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The Weekend That Healed New York: Sports In The Aftermath Of Sept. 11

The Weekend That Healed New York: Sports In The Aftermath Of Sept. 11

Like the Kennedy Assassination in 1963 or the Challenger Disaster in 1986, there are those “Where were you?” moments that define us as Americans. No event, no day, is more deeply embedded in our collective psyche than Sept. 11, 2001. In particular, the destruction of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York City will forever be the before/after moment when the world changed forever.

The “after” was slow to develop. Despite the urging of the President, the Mayor of New York and other civic and cultural leaders, knowing when it was ok to get back to “normal” — what we did as Americans up until Sept. 10, 2001 — was a difficult process. For many, it was the sports world that offered the clearest guidance. Major League Baseball, after five days of respectful suspension resumed play on Monday, Sept. 17. The NHL resumed its preseason schedule that week, and college and NFL football returned the weekend of Sept. 22-23.

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But it was two events in particular that signaled to the world that America, and specifically New York, was healing and would go on. On Sept. 21, at Shea Stadium in New York, and on Sept. 23, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, the New York Mets and New York Giants played games and lifted spirits in a way sporting events had never done before.

Tiebreaker.com’s Brand Manager/Editor Jeff Goldberg and contributing writer John Altavilla were both sportswriters for the Hartford (Conn.) Courant in Sept. 2001. Altavilla, the beat writer for the New York Giants, was in Kansas City for the Giants’ first game back. Goldberg was at Shea Stadium to cover the first professional sporting event in New York City after the attacks.

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Together, they share their memories of the weekend when sports began the healing process for New York City, and the nation. Their story begins on the night of Sept. 10, in Denver, where the Giants took on the Broncos on Monday Night Football. It proved to be the last sporting event to ever take place in the “before.”

SEPT. 10

JOHN ALTAVILLA: On Monday night, Sept. 10, 2001, the defending NFC champion New York Giants began the regular season in Denver to help the Broncos open their new stadium, then known as Invesco Field at Mile High. I remember a festive evening, teeming with the pride and joy always associated with a grand civic ceremony such at this. I recall Bronco icons John Elway, Floyd Little and Steve Atwater being among those introduced to the crowd.

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I also remember how badly the Giants played, a 31-20 loss that started a 7-9 season that would end with Michael Strahan setting the NFL’s all-time sack record by basically falling on a complicit Brett Favre in a 35-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Giants Stadium. After writing my game story, I headed back to my hotel for a few hours of sleep before my 5:30 a.m. flight back to Hartford, which would connect in Cincinnati. The flight from Denver was normal with one major exception. There were no announcements from the cockpit.

Little did I know how the world was changing while we were in the air, while my wife was preparing my son for his first day of pre-school.

SEPT. 11

JEFF GOLDBERG: I was in a cab pulling up to the Southwest terminal at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas when my cab’s dispatcher shattered the sleepy silence in the car with a short burst, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

JA: When I deplaned in Cincinnati,  there was a crowd huddled before a television in a restaurant across the concourse. From the distance, I could see an image of smoke filtering from what I immediately identified as a tower of the World Trade Center. I suspected nothing more than an ordinary fire emergency soon to be settled.

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It wasn’t long before we all knew what exactly had happened. The airport announced that the government had ordered all flights grounded indefinitely. I got my bags, checked into an airport Marriott, watched television while having lunch at the bar, rented a car and made a 14-hour drive back to Connecticut the next morning. I would find out later how extraordinarily eerie the night and early morning had been for the Giants, as well.

JA: The team’s charter landed at Newark Airport in New Jersey around 6 on the morning of the 11th. The plane pulled into its gate. Next to it was a United jet, Flight 93, scheduled for an 8 a.m. departure to San Francisco.

Later in the week, Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi would somberly tell the writers that he remembered seeing the passengers sitting at the gate, preparing to board the plane.

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Among them obviously included the terrorists who hijacked it and crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa. When the Giants finally gathered at Giants Stadium later in the day, it was impossible for them not to see the smoke billowing over the horizon of lower Manhattan. After all, the stadium was just six miles from what would be soon called “Ground Zero.”

SEPT. 13-20

JA: Amid the grief, terror and mourning which ensued, the NFL had a difficult decision to make.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue initially wanted to keep the NFL’s schedule on track, using history as his precedent. Franklin Roosevelt ordered NFL games to be played on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941, hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Former NFL Pete Rozelle made a similar decision two days after John Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.

