Monday, September 11, 2006

The NFL and America: A 9/11 Tribute

Note: Pardon the gravity. We'll be back this afternoon tonight with funny stuff.

I. Everyone remembers where they were

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was a United States Marine stationed at Twentynine Palms, California. When I woke up, my roommate had the TV on. "They crashed planes into the Twin Towers," he said. I had just woken up; I couldn't understand such a notion. But then, nobody understood.

I got in my car and drove the long dirt road down from our house high on a ridge overlooking the Spartan Mojave base where we worked, listening to the musicless radio, numb, disbelieving. When I arrived at the battalion's scarlet-and-gold cinder block offices, I made my way to the Intel shop -- the S-2 officer was the only one in our unit who rated a television set. A crowd of officers and senior NCOs stood around the TV, absorbing the images. Occasionally someone said, "Fuck."

Then the towers fell. More people said "Fuck."

Not long after, Major Slaughter, the aptly named Battalion XO, entered the room. He was a tall man with frosty blue eyes and dark hair speckled with silver, and his massive daily consumption of coffee and Ripped Fuel was terrifying and dangerous. For us. Nobody wanted to be near him when the vein in his temple was throbbing, which was always.

He filled the doorway and loomed over us, hands on his hips. He looked around the room with a faraway look, as if he were trying to determine the source of a faint scent, like leaves burning in autumn or a Memorial Day barbecue. He seemed unimpressed with the goings-on in New York and D.C., as if 110-story skyscrapers crashing to earth in avalanches of steel were something as commonplace as a crow on the side of the road. Then he spoke.

"Get back to work," he said.

II. What the NFL means to America

For a week, the terrorists stopped football. The NFL played no games on the Sunday after the attack, and major league baseball and college football followed suit, cancelling a wide slate of games. Grown men playing sports seemed less appealing when people were buried under rubble on television.

I had to look that up to make sure my memory was correct: I have a hard time believing that anything ever stopped the NFL during its present incarnation as the juggernaut of the American sporting landscape. Just what is it that makes the NFL so popular? Many point to the so-called age of parity, the widespread appeal of fantasy leagues, DirecTV's NFL Sunday ticket, Tagliabue's rock-solid leadership, and a host of other worthy factors.

But I think we love the NFL because it resonates with us at a deeper level. To wit:

  • At a time when the United States stands alone as the world's sole remaining superpower, American football is played almost nowhere else in the world. Americans, like the NFL, remain a violent, unsolved curiosity to foreigners.

  • The NFL has taken huge strides to battle race discrimination, but there's a lot more anger under the surface than we like to acknowledge, and a long way to go before racism is no longer a problem. Sounds like a country I live in.

  • No other team sport provides the raw violence of the NFL, and no other country has a thirst for violence in its entertainment like America.

  • The only high-profile sports star to serve in the military since 9/11 remains Pat Tillman. Sadly, the narrative arc of the fallout from his death has striking parallels to America's war on terrorism. Following Tillman's death in Afghanistan, he was celebrated for dying heroically in a firefight with the enemy. Only later did we learn that the government had lied about its own failure. A sadly American story.

  • The world is full of great countries and great sports leagues. The USA and the NFL are the best of both, and any argument otherwise is being made by a foreigner or a twentysomething know-it-all with more Zinn and Chomsky than life experience.

  • I can't be sure of the veracity of a metaphor that works too hard to fit the NFL into America's odd jigsaw, but I want it to be true. We -- NFL fans -- pour too much of our time, hopes, and thoughts for the League not to have a deeper meaning. NFL fanhood is too emotionally draining to be merely a distraction from life's slow grind. I like it better when I think it makes me a more qualified American.

    III. A brief conclusion

    I can't tell you how to properly honor the victims of 9/11, but I'll tell you how I'm going to do it. I'm going to revisit that day in my memory, think about the frantic calls to I made to everyone I knew in New York. I'm going to remember the tragedy the way it was, before the invasion of Iraq chipped away at our perspective. I'll probably even spend some time watching other people's reactions to 9/11. After all, the surreal nightmare of that day was something that stopped a roomful of Marines from working, and it was enough for the NFL to take a week off as the nation mourned.

