Being Ram Man, or The Construction Of A Superfan

Karl Sides is a human and a St. Louis Rams fan. He is also a heavily costumed superfan named Ram Man, which is something different.
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At its highest level—not just fans wearing dry-cleaned jerseys to games but the brand-building superfans in greasepaint and foam rubber and such—NFL fandom is brutal, almost Hobbesian, and both trivial-seeming and wildly grandiose. Passion is difficult to measure in any objective way, and no one keeps track of JumboTron Appearances Per Game; the higher levels of fandom teem with minor skirmishes over status claims. A man on Facebook has been calling himself the Official St. Louis Rams Superfan, which is of course his right, even if it’s tough to see what he’ll get out of it. But it doesn’t sit well with Karl Sides, who was inducted into the now-defunct VISA Hall of Fans as Ram Man in 2004.

“If he has to tell you he is, he’s not,” Karl says. “He’s just a Ram fan. And that’s fine. He thinks he’s a Superfan. That’s good. You’re all about it. In your world you probably are.”

Informal status, the kind conferred through Facebook friendships with Danny Amendola and Dens Converted Into Memorabilia Shrines, is not enough. Legitimacy, in superfandom as elsewhere, largely flows through institutions: the Rams organization put Karl’s image on a ticket. His paint-gilded face has been featured on websites and other promotional pipelines. It’s tough to say that any superfan achieves “official” status, but Karl Sides certainly seems to have come close; he has built a brand and cultivated an image and achieved a strange sort of acclaim.

***

On game days, the six-foot-four Karl is a spectacle. Dark sunglasses turn his eyes into black holes; some kids have cried. But Ram Man isn’t the crazed zealot his visage implies he might be. To ensure he’s a good role model, he doesn’t drink during games. He gives to charity. He soberly observes that the team is at least a year away from serious contention.

His fierce image belies the friendly, welcoming personality of a 49-year-old father and grandfather who holds his wife’s hand as he walks across the stadium parking lot. The dichotomy is key to Karl’s success—Superfans are propped up by the images they create for themselves. It is a case of survival of the fittest: Diehards without brands remain anonymous nerve centers within the crowd.

Propagating a successful image is partially accomplished through bringing an air of professionalism to what is usually a casual pursuit. Karl disseminates trading cards to kids, which double as a kind of business card. He is affiliated with an organization. Before a Rams game against the Packers last October, Karl’s tailgate was full of Packers fans adorned with cheese-artifacts. All that cheese was welcome at a Rams tailgate because Karl’s organization, the Pro Football Ultimate Fan Association (PFUFA) devotes itself to fellowship.

Karl’s tailgate has an impressive visual density of Rams iconography, down to the micro-level of one guest’s branded band-aid. Rams heads are omnipresent in this world, one populated only NFL Sundays by fan colonies spread over acres of parking lot, long lines snaking towards groaning port-o-potties. These accoutrements of an identity are undergirded by real feeling. While Karl reminisced about the New England Patriots’ drive that ended in an excruciating Superbowl XXXVI loss for St. Louis, the muscles in his face clenched, even ten years later.

“He cheated. I hate New England,” Karl said, referring to Bill Belichick as if the Patriots coach were the platonic “he.”

Being a Superfan doesn’t pay—Karl’s paying job is as a network coordinator for a transportation services company—but his identity is not restricted to a sliver of the week. Whereas his neighbor has a wreath of flowers displayed on her door, RAM MAN is engraved into Karl’s golden doorknocker. His goal in life, he says, is improving football for the masses. His normal conversation is studded with intensities like, “There is no offseason.”

***

“There goes Ram Dude,” some guessed.

“Look at Super Ram,” others speculated.

When Karl Sides and Dave King were starting out as Ram Man and King Ram in 1995, both of their costumes featured capes.

“We were like the Bobbsey Twins,” Karl recalled.

The two friends were trying to distinguish themselves from thousands of other fans, but they couldn’t even distinguish themselves from each other. Then Karl subtracted the cape from his outfit even though The Caped Crusader—Batman—had inspired his persona. He built up his brand through radio appearances and pregame spots pumping up the crowd. And then he just stuck with it.

Other aspirants have had trouble fastening themselves to a single identity. A fan named Charlene changes her nickname like she changes shoes, Karl said. She has cycled through Superchar, Charfar, Superfan Char and most recently, Rampage Mom.

“She’s all over the place. This has all been within three years—she’s changed four times. So nobody knows who she is.”

Becoming a recognized Superfan can be fraught with relatively absurd difficulties. One Sunday, Vince Vitale, a senior security analyst in Ram Man’s tailgate, looked a little too much like Jason Voorhees. He stood outside the Edward Jones Dome in his new costume, painted mask strapped across his face.

Vince, who has evolved into the merrier STL Vinny, wanted to show how much he loved the St. Louis Rams. Mostly though, the white oval punctured with small holes evoked the gruesome serial-murdering lead from Friday the 13th.

Security turned him away in spite of his ticket.

***

Egos tend to inflate in the murky territory that divides the average fan and the iconic fan. At its worst, “Fans who think they’re the shit,” as Karl puts it, reign over delusional, Lilliputian empires. The closing of the Visa Hall of Fans was a substantial blow to some Superfans who haven’t been able to let go of the validation it provided.

Every game, fans ask Karl to take a picture anywhere from fifty to two hundred times. That can go to your head, he acknowledged. At one point before the game, Superfan Darth Packer mentioned that everyone should experience Lambeau field at least once.

“I’ve been twice,” Karl said.

But he tries to keep himself grounded.

“People come up to us all the time, ‘we want your autograph,’ ‘we want your picture,’ ‘you’re a celebrity,’ ‘you’re a St. Louis celebrity.’ I’m not a celebrity. I don’t want to be a celebrity. I don’t think of myself as a celebrity. I actually think of myself as a goofy idiot who dresses up and goes to football games.”

Karl used to be someone who was on the field rather than in the stands. A linebacker in high school, he’d smash his large frame into running backs. As a wrestler, he’d strong-arm opponents onto their backs. “Everything was physical. I’d love to pound people. That’s how I grew up.”

In water polo, Karl’s opponents sharpened their toenails into little knives—he’d emerge bloody from the water. He loved it. All these years later, sometimes he misses that intense species of physicality. Now it gets channeled into things like cheering and high-fiving.

“We want to be on the field with them. We can’t do it, but we can sure do it with our voices,” he said in an online Fan Files clip.

Yet being Ram Man edges him as far across that threshold as perhaps anyone. He has his own trading card and his own jersey. He has his own fans that ask him for autographs and pictures. As Ram Man, he exists somewhere in the space between the stands and the field.

Conversely, there’s no mistaking Rampage, the Rams mascot, for anything else: He is pure symbol, his face hidden beneath his costume. He isn’t supposed to reveal his identity to fans because the team wants him to serve as an absolute.

It’s not as black and white for Karl, who takes an hour to transform into Ram Man. The persona has a peculiar effect. People around him become more extreme as he becomes less extreme, dimming and receding into his self-identified role as an ambassador of fandom.  “I can’t be myself when I’m Ram Man,” he says. “Someone cuts you off on the highway, and you yell. I can’t do that. You have an image to uphold.”

Others are emboldened. Old ladies grab his ass. On the back of his trading card, a yellow italicized “Ram Man” dwarfs a parenthesized “Karl Sides.”

In the middle of the tailgate, someone wearing a jersey walked over to him.

“What’s your name?” the guy asked.

“Ram Man,” he said, gesturing to the back of his jersey.

“No, what’s your real name?”


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