love for football.
When they first showed up, I had little clue who they were. By the time they left, I had learned a few names but had a firm grasp on what they meant to this town. They were a breath of fresh air. A fleeting delight that should provide treasured memories over the coming months and possibly years.
Thanks for reading and stay sane, St. Louis.