“Let me close my office door,” Hagel says as he answers a phone call to discuss the fires. “It can be hard to hear all this for my officers and staff.” As the police chief, Hagel will be dealing with the aftermath of that terrible week in November for years. He will be buoyed by the community’s response, led by everyone’s new favorite football team. “I’m looking out at my floor now,” he says on Friday, 48 hours before the Super Bowl. “All our officers are wearing Rams jerseys. They have to take them off if they get an emergency call. I’m staring at gun-toting cops in Rams jerseys, because these are Rams families, and the Rams are our people.” He pauses, trying to contain his emotions. “They are rooting for L.A. like you can’t even imagine.”
‘The Rams Are Our People:’ How L.A.’s Team Lifted the Community After a Week of Tragedy
This story was originally published on Sports Illustrated.
The first call came in at 11:20 p.m. on Nov. 7. Shots fired. Borderline Bar & Grill. Tim Hagel, the Chief of Police in Thousand Oaks, Calif., hopped in his squad car and sped toward the scene. He didn’t anticipate anything unusual, maybe an angry customer firing a shot off in the parking lot. But as he pulled up, he says, “The immensity became clear. It’s been described as like a war zone. Wounded people everywhere. We had 90 people injured. Some serious. Some jumping off balconies to save their lives. Broken ankles and what not. It was surreal; almost apocalyptic.”
Students from Pepperdine and Cal Lutheran frequented Borderline, a popular bar known for its live country music shows and located four miles from the Rams’ temporary headquarters. Brian Hynes bought the place 10 years ago, hired security to take care of the riff-raff, cleaned the bar up, built out the crowds. He made everyone’s favorite bartender, Melissa Rackley, his general manager. She wasn’t supposed to work the bar that night, until another bartender called in sick. Had she not been behind the bar, she would been working in the front and would not have had time when the mass shooting started to gather seven customers and hide out in the attic, as gunshots exploded, interrupting the periods of silence down below. As Hynes pulled up, all he could see was smoke. “Scary,” he says.
Twelve people were killed in the shooting, including a Marine Corps veteran, a popular Sheriff Sergeant and a recent Cal Lutheran graduate who had sung in the school’s renowned choir and worked the front door at the bar. The police spent all night tending to the injured, setting up a triage area and a victims’ center where families could find out about their loved ones.
By 12:30 a.m., FBI agents from the surrounding areas started showing up, unprompted. “We can deliver a lot of resources,” one told Hagel. “All you have to do is say yes.” He did, without hesitation. By sunrise, there were 75 agents on the scene. Their day was just beginning. In the 35 years he has devoted to law enforcement, Hagel has lost track of the homicides and wildfires he was called to; he has dealt with a plane crash where everyone on board died, earthquakes and train derailments. He’d never seen anything like this, from the parking lot, as the sun crept over the clouds after the mass shooting. “You could literally see the flames and smoke rising in the east,” Hagel says. “It was apocalyptic.” There was no time to mourn. Two fires were headed their way, and the same officers who had dealt with the mass shooting climbed back in their cars, many with blood on their uniforms, and drove straight toward the blaze.
The Rams moved into their temporary digs in Thousand Oaks when they moved from St. Louis back to Los Angeles in 2016. They found a small but tight community, very unlike the Hollywood stereotypes, and the franchise immediately tried to ingratiate with the locals. Hynes, for one, hoped the team would boost local commerce. Plus, he loved Eric Dickerson and those glasses he wore while starring for the Rams. “When the shooting happened, you’d assume most people would want to run away from that,” he says. “Not deal with the negativity. The Rams stepped up.”
At the home of left tackle Andrew Whitworth, his wife, Melissa, watched the morning news shows relay details on the shooting. She immediately started crying. She had loved Thousand Oaks ever since they moved there and now she identified as a local. Her husband even coached a youth baseball team. Melissa had met Andrew when he still played for the Bengals, this mountain of man who had the softest heart. For years now, she had told friends the next season would be his last season, and yet here he was, at 37, in his second season with the Rams. On the flight to L.A. after signing in the spring of 2017, he had turned to his wife, knowing the Rams were young and probably years from contending, and said, “My dreams of winning a Super Bowl are over. I’m going to L.A. to rebuild that locker room and provide a veteran presence.” Melissa said nothing, thinking to herself, “That’s really sad.” But as general manager Les Snead retooled the roster the past two offseasons, she started to wonder. “They’re wanting to win now,” she says.
So what happened in the months that followed?