The face of L.A. football

The Rams are back in Los Angeles.
The city is hungry for a star.
Enter Todd Gurley.

By Dan Pompei

Sept. 6, 2016

Bleacher Report

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.

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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."


Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images

Dickerson and Gurley have so much in common.

Both are big backs. Dickerson was listed at 6'3", 220 pounds, Gurley at 6'1", 227 pounds.

Dickerson was drafted second in 1983, Gurley 10th in 2015. Both provided an immediate wow factor. Dickerson set rookie records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, made the Pro Bowl and was voted Rookie of the Year. Gurley rushed for more yards in his first four starts than any player since the NFL-AFL merger (566), made the Pro Bowl and was voted Offensive Rookie of the Year.

They used to chant "Eric, Eric" in Dickerson's heyday at Anaheim Stadium. At Cal-Irvine for Rams training camp practices this summer, they chanted "Gurley, Gurley."

Both were track stars in high school. Dickerson was state champ in the 100-yard dash with a time of 9.4 seconds. Gurley finished second in the state with a 10.70 time in the 100-meter dash.

Dickerson led his high school football team to the Class AA Texas state championship in 1978; Gurley's high school team won the Class AA North Carolina state championship as a senior 33 years later.

Both are small-town guys, Gurley from Tarboro, North Carolina, and Dickerson from Sealy, Texas.

"The town I'm from, there were, like, 10,000 people," Gurley said. "It's all about football there. They close down the whole town on Fridays. Everybody knows everybody. L.A. will be different, a big change from where I'm from and even from St. Louis."

His new city has long been a destination for running backs. In the old days, the Rams had Crazy Legs Hirsch, Jon Arnett and Lawrence McCutcheon. The Raiders brought Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson to town. And then there is USC—Tailback U. Frank Gifford, Charles White, O.J. Simpson, Allen and Reggie Bush played there. All of them enjoyed the fruits of Los Angeles.

"It would be cool to take Kobe's place. But that would never happen."

— Todd Gurley

In the offseason, Gurley made an appearance in Hollywood and saw the Walk of Fame. But he's mostly low-keyed it. He has yet to wade into the water and taste the salt of the Pacific.

"I'd rather just stay in the house," Gurley said.

Dickerson initially tried to stay out of the spotlight as well, so he understands where Gurley is coming from. "I was really quiet my rookie year," he said. "I didn't want to be out much. I didn't want the media attention. It's the same thing with Todd. He just wants to play football and be himself. It's not about being a superstar. Todd is shy. You have to open him up a little, make him feel comfortable. That will come with winning and putting up numbers and playing like a star."

Gurley has passed on opportunities to do local television. The media is not his thing. You might say Gurley walks the walk without talking the talk.

For Gurley to ascend to the next level of stardom, as Kobe Bryant did, he may have to want it more than he does now.

"It would be cool to take Kobe's place," Gurley said. "But that would never happen. I don't really care about all that. I just want to play football, win some games. My goal is not to be the superstar in L.A. It's to play for the Rams, score touchdowns and try to win games."

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The future, past and present faces of L.A. sports—Todd Gurley, Eric Dickerson and Kobe Bryant—meet after a Lakers game in March (Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images).

Gurley said he is not worried about setting himself up for the L.A. life after his football career. It's understandable given that he is 22 years old and just embarking on his second NFL season. But the fact that he is represented by Jay Z's Roc Nation—the same company that reps Rihanna and Shakira—might say something about his long-range thinking.

Gurley doesn't have to look far to see opportunity.

The Los Angeles Rams helped Merlin Olsen become Father Murphy, Fred Dryer become Hunter and Rosey Grier become a variety show host. They paved the way for Glenn Davis to date Liz Taylor and for Bob Waterfield to marry Jane Russell.

This summer, Hard Knocks has been watching. E! is starting a series called Hollywood and Football that promises to delve into Rams' lives off the field.

"This city embraces stars," Dickerson said. "It is a city of stars. It's what L.A. is all about. If you are a superstar in L.A., you can be a superstar anywhere."

In his rookie season, Dickerson started frequenting a restaurant on the Sunset Strip, Nicky Blair's. One night he looked across the place and saw Clint Eastwood. Dickerson was too shy to approach Eastwood, but the owner of the restaurant told him Eastwood wanted to meet him.

"Clint Eastwood knew my name," he said. "You talk about being shocked. L.A. is L.A."

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Eric Dickerson in 1984 (David Madison / Getty Images).

There is another side to L.A., too. They call it the City of Angels, but the nickname ignores a darker reality.

"This is a city with a lot of temptations," Dickerson told Gurley. "I told him a lot of these girls are just as excited as you are. I'm just letting you know, be careful."