    Then, when I've given the subject a fair remembrance, I'm going to once again heed Major Slaughter's advice and get back to work. These football jokes aren't going to write themselves.

    If we can get through Bon Jovi singing "America the Beautiful," we can get through anything


    Mike Terrill said...

    That was a nice tribute, CC. I was in my dorm room at college, waking up and getting breakfast. I heard something was going on in NYC while I was showering and getting dressed, but thought nothing about it. Then 5 minutes later, when I walked into the cafeteria to get breakfast, I saw the second plane go into the Towers. When I saw it I thought, "Who could do such a thing like this?" It's one day I will never forget.

    Unsilent Majority said...

    I was in the lobby of a science building after logic class at Pitt when a (rather attractive) young lady told me that classes had been cancelled. Still rather confused I walked back along the now empty streets to my dorm. The first thing I did when I walked in was open my laptop, immediately loaded up (I was young and foolish) and the tragic events filled the screen.

    EPS said...

    I was sitting at my desk at work, when the phone rang and the other end said a plane hit the the first tower. Then we got a call about the second tower.

    I left work for my afternoon classes and found out that they were canceled. The rest of the day continued to be a haze.

    Nice tribute Capt.

    Paul Rinkes said...

    my fiancée and i flew out of pittsburgh into chicago the morning before; i didn't like it -- i still don't care for flying -- and i wasn't shy about letting her know it.

    the next morning i was getting ready to go see a client, downtown in the loop, when the WGN morning news broke in with scenes of black smoke billowing out of one of the towers. the anchor said some sort of plane had hit the tower. their feed came from CNN.

    i called my fiancée, told her to turn on channel 9, and said "this is why i don't like to fly. things like this happen."

    we were talking on the phone, and she had turned to ABC, when i saw what i thought was flame from the first explosion somehow "leap over" to the other tower.

    but on the other end of the phone, i heard a gasp. then a scream. she saw it happen live.

    i know, it's nothing nearly as dramatic or personable as being in NYC or DC, but it's where i was.

    Rob I said...

    Five years ago I woke up and went to put on Regis but channel 7 in New York was all static. That's how I knew the terrorists had (temporarily) won.

    BTW That was even better than Boyz II Men singing "America the Beautiful" before the U.S. Open yesterday. Who knew they were still alive?

    BoSox Siobhan said...

    On the DC Beltway, stuck in the ever-present traffic. I looked over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and saw smoke billwoing from the Pentagon. At the time, there were rumors that the White House and Capitol has been hit. I don't remember much except for trying vainly to get in touch with all my friends in New York. Everyone I knew in DC and NY was fine, thank God.
    Well done, CC. Thanks. Now I'm gonna get back to work.

    Anonymous said...

    I was safely tucked away in the library when the radio cut out to the announcements and every damn website in the world crashed due to the traffic. A few lucky phone calls to my sister made sure that everyone I knew in NYC was OK.

    A.T. Bianchi said...

    I was a sophomore in high school and I remember overhearing the upperclassmen say things like "under attack" and "war." I assumed they were talking about something from a history class or some international event. It never crossed my mind that something had happened in America. Then I went to my next class and saw the TV.

    Otto Man said...

    Well, as a New Yorker, I had the pleasure of seeing a lot of the day's events and its lingering aftermath up close and personal. Lower Manhattan was unliveable for weeks after the attack, and as it turns out, a lot longer than the Bush EPA told us. On the plus side, I know what hell will smell like.

    Hard to believe it's been five years. I still catch myself looking south and expecting to see the towers.

    Nice post, CC. And thanks for your service.

    Unknown said...

