In courtside seats at Staples Center last March for Lakers-Cavs, two familiar faces drew nearly as much attention as the competition on the court. Not far from where Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon and Selena Gomez could be found were two towering figures representing the history and future of football in Los Angeles.
And so a buzz built around Eric Dickerson and Todd Gurley. People pointed. Camera phones flashed. King James paid his respects, as did an endless stream of fans. One after another after another.
At one point, Dickerson turned to the young running back who wants to be like him and said, "One thing about being in L.A.: I know it can be hard, but always be willing to take pictures with fans and sign autographs. It's the best thing because the fans will always love you."
He should know.
In a California sky full of stars, the 56-year-old Dickerson still shines brightly.
But it has been 22 years since football was played in Los Angeles, 29 years since Dickerson played for the Rams and 31 years since the Los Angeles Rams won the NFC West.
The city is hungry for a new Dickerson.
The transplanted Rams need someone to carry the ball figuratively as well as literally. They need someone who can smile and sell and sign—after he scores.
The tickets for the Rams' first regular-season game back in Los Angeles will become collectors’ items one day. They will be sold on eBay, framed and made into paperweights.
On the ticket will be the face of the Los Angeles Rams—Gurley.
Ezra Shaw / Getty Images
It's the same face that Angelenos will see on roughly 100 electronic billboards all over town as well as on public transit signage. The team is also promoting Aaron Donald and Tavon Austin—but not to the same extent.
The NFLPA would likely approve. In May, the players association ranked the 50 players who are best positioned to become marketing stars. Gurley was No. 1.
Gurley's home stadium sits in the second-largest city in the United States. He plays a glamour position. His smile can light up a room. And he can flat-out ball.
"There hasn't been a running back like him since Adrian Peterson, in terms of taking the league by storm," said Rams executive vice president Kevin Demoff. "There is a uniqueness to Todd that is at its best when the lights are on. The talent, personality and position all come together in a unique formula to make a superstar."
Others see the same glitter in Gurley.
Gurley starred in a commercial recently with Jay Mohr. He did a photo shoot with a Microsoft Surface in a tent off the practice field. He also is a spokesman for Gatorade, Nike, Bose, Campbell's Chunky soup and EA Sports.
Dickerson had the same appeal. In fact, he still does. He pulls up to Rams training camp in a sleek Mercedes-Benz, part of his compensation for endorsing the luxury automobiles. He also is a spokesman for Lyft and Aramark and is finalizing endorsement deals with Nestle and DHL. He also does broadcasting work, including for CBS2 Los Angeles.
"Since the Rams are back in town, I feel like I'm a No. 1 draft pick all over again," Dickerson said.
Dickerson did not leave L.A. to a chorus of hosannas. Tired of his contract demands and complaining, the Rams traded him in his prime for three first-round picks, three second-round picks and two players. When he returned as a member of the Colts two years later, fans threw Monopoly money at him.
But time has a way of smoothing away the rough edges of harsh memories. With his trademark goggles, oversized white elbow pads, and taped wrists and forearms, the Dickerson who wore blue and yellow left an enduring image. Without another football hero to take Dickerson's place, L.A. has been turning its lonely eyes to him for a while now.
"I grew up going to Anaheim Stadium and watching Eric Dickerson," Demoff said. "I think Rams fans look at Dickerson and his era as the last great run of the Los Angeles Rams. So it's almost like Todd picks up where Eric left off."