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St. Louis ready for pro football rebirth

The Dome at America's Center (credit: America's Center)

ST. LOUIS -- At 2:06 p.m. CT on Sunday, when the St. Louis BattleHawks kick off their first home game of the 2020 XFL Season at The Dome, it will have been 1,529 days since pro football was last played in this town.

Back on Dec. 17, 2015, the Rams defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23 in Week 15 of the NFL season.

Just 26 days later, league owners voted to allow the Rams to move back to Los Angeles, leaving the Gateway City without professional football for the second time in 28 years following the Cardinals move to Arizona in 1988.

Sunday (vs. New York Guardians, 2 p.m. CT, ESPN) will be an emotional day for the unfairly criticized St. Louis football fans, who have often had to bear the insults that have questioned the city’s worth as “a football town.”

Lois Linton, a longtime Rams sign wielder and season-ticket holder, is one of those fans -- and was one of the first to purchase tickets for the XFL's BattleHawks several months ago.

Longtime St. Louis pro football fan Lois Linton was one one of the first to purchase BattleHawks season tickets.

Wednesday night, at a happy hour gathering at the Corner Pub in the suburb of Valley Park, Linton was bedecked in her “Mother Hawk” outfit, having a blast with the mostly younger crowd there to meet BattleHawks punter Marquette King, kicker Taylor Russolino and long snapper Tanner Carew.

“I feel young again,” she said. “This is so much fun and great for the city.”

This serves as a homecoming for BattleHawks starting center Brian Folkerts, who was on the sideline for that final 2015 Rams home game. A St. Louis-area native, Folkerts played for his hometown team that season, although he was inactive that night.

“A lot of us didn’t see (the departure) coming,” he said this week as the team prepared for the home opener. “We kind of heard the outside noise with (owner Stan) Kroenke and all those guys, but we just thought we would never leave St. Louis. This town deserves football. It’s a great sports town. A lot of us were blindsided by it I was kind of personally hurt by it. It was my team growing up.”

Now, Folkerts has to pinch himself at being part of the sport’s rebirth.

“I’m just glad to be part of the team that brought it back," the Washburn University alum said. "I didn’t see myself being back here in St. Louis playing ball, but I couldn’t be happier that I am able to play in front of my family and friends. I have a lot of high school coaches and friends texting me saying they will be there to support me. It should be a good show for everyone. We’ve had nothing but support. Everyone’s excited, the city’s buzzing, we have a sold-out crowd. It’s going to be loud.”

In the halcyon days of The Greatest Show on Turf, opponents hated playing in The Dome, unable to hear themselves think in the raucous environment.

BattleHawks head coach Jonathan Hayes wants that to again be the case. “I’m hoping it’s just going to be chaotic," he said. "Guys have been on the road for two weeks and we need a little home support and I think we’ll get that.

“I’m glad we have their interest, and the way we can keep it is by giving them a good product by playing hard. Mostly, I want to say thank you (to the fans) and come out and be very loud. Be the 12th man for us. We’ll need them.”

Players have been motivated by fans they meet away from the team facility. Russolino was one of several players that attended a St. Louis Blues game Tuesday night and was impressed by hockey fans wearing BattleHawks gear.

Other players have had similar experiences with fans around town.

"They’re so excited to come to the dome," running back Matt Jones said. "We can’t wait to feel that energy.”

Added quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, “I love the positive vibe the fans give us and everywhere we go. They have a new saying, 'KaKaw.' It’s KaKaw Nation, so I’m excited.”

The business community has also gotten behind St. Louis' newest professional sports team.

Dave Peacock, COO of local grocery chain Schnucks, has been impressed by how quickly the team has made a real connection in town. 

“(The BattleHawks) have brought a refreshing and aggressive approach to the market and in such a short
time they have also brought an incredible excitement and loyalty," Peacock said. "They have really struck a chord with the St. Louis market.

“Our city appreciates people that appreciate us and the fans feel a part of it.”

Team president Kurt Hunzeker, who from Day 1 emphasized that this is the city’s first “homegrown” pro football team, summed up the anticipation for this weekend.

“St. Louis is not only an excellent football town, but they know how to celebrate St. Louis,” he said. “We’re celebrating football’s return and I’m excited about having a national TV audience tune it at 2 o’clock on Sunday and see 28,000 people waving their rally towels.

"It’s showing how excited they are about pro football returning to this great city.”

Howard Balzer has worked in the St. Louis media market since 1978.