Gloomy skies above The Dome at America’s Center brought brisk winds.
Inside the “BattleDome” the scene looked premillennial, with dreary concrete facades surrounding two endzone video screens barely larger than Stan Kroenke’s iPad.
The home team didn’t exist six months ago, and players representing The Lou on Sunday hope to land elsewhere when the spring season ends.
Even so, no promotional giveaways were needed to lure the blue masses that gathered hours before the 3 p.m. kickoff.
XFL President Russ Brandon went for a morning jog and estimated 5,000 tailgaters were underway at 9 a.m.
“I’d like to know how they’re doing right now,” he said as the Battlehawks warmed-up nearby.
And when XFL Chairwoman Dany Garcia stepped to midfield and told 38,310 fans adorned in various stages of KaKaw that she was honored to be there, she received rousing applause.
In St. Louis, that’s all it takes.
Of course, winning helps, too.
A.J. McCarron threw for a pair of touchdowns and Brian Hill rushed for 89 yards and a score, as the Battlehawks whipped Arlington 24-11 in front of the largest crowd in XFL history.
“Just unbelievable to see the support the city of St. Louis came out with today,” McCarron said. “I said this at FanFest, at the Armory, it reminds me a ton of the passion and the fanbase at Alabama.”
There were plenty of cheers for the Battlehawks (3-1) and boos for the Renegades (2-2) and jeers for a certain NFL owner. But the mood was anxious right before McCarron delivered the decisive blow.
The ‘Hawks marched into Renegades’ territory looking to break a 3-3 tie before halftime, but precious seconds ticked away.
On 2nd-and-seven from Arlington’s 27-yard-line, McCarron flashed signals to wide receiver Darrius Shepherd while the game clock wound under 20 seconds and the crowd groaned.
Head coach Anthony Becht felt the angst, but he kept St. Louis’ timeouts in his pocket.
“We had a play, everybody was in my headset saying, ‘we got something’,” Becht said. “A.J. read it out well, we got the matchup we wanted.”
The loudest voice was offensive coordinator Bruce Gradkowski.
“Bruce put us in a formation, and then we kind of just read it from there,” McCarron said.
Shepherd – dubbed the “silent killer” by Becht – was on the same page, and he broke a corner route to the endzone that was wide open.
The Dome rattled.
Nelly’s 2001 hit Ride Wit Me blared over the speakers.
Cardinals’ legend Ozzie Smith joined in the celebration – it was St. Louis nirvana.
Hill made a leap for the pylon reminiscent of the Wizard to convert the 2-point play, and the Battlehawks led 11-3 at intermission.
The teams traded punts to open the third quarter. Then the Battlehawks’ engine from Belleville West High School took over.
McCarron found Hill for a 20-yard catch-and-run to move into striking distance. Hill scored two plays later, dashing to paydirt from 15-yards out and crawling on the faded endzone carpet in jubilation.
“Hey! Must be the money!” sang the KaKaw faithful and St. Louis led 17-3.
Hill added two catches for 26 yards and finished with 115 total yards.
“Excellent job by B. Hill, almost five yards a carry,” Becht said afterwards. “I knew coming home, I think he had to get like 50 tickets, so hopefully he wasn’t playing for free today. I love his attitude, he’s a guy that just plays hard every single snap.”
Renegades’ head coach Bob Stoops agreed.
“Good strong back,” Stoops said. “We’d hit him at the line of scrimmage, he’d get like 5, 6, 7, yards – just a strong, strong running back.”
The ‘Hawks defense intercepted Renegades’ quarterback Kyle Sloter three times and held Arlington to 240 total yards.
But Sloter connected with Caleb Vander Esch for 41 yards on the last play of the third quarter, and Arlington scored on De’Veon Smith’s 1-yard plunge early in the final period. Arlington scored the 2-pointer to cut the ‘Hawks lead to six.
St. Louis’ response was immediate.
McCarron hooked-up with Hakeem Butler for a 25-yard strike, Butler’s fourth touchdown of the season. Jake Sutherland caught the 1-point play and STL replenished its lead, 24-11.
The crowd was a factor early and often.
Arlington moved into STL territory on the game’s opening drive but called timeout when noise disrupted the cadence on 3rd-and-six.
STL fans didn’t rest – they used the break to voice their opinion of Kroenke – and the Dome erupted when Travis Feeney and Mike Rose stuffed Renegades’ running back Adrian Killins on fourth down.
Hill went to work on St. Louis’ first drive, rushing four times for 34 yards to set up Donny Hageman’s 27-yard field goal.
St. Louis hosts the D.C Defenders (4-0) on Saturday night in a rematch of a testy affair from two weeks ago.
Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505