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However, Rozelle would later admit how he regretted coming to that conclusion,  one he made after consulting with JFK’s former press secretary, Pierre Sallinger. Sallinger convinced Rozelle the president would have wanted the games to be played.

Tagliabue immediately encountered opposition from the NFL’s Players Association. Even though many of the league’s owners wanted to play – as a sign of strength in the face of terrorism – the Giants, the New York Jets and Washington Redskins essentially refused.

I remember seeing Strahan on NFL Films: ‘We’re not playing and if you try to make us play, we just won’t show up. We’ll forfeit the game but we’re not going to be there. The Giants will not be there.’”

On Sept. 13, Tagliabue, after consulting with Giants owner Wellington Mara and Art Modell, owner of the Baltimore Ravens, announced that the games the following weekend would not be played.

Pro Football Weekly

That day, Mara, a beloved patriarch of the league, stood before the Giants writers.

“I’ve been reluctant to push my judgements on the league during all the phone calls,” Mara said. “I felt those judgement were flawed by looking out and seeing smoke coming from a World Trade Center that isn’t there anymore. I have always believed that when you get hit and it hurts, the last thing you want to do is let that guy know that he has hurt you. The answer to terrorism is not to fold your tent and go away. But in this case, humanitarianism outweighs all other considerations.”

Of course, by the time the Giants reported to practice on the 13th, it was also clear how the tragedy had impacted its own family.

The son of Dick Lynch, the former Giants cornerback and then their radio analyst, lost his son, Richard, 31, who was in the south tower where the second plane struck.

“We’ve been trying to find him for two days,” Lynch said. “We went to all the hospitals and exhausted every means of finding him.”

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Chris Mara, one of Wellington’s sons and a Giants senior vice president, lost four friends, including Billy Minardi, the brother-in-law of former Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino.

Some were luckier. After he became Giants coach in 2004, Tom Coughlin told us his family had spent almost an hour before finally contacting his son. Tim, who was working on the 60th floor of the south tower that morning.

JG: I watched the rest of the attacks unfold in the airport terminal, my flight home to Hartford cancelled. I spent the next five days back in the hotel room I had just checked out of – no one was coming to the city, obviously, and anyone able to rent a car had pretty much gotten out. Las Vegas had become a glitzy, neon ghost town.

Sports had brought me to Las Vegas that weekend before – to gamble on NFL Week 1 games, including the Giants-Broncos game on Monday night.

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I had also been in Vegas that weekend taking a final respite before starting my new job as UConn women’s basketball beat writer for the Courant. During the week after the attacks, essentially locked in my hotel room, staring at TV coverage, I spent several hours on the phone with Coach Geno Auriemma, tracking his movements and mining his thoughts for stories that ran in the Courant.

Auriemma had been in Denver when the attacks occurred. He was recruiting Ann Strother, a high school player of the year candidate, and was set to do a home visit on the 11th. As it happened, the Strother family welcomed Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey into their home as scheduled. They turned the TV off and tried to make the visit as normal as possible.

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It afforded them all a tiny respite from the tragedy overwhelming them and the rest of the nation. Strother would later cite the sensitivity and humanity of the visit as a factor in her decision to attend UConn. From Denver, Auriemma and Dailey drove to Los Angeles for another home visit scheduled with Willnett Crockett, who would also choose UConn.

Eight years later, for my book on the iconic 2001 Big East tournament final, “Bird at the Buzzer,” I would interview the other top women’s coach in 2001 – Notre Dame’s Muffett McGraw – about a very different 9/11 experience. McGraw, having coached the Irish past UConn to the 2001 national championship, was also planning a Los Angeles home visit with another player for that week in September, 2001. She would be heading there from Boston, and she was originally booked on Flight 175 the morning of the 11th.

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Just days before the fateful flight, McGraw’s assistant coach Kevin McGuff convinced her to change her travel plans. Instead, she flew to L.A. from Providence. She was not on the hijacked Flight 175 when it crashed into the South Tower. My interview with Coach McGraw in 2009, which was memorialized in the book’s epilogue, was her first-ever on-the-record re-telling of that harrowing day.

JA: In the days following the attacks, Giants players and officials were determined to help in any way they could.

The parking lot of Giants Stadium was used as a staging ground for goods and materials. Giants players combed the area to lend support. Some went to Jersey City to load trucks. Others went to the site itself to thank firefighters, policemen and rescue workers. Even Wellington Mara, who was 85 at the time, was there. The team eventually threw a party at Giants Stadium for the families of the victims.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Offensive lineman Lomas Brown, a huge, affable man, spoke passionately about the feelings of his teammates. “We went to ground zero, despite all of the adversity those people were facing,” Brown told the Giants writers. “From them to ask us how we were – how can you ignore that? You have to be motivated after something like that.”

