In the long and storied history of the Rams franchise, they have accomplished plenty on the football field: world championships, conference titles and division crowns to go along with Hall of Fame players all over the place are just a handful of the achievements of one of the longest-tenured organizations in the league.
But some of those triumphs transcend the sport and enter into that rarefied air where sports meets society, where the game stops being a game and becomes something much stronger in the fabric of American history.
As nearly 600 area high school and middle school students filed into the auditorium at the Manchester Edward Jones facility on Friday morning, they probably weren’t aware of much of what they were about to learn.
Joining those students were representatives from the Rams, – including receiver
The event was the now annual viewing of Third and Long: A History of African-Americans in Professional Football, a documentary detailing the contributions, struggles and triumphs of African Americans in professional football through the eyes of the men who lived it.
Following the showing of the documentary, the panelists answered questions about the importance of diversity, raising awareness of the issues that still exist and how to develop better ways to increase acceptance in all walks of life.
When it was through, it was clear that the students in attendance weren’t the only ones who took away valuable lessons.
“I learned some specific things about some of the forefathers in the NFL,” Johnson said. “Some of them couldn’t even come off the field because they couldn’t be on their own sidelines. It’s crazy. It’s like you take it for granted because it seems like it should just be human nature to be OK with other people but it wasn’t always that way.”
For Johnson and McNeill who have spent little more than two years with the Rams combined, the event gave them a deeper understanding of their own organization and its place in the history of integration in football.
In the opening parts of the documentary, it discusses the deal made by former Rams owner Daniel Reeves that allowed him to sign Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, the first two African-Americans to play in the NFL.
Even before Jackie Robinson ever put on a Dodger uniform, Washington and Strode broke the football color barrier with the Rams in 1946.
“I think that’s awesome for our organization to be able to say that we were the first to do that and first to take a chance,” McNeill said. “Obviously that was a good decision.”
The film also details the relationship between the “Fearsome Foursome,” the feared defensive line featuring three African Americans in Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy and one white defensive tackle in Merlin Olsen.
The relationship among that quartet extended beyond the football field and at a tenuous time in race relations set an important example of acceptance for others.
In addition to Reeves, another former Rams owner, Carroll Rosenbloom also played an important role in race relations in the NFL. In his time as the owner of the Baltimore Colts, Rosenbloom was a driving force in helping all players have equal rights in terms of wage and how they were treated.
When the producers of Third and Long went looking for support from all NFL teams, Rosenbloom’s son, Chip, who remains as minority owner of the Rams, saw it as a meaningful story that needed to be told and jumped at the chance to throw his support behind the project.
“I thought it was really important, especially since it has a relationship to my family,” Rosenbloom said. ““It is one of those things where today integrating a team on every level seems such an obvious thing to do. Back then, it was a nationwide struggle and the NFL was dealing with issues similar to what the country was dealing with.
"Clearly my dad wanted to win and getting the best players regardless of race was a no brainer to him. However when it came to racism, he simply didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense to him that there was discrimination of any sort. That was kind of what drew me to the documentary. I thought it was important for people to know, especially young players, to know that the NFL was probably 10 to 15 years ahead of the country in terms of dealing with these issues. These players were courageous and I'm proud of the role my dad played in supporting their right to be treated equally."
At the end of the movie, the panelists offered their takes on everything from the evolution of the Rooney Rule to best practices for learning acceptance at a young age.
After that, the enthusiastic group of kids provided plenty of questions, many of which were targeted to McNeill and Johnson, who offered advice on hard work and the value of chasing your dreams.
Sharon Harvey-Davis, the Chief Diversity Officer of Ameren Missouri, was the fifth panelist and provided insights from her field, stressing the importance of getting an education for kids to pursue interests outside of sports.
“My hope is that the kids took from this that hard work is important, education is important and there are a lot of options for them,” Harvey-Davis said. “Sports is one but there are a lot of options that they can pursue. And to understand this is a community that is diverse and is going to continue to be diverse and to understand how to work in that community is important.”
The Rams, Ameren Missouri and the Diversity Awareness Partnership have worked together for awhile now and make it a point to get into the community as much as possible to help bridge as many gaps as possible.
“I think there are a lot of similarities in what both organizations are trying to do,” Harvey-Davis said. “We both have got to build great teams, we both have got to bring the best people together and we both have got to give them the tools to work well together. I think that’s what’s going on in both organizations. Both of us want to impact our community and help it become the best it can be.”
As part of their own growing understanding of the history of their league, McNeill and Johnson emphasized that the league has reached a point where the respect levels in all locker rooms is at a good place.
It’s an understanding they hope will carry over into all walks of life.
“I just want them to understand where we came from as a nation, not just sports but society,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t always as diverse and accepting of diversity as it is now.”
And, if nothing else, McNeill hopes the 600 assembled kids in attendance Friday morning, will take with the lessons learned from the documentary and the panel back to their schools.
“I just want them to learn that there’s no reason to look down or think people are different just because of race or religion or what background they come from,” McNeill said. “I think that’s what we wanted to stress because I think growing up sometimes kids get picked on because of certain things that that’s something we definitely want to change.”