Ron Paul has been a Rams fan, a Los Angeles Rams fan, longer than he’s had teeth.
“When I was born, in March of ’55, Uncle Don came to Fresno and put a little pigskin helmet right on my head,” says Paul, the host of “Flying Home with Ronnie Paul” a nostalgia show that airs Saturday nights on KGMC-43.5.
“I wish I still had it. That’s when it all started.”
“Uncle Don” happened to be Don Paul, a Fresno native and Rams middle linebacker who for eight seasons earned a reputation as one of the NFL’s most fearsome (and dirtiest) players. (“Look at it this way – I never bit anybody,” he later told Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray.)
Don Paul became a Rams assistant coach when his playing career ended. After that, he did color commentary during Rams telecasts while running several San Fernando Valley restaurants, including the Rams Horn, a player hangout in Encino.
Who got to take advantage of all this inside access? Don Paul’s nephew.
Decades later, over coffee, Ron Paul can sure rattle off stories: Sitting in Roman Gabriel’s lap as an 8-year-old while the star quarterback enjoyed a few adult beverages. Chatting up famous broadcasters like Jack Buck. Schmoozing his way into the visiting owner’s suite at Anaheim Stadium. “Eddie D(eBartolo) invited me in,” he says, “but the best was Tom Benson of the Saints.”
So many people are very happy – it’s about time. They should never have left in the first place.
Ron Paul, longtime Rams fan
Bring up the move to St. Louis, and Paul abruptly shifts gears to the 1994 draft. He’s still irked the Rams went out of their way not to select Trent Dilfer, trading the No. 5 overall pick to the Colts before Dilfer went No. 6 to the Bucs. Why? Because villainous owner Georgia Frontiere wanted to keep attendance down to grease the skids for her planned exit less than a year later.
“When Trent Dilfer left Fresno State, (coach) Chuck Knox wanted him,” Paul insists. “(Frontiere) did not want people from Fresno and Bakersfield driving over the Grapevine – because the crowd would go (to games). That was her whole mentality. So she picked up two has-beens, Chris Chandler and Chris Miller, so nobody would go.”
Considering Paul’s bloodlines, it would be easy to assume no one around town could be more excited about the Rams’ return to Los Angeles following their 21-season detour in the Central Time Zone.
Step inside the Ledesmas’ southeast Fresno home, where your eye is immediately drawn to a neon blue bar sign shaped like the Rams’ logo.
Don’t – at least not until before meeting David and Nora Ledesma and stepping inside their southeast Fresno home. Your eye is immediately drawn to a neon blue and yellow bar sign shaped like the Rams’ logo.
Rams-themed posters, flags, pennants, clocks and license plates cover the living and dining room walls. There are cabinets filled with autographed Rams helmets, footballs and bobbleheads; stuffed bears; wearable horns; trivia games; and fuzzy slippers. Inside a closet hang dozens of Rams jerseys of players spanning all eras. Legendary names like OLSEN, YOUNGBLOOD and DICKERSON.
“This isn’t close to all of it,” Nora Ledesma says. “We have tubs full in the attic. We just keep collecting. It’s never enough.”
David and Nora were Rams fans before they met, but things really took off once they started dating. Married since 1984, they raised six kids as Rams fans even though their eldest eventually switched allegiances to the Raiders and became the silver-and-black sheep of the family.
It was either you’re Rams fan or you sleep out in the rain. It was one of the two.
Anthony Ledesma, on growing up in a fanatical Rams household
Before long, Nora is telling a story about how she requested – and received – six tickets to a 2006 home game in St. Louis from then-team president John Shaw. These weren’t just any tickets. They were in the family section, where the Ledesmas got to meet wives and sisters of players. They also toured the locker room.
“Steven Jackson became one of my closest friends. No lie. I met him,” Nora says of the workhorse tailback. “Then he introduced me to his sister, and I have her on Facebook right now.”
One year, Jackson wished Nora a happy birthday on Facebook, calling her his “biggest fan.”
“I got so many hits and responses like, ‘Why’d he do that?’
“ ‘Guys, it’s a long story; do you have the time?’ ” she says before bursting into a big laugh.
Is there a point where things go too far? Only when youngest son Anthony Ledesma saw his mother get her first tattoo did he begin to wonder.
Is there a point when so much Rams becomes too much? Only when youngest son Anthony Ledesma saw his mother get her first tattoo did he begin to wonder.
“She didn’t get her son’s name or her daughter’s name – she got the Rams’ logo,” he says, laughing. “That’s when you weren’t sure if you were in a burning building, if she’d save me or Steven Jackson.”
Their club watches all Rams games inside a banquet room at Club One Casino in downtown Fresno. A turnout of 100 is expected for Monday night’s season opener, the first Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers matchup in more than two decades.
“It’s going to be packed,” David Ledesma says. “They’re going to need to bring in more chairs for us.”
This Monday night, it’s going to be screaming crazy.
Nora Ledesma, anticipating the first Los Angeles Rams-San Francisco 49ers matchup since 1994
That Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley contain pockets of Rams fans shouldn’t be a surprise. The franchise was based in Southern California for nearly five decades (1946-94) and during that time enjoyed a pretty good run of success.
Strengthening that bond are all the former players with local ties. Besides Don Paul, the list includes Les Richter, Henry Ellard, Rod Perry, Charle Young and Michael Stewart, in addition to current Rams T.J. McDonald (Edison High) and Cody Wichmann (Fresno State). And don’t forget College of the Sequoias coach Irv Pankey, a Visalia resident the past 18 years.
Now that the Rams once again are based 225 miles away instead of nearly 2,000, there will be even more blue and yellow woven into our region’s already diverse NFL tapestry. Even if it’s not the exact shade of either color longtime fans would prefer.
Tony Fernandez is one of those people. A lifelong Rams fan who was in his early 20s with the team moved, the Reedley High teacher and girls basketball coach could never bring himself to fully embrace St. Louis. To the point where he refused to purchase any apparel with that city’s name on it.
Fernandez has three kids who have also taken to Dad’s favorite team. Until recently, though, he had a difficult time answering their root question: Why?
Fernandez has three kids, two sons and a daughter ages 9 through 12, who have also taken to Dad’s favorite team. Until recently, though, he had a difficult time answering their root question:
That all changed the evening of Aug. 20, when Fernandez took his family to the Coliseum for a preseason game attended by 80,782. For the first time, the Rams were the home team. For the first time, they weren’t outnumbered by opposing fans. For the first time, they felt part of a larger collective.
“It was one of the coolest feelings as a Dad to watch them soaking it all up,” Fernandez says. “It made me emotional because it’s been so hard explaining to them why we were Rams fans, and now that’s going to be so much easier. ...
“I just think it makes sense now. The planets have aligned again. It makes sense why there are Rams fans in Reedley, California.”
Rams fans up and down the Valley know exactly how he feels.
NFL Opening weekend
- Raiders at Saints, 10 a.m. Sunday (KMPH, 26.1)
- Chargers at Chiefs, 10 a.m. Sunday (KGPE, 47.1)
- Rams at 49ers, 7:20 p.m. Monday (ESPN)