LA Rams present emotional tribute to shooting, wildfire first responders
Rams officials moved the game to LA from Mexico City and gave away more than 1,000 tickets to those affected by the past week's tragedies
By Ryan Kartje
The Orange County Register
LOS ANGELES — In the wake of unimaginable tragedy, at the end of a week filled with loss and sorrow, they stood together, spread side by side across the Coliseum field, gripping tight to handfuls of red and white fabric, as the choir began to sing.
It had been an unspeakably long few days for so many here, each of them beset in some way by the dueling tragedies that struck the Los Angeles area. For many, there were vigils and funerals, their tight-knit communities in mourning after a shooting rocked them to their core. Others were first responders, who’d spent hours upon hours fighting wildfires burning in the coastal hills, all of which now are blurred together in a harrowing fog.
But here, as they unfurled the American flag and the Cal Lutheran choir sang the anthem, they stood together, not in tragedy, but in solidarity, for a football game that was never supposed to happen here.
The Rams had brought them together in no more than few days time, after the NFL moved the game from Mexico City, giving away more than 1,000 tickets to those most affected by the tragedies of the past week. Maybe football, the team hoped, could offer even the briefest of solace from such overwhelming sorrow.
For Mike McKenna, it was all that kept him together. For six years, he’d been an assistant coach with the Thousand Oaks Titans, but never had that role meant so much than this past week. His cousin, Jake Dunham, was one of the 12 killed at Borderline Bar & Grill, leaving his family reeling. But in the face of such devastating news, there was no time to mourn. Just 24 hours later, most of his players and their families were forced to evacuate their homes as wildfires began tearing through the hills around Thousand Oaks.
That Saturday, with most of his players and their families displaced, the Titans met to play a youth football game, with an opportunity to go the championship on the line.
For Jacob Poley, the Titans’ 14-year-old quarterback, football was the escape for which he’d been searching. When his family was forced to evacuate their home, with flames reaching the fence around their backyard, Poley brought with him only his “prized possessions.” Among them was a pile of framed football photos, including a team photo of this year’s Titans.
“To get away from those thoughts, football was the only thing I wanted to focus on,” Poley said.
When they took the field that Saturday, they hadn’t seen each other since the shootings and the fires had devastated so many close to them. McKenna could see how much the week had weighed on his players, but in the face of such sorrow, McKenna said, “football was our escape.” Even after not practicing all week, the Titans won and moved onto the championship, in spite of all they’d gone through.
“It’s been great to see that despite all that’s happened, football has really kept these boys together,” McKenna said. “It’s motivated them to see what’s important. All this tragedy around them, and what’s important is, these people in the community have stepped up and helped them through.”
In a sprawling city that can feel so impossibly disparate, a sense of community can seem impossible to cultivate. By nature, Los Angeles is a tangled mess of different people and cultures, and yet, on Monday night, as white towels waved in unison and the Rams ran onto the field with a flag bearing the words “LA Together,” the Coliseum stood at its center, a community unwavering in the face of flames and bullets and all that they’d wrought.
Before the game, Ventura County Fire Department captain, Stan Ziegler looked out across the field at the brave firefighters under his command, and he smiled. For so many of them, it had been an impossibly long week. Many had barely seen their families since the fires began. Some were displaced from their own homes.
But on Monday night, the Rams went above and beyond to accommodate them. Over 100 Ventura County firefighters were here in attendance, Ziegler said, hoping to put a harrowing week behind them.
“You would not believe what it means to us,” Ziegler said. “The Rams opened up their home and welcomed us.”
To the Adler boys, it was an overwhelming gesture. Last Wednesday, working the late shift as a bouncer, their father, Sean, sacrificed his life to disarm the shooter at Borderline. On Monday, the Rams named his two sons honorary water boys, in hopes of giving them something to hold onto, when they needed it most.
So they decked out Dylan, 17, and Derek, 12, in matching blue uniforms, to make it official. On the ride over to the Coliseum, their mother, Fran, said, the boys could barely withhold their excitement. From the sideline, as the game neared, they flashed wide smiles filled with braces and talked about how much Monday night meant.
“It’s been so hard,” Dylan said, “but being out here, it’s getting my mind off everything. It’s almost overwhelming, how much people are willing to do for us. It really has touched my heart.”
For Dave Brantley and Jason Robarts, the Rams helped them mourn in a different way. Before the game, they told stories of their fallen friend and fellow Ventura County police sergeant, Ron Helus, to anyone who would listen. Helus was the first officer on the scene at Borderline, giving his life to save countless others, and his friends wore shirts to honor him.
“It’s bringing us all together, all of these people who need each other,” Brantley said.
“It means more than I think they realize,” Robarts added.
For one night, football was the fabric that bound together so many, in sorrow and loss, in compassion and in hope. The Rams had offered respite and escape. They brought smiles to the faces of brothers who’d lost their father. And they gave friends a chance to reminisce about their fallen friend.
“In our society right now, it feels like everyone is distant, everyone is fractured, everyone is apart,” McKenna said. “But this shows you, when everyone is working together, there’s literally nothing we can’t do.”
Over the past three years, as they set down roots in the region, the Rams had struggled to find their foothold here. But on Monday night, they brought together a city beset by tragedy, and in the building, it was clear that status had changed.
When Los Angeles needed them most, they threw their arms around it. Among those here on Monday night, that embrace won’t be soon forgotten.
In loving memory of fallen Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Ron Helus.— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) November 20, 2018
Helus was among the first law enforcement officers to arrive at the Borderline shooting.
Forever a hero. #LATogether pic.twitter.com/9CrGmU03L3
Honoring the Ventura County FD, Ventura County Sheriff, LA County FD, LAFD, California Highway Patrol + LAPD with today’s hats.— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) November 19, 2018
Thank you for your tireless efforts + bravery. #LATogether pic.twitter.com/XkoOMHMZO2