Brown, only in his second season with the Giants and nearing the end of his 18-year NFL career, also told us how hard it would be hard for him to look at opponents in the same way he once had.

“You don’t look at the opposition like the enemy anymore,” Brown said. “We’ve seen the enemy. It showed up here last week.

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“The guys lined up across from you on the field are opponents,” Brown continued. “After you’re done battling, you approach him and shake his hand, make sure they are all right. You don’t do that with an enemy. The whole language of the sport takes on a new meaning now.”

SEPT. 21

JG: I finally returned to Connecticut on Saturday afternoon, the 15th – we sang the national anthem on the incredibly tense flight and gave the pilots and attendants a standing ovation – and within days I was given my newest assignment: Covering the first major sporting event in New York City, a Mets-Braves game at Shea Stadium, on Friday, Sept. 21.

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Courant sports columnist Jeff Jacobs and I drove to the stadium that Friday afternoon. Even in the mid-afternoon sun, as we approached the Whitestone Bridge into Queens, the plume of smoke still hovering over Ground Zero was plainly visible. Jeff and I could not wrap our stunned minds around the lack of the towers’ presence on the southern Manhattan skyline. It was really real. This had really happened.

Security at Shea Stadium was, as expected, overt and almost scary in it’s redundancy. No one who approached the stadium that night was immune from the thought of how inviting a target it was. Go to a stadium today, in 2018, and if you think the bag checks and metal detectors are thorough and obtrusive, you have no idea what it was like navigating the phalanx of security that night.

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But once inside Fortress Shea that night, you knew you were in the safest place on earth. As customary for a Major League Baseball game, the clubhouses opened 3½ hours before first pitch, and we talked to many of the key participants in what was essentially going to be a civic duty – the return of baseball to a city desperate for a distraction, a few hours to think about something — anything — other than the recovery efforts over in lower Manhattan.

Mike Piazza, who had embraced New York City as his home since being acquired by the Mets in 1997, was the player most of the media turned to. But I remember Mets manager Bobby Valentine was determined to keep every person he encountered as pumped up and positive as he possibly could. Valentine had been at Shea Stadium all week, the site re-purposed as a staging area for the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero.

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Always a positive person, always energetic, Valentine wanted to project as positive a posture as he could. He wanted his players, Mets fans and Americans watching on TV to see that he was not cowed by this tragedy, that through him, New York would prevail. That it was okay to enjoy baseball, to enjoy life, in the face of utter tragedy.

But the horror and sadness was everywhere. How could it not be? I remember talking to former Mets great Rusty Staub behind home plate. Staub, who had always been a beloved fan favorite for the Mets, was known as much for his pinch-hitting skills as his well-known charity, founded in 1985: The New York Police & Fire Widows’ & Children’s Benefit Fund.

Fire Engineering

Naturally, all media wanted to speak with Rusty, who would now, tragically, add over 400 names to his charity’s registry, the most stunning of numbers to come out of 9/11, with 343 firemen and 71 police officers killed while trying to rescue civilians before the towers collapsed.

Staub was brave and stoic as he fielded all questions and accepted heartfelt condolences. But the tears came easily to this proud man, and it was nearly impossible not to succumb to them ourselves.

Eventually, over the course of the evening, at one point or another, we all did.

For many, it seemed, it was the bagpipes that did it.

The Mets, the city and Major League Baseball put together a beautifully solemn, uplifting and respectful pregame ceremony that honored the fallen and buoyed the rest of us left to carry on their legacy. In center field, above the Jumbotron scoreboard, the Twin Towers were darkened on the outline of the New York skyline and covered with the red, white and blue ribbon that became the national symbol of remembrance.

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The players for both Mets and Braves wore hats of the FDNY, NYPD and other New York fire and police units. And surviving members of those agencies lined the outfield, many holding aloft an unfurled giant American flag. But it was the New York Police Department’s bagpipe troupe that emerged from behind the center field wall, playing God Bless America and The Caissons Go Rolling Along, that left all who witnessed the tableau awash in pride and flush with emotion.

Diana Ross sang “God Bless America” and Marc Anthony sang the National Anthem, before a group of first responders threw out ceremonial first pitches. Then the game began, and for the most part, it was as normal a game as any other. But it’s what happened in the late innings that defined the evening.