Luckily for the Rams, the Gurley they know is all football.

"Todd won't let this city be a distraction because football is a priority," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said. "He works hard after practice every day, like the great ones do. I'm not concerned about distractions."


Photo by Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images

Gurley visited Dickerson at Dickerson's L.A. home in the offseason. The two talked awhile in Dickerson's office, one with so much ahead of him, the other with so much behind. There were yesterdays to remember and tomorrows to look ahead to.

What was it like back in the day? Dickerson showed Gurley his Hall of Fame replica bust, his Rookie of the Year award, and his game balls and photos, including one taken when he met Walter Payton.

What lies ahead? Dickerson sees so much potential in Gurley. And he sees a little of himself in him, too.

"What I see in Todd that I had is how quick he hits the hole; he hits it full speed," Dickerson said. "That was my thing. I might have looked like I was gliding through it, but I hit it full speed. That's what makes a great back, to me. Todd has potential to be a great running back. I believe that wholeheartedly."

Some already think Gurley is the best running back in the NFL, and he still has room left to improve and polish his game.

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Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images

In Gurley's second season, Rams coaches are expanding his responsibilities and challenging him to do more. As a rookie, Gurley did not play much in passing situations, and that is changing. That means working on pass routes and blitz pickup.

"He didn't do a lot of it in college, but he's a natural catcher," said Rob Boras, Rams assistant head coach/offense. "He's learning about protections."

Gurley has enjoyed broadening his game.

"It's cool getting more involved in the passing game—better than having 11 guys coming straight at you when you are running the ball," he said. "You get to at least avoid a couple hits."

Throwing to Gurley will allow him to get near 25 touches a game without absorbing the violence of 25 runs. Gurley would like to keep his rushes in the 20-to-25-per-game range.

"Nobody wants to carry the ball 30 times a game," he said. "It's not the 1980s no more."

Gurley, though, is very prepared to pound.

"I feel I can play a lot better than I did this year when I can focus on football and not worry about my knee swelling up," he said. "Last year, I was focused more on my knee."

"Nobody wants to carry the ball 30 times a game. It's not the 1980s no more."

— Todd Gurley

This year, he has been focused on his entire lower body. He began a new workout routine in the offseason—legs every day.

"I never skip a leg day because I know how important it is for a running back," he said. "I used to hate doing legs until I messed my knee up. Now I know I need to do legs. Everybody says they hate leg day. That's my day."

He varies the leg routine day to day, mixing in squats, snatches, power cleans, single-leg box jumps, explosive running, hill workouts and sand workouts. And not surprisingly, his legs are feeling strong.

As powerful as Gurley is, Fisher wants him to save it for the regular season.

When Gurley got knocked to the ground by Rams defenders during a training camp practice, the head coach was not happy. Hard Knocks captured a subsequent staff meeting.

"So everybody understands defensively that 30 doesn't need to be f--king hit in the nine-on-seven [drill], OK?" Fisher said. "I don't want 30 tackled. We need 30. … We need to treat him like the fricking quarterback."

Yes, the quarterback. The Rams chose blond, handsome California boy Jared Goff first overall in the April draft. For the right to do so, they surrendered the 15th pick of the draft, their first-round pick next year, two second-round picks and two third-round picks. They also received a fourth-round pick and a sixth-round pick from the Titans in the deal.

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Todd Gurley and Jared Goff (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The convenient storyline was the Rams went all-in for Goff because their franchise needed a face for Los Angeles. The storyline ignored a couple of truths.

Truth No. 1: The Rams needed a quarterback more than they needed anything.

Truth No. 2: They already had a face.

That face—Gurley's face—should put a smile on Goff's frequently as the years pass. The running back's presence should make Goff's development a more manageable process. He can clear paths for the QB by attracting the attention of safeties, microphones and hangers-on.

Being the face of the L.A. Rams also entails being a leader. Gurley is growing in that regard. After Rams rookie receiver Michael Thomas dropped a couple of passes during one camp practice series, Gurley found him on the sideline, tapped him on the helmet and offered some words of encouragement.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he is voted a captain this year," Fisher said. "He relates so well with all the players, loves the defensive guys. They chitchat back and forth all day long. The defense knows what he is about. You see it in the huddle, too, the enthusiasm. Nothing about it is fake. It's real."

After one training camp practice, Gurley was the last player to make it to the locker room because he had put in overtime signing autographs. He has been trying hard to please Rams fans, like Dickerson told him he should.

"It's for the kids, really," Gurley said. "I want to make sure these kids remember this—when I was young, I went to the Rams camp and I got an autograph. That goes a long way."

Gurley is helping those kids discover football. And he's helping bring a franchise back to its roots.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @danpompei.