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At the seventh-inning stretch, Liza Minelli took the field with a small group of firefighters and policemen and cajoled them into doing a Rockettes can-can while she sang her classic, “New York, New York.” It was campy, it was a little silly, it was pure Liza and it was awesome. And for a couple minutes, we all felt a little goofy to have witnessed it. It definitely took our minds off things.

Then Mike Piazza took everyone’s minds off all the bad things with one swing.

Not that anyone really cared anymore, but the defending National League champion Mets were still trying to catch the Braves for the NL East title, trailing by 4 1/2 games with 14 still to play. It might have seemed inappropriate to say, with everything put into perspective, but the game was important for the Mets. They needed to win.

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But, of course, the real reason they needed to win this night was to lift the spirits of a shattered city. The score was tied 2-2 after seven innings, but the Braves pushed home a run in the top of the eighth for a 3-2 lead. So in the bottom of the eighth, with a man on first for the Mets, it fell to team leader Mike Piazza to come through.

Piazza lived in the city, grieved for his city, had cried on the first-base line during the bagpipes, and now he stood at the plate, facing a native New Yorker, Braves pitcher Steve Karsay. And after taking a strike on the first pitch, my god, Piazza did it. His blast to center field cleared the fence and gave the Mets a 4-3 lead.

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“I was glad to come through and give these people something to cheer for at last,” Piazza told the media after the game. “That’s why they came out, to be diverted from the sorrow and the loss. There was a lot of emotion. It was just a surreal sort of energy out there. I’m just so proud to be a part of it tonight. These people are great. New York has been so strong through all this.”

I have covered World Series championships, countless Final Fours, major events of all kinds in all sports. I have never witnessed a moment quite like Piazza rounding those bases, taking a curtain call, Shea Stadium absolutely erupting in joy, chanting “USA! USA!” It was the emphatic repudiation of everything awful that had befallen the city 10 days earlier. It was ok to cheer, even in the press box.

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In my story for the Courant that night, I wrote about how there had been healing for New York this night. I called Piazza’s home run an act of civic duty. What he did for New York that night became the crowning achievement of his career and assuredly got him elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was an honor richly deserved.

SEPT. 23

JA: Lomas Brown was right. By the time the NFL was ready to resume games on Sept. 23, the experience of being a fan had changed. Added security measures were instituted, particularly as it related to what fans and could no long carry into a stadium.

The Giants picked up the schedule in Kansas City. The day before, I took a Southwest flight to the city, admittedly a bit nervous about it all, but also understanding how my career depended on putting whatever fear about flying I had aside. I remember the plane being virtually empty.

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As the Giants prepared for the game, as they gave themselves the permission to move forward in their lives, some of them didn’t quite know what to expect. Greg Comella, a Stanford man who would later get his Masters degree at Harvard,  was the fullback who served as Tiki Barber’s lead blocker in 2001. He put the mood of the team into perspective.

“You tone will be somber. Your mood will be somber,” Comella said. “At some point, you’ll be reflecting on the tragedy. But hopefully, you will be able to focus on some of the good. Then you need to get into the game as quickly as possible. You can’t feel down. You can’t feel somber. Your awareness needs to be heightened. The one thing that is different about our sport is, every time you step on the field, you could die.’”

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Glenn Parker, a Giants offensive lineman who collected wines and enjoyed fine dining, seemed to instinctively understand how everything in the world would change.

“I don’t think the terrorist attack will have an effect on sports, but it will have an effect on the American psyche,” Parker said. “It won’t change what we do, but it might change venues. It will change the way we live and think for the next generation.”

There was a grand show of patriotism before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. The city’s firemen passed boots around the crowd of 76,000 asking for donations.

When the Giants took the field, they were greeted with thunderous applause, Kansas City’s way of expressing its grief and support.

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Years later, Tagliabue would tell Yahoo Sports what that gesture symbolized to him.

“When that crowd erupted with applause for the Giants as the opposing team appeared on the field, it was an incredible symbol of unity and an understanding of what happened in New York, that these football players were representing New York’s citizens,” Tagliabue said. “It was what you hoped for, and it was tremendous.

The Giants then went out and beat the Chiefs, 13-3.

“I wanted us to come out and play in a way that would make New York proud,” Giants quarterback Kerry Collins told us. “When I talked to the team on Saturday night, my message was simply to keep in mind what we’re playing for.

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“I asked my teammates to remember that Sundaywas our time, our chance, to go out and do something about it. Not in a sense of taking out or anger on anyone, but in a sense of playing with pride for all those still there working and all those who were lost.”

And finally, there was this from Giants linebacker Mike Barrow.

“We’re representing New York,” Barrow said. “The terrorists messed with the wrong city.”

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