    Nice write up CC.
    When I was in the Marine Corps it was the barracks in Beruit coming down. Unimaginable. You just remember that stuff.
    ON 9/11, I was in my cube in the basement of our state building. I remember the traffic on the network as everyone was trying to find information on the happenings in NYC. They sent us home at 10:00am. I spent the rest of the day wondering...
    Semper Fi CC.

    PhilCatelinet said...

    I live in NYC, and at the time lived in Greenwich Village. I was walking home from the gym when I saw people on the sidewalk pointing up at something, and I crossed Sixth Ave. and saw the first tower was on fire. My office was and is still across the street from the WTC, so I called my mom to tell her that I was OK and I hadn't left for work yet. I watched everything on TV while I got ready for work. But my building got evacuated, so instead of going to work I spent my day sitting at home and trying to let my friends and family know I was OK.

    3 months later, my office reopened downtown. Every day I look at that giant hole in the ground and think about what used to be there.

    Unsilent Majority said...

    hoff needs an apartment with thicker walls

    D-Rock said...

    Nice words CC, thank you for your service man, it's appreciated by all.

    I was in my first year of college and getting ready for my early class. I remember flipping on sportscenter before heading out and seeing the first tower on fire. I sat back in a daze. Then the second tower was hit. Then the news about DC. I remember thinking that it had to be a joke, or a movie or something. I called my buddy who works a block from the Pentagon but his phone was busy for most of the day. It's really weird to think that it happened 5 years ago. It almost seems like it was both yesterday and forever ago.

    Back to work guys, give me a funny breakdown of how god awful my Browns are.

    Anonymous said...

    I was out of work and usually slept till 11am or so, waking up in time to catch the final SportsCenter re-run from the night before. For no good reason, I woke up that morning at 8:30am, wide awake. It must have been because the weather outside was cool, without humidity, for one of the first times in weeks.

    I flipped on the bedroom TV and saw smoke in the first tower. Called my girlfriend who works on Wall Street and asked her whether she saw it. She said there was paper just flying through the air and a buring smell. I said something about it looked like a Cessna had hit it -- the gash on the WTC's facade looked so small -- and hung up.

    Minutes later, the second plane. I ran to Fort Greene Park and watched the towers burn. Then crumble to the ground.

    Spent the rest of the day chain-smoking cigarettes and trying to get through both on email (still had dial-up, and couldn't log on) and cell phone to check on friends.

    Oddly enough, that night I and some friends went to a local bar, Frank's Lounge, and it was one of the biggest parties I'd ever seen. People were drinking and dancing like it was New Year's Eve, but no one was smiling.

    Well done tribute, CC. Thanks for posting it.

    Anonymous said...

    Having arrived in DC about three weeks earlier, I came out of Civ Pro to see the lobby of the law school full of people watching the first tower burn. The closed-captioning was pure A()U#$+_>}>##$_+_+_W$@ type gibberish -- so surreal, I could only laugh in shock. None of my NY friends' cell phones were working, so I spent the rest of the morning in the student lounge watching the horror unfold. When they sent everyone home, I wondered how long it would be before I went a whole day without hearing about that morning.

    I tried to give blood, but all the blood banks in the area were overwhelmed. I also remember thinking that we need to reach out to brown people, because it was clear that the retaliation would be scattershot and furious.

    Funny, having watched people jump out of New York's tallest structures and seen a wedge removed from the world's largest office building, I don't remember giving a flying fuck about the NFL.

    Anonymous said...

    If you're stumped for a way to commemorate the day, you could do worse than taking the F to Farrell's in Windsor Terrace, getting a frothy Bud in a giant styrofoam cup, and listening to the cops and firemen tell stories.

    Unknown said...

    Very nice tribute. I was in Cali also, SoCal. No one told us to go back to work, infact, the boss said we could go home if we wanted, he didn't think much work would get done.

    He was right.

    Anonymous said...

    I was driving on I-95 heading towards Charleston, SC and listening to everything on the radio. When the planes hit the Pentagon and the field in PA, all I could do was keep an eye on the sky to make sure planes weren't going to drop all over the US. Never been more terrified in my life, and I doubt I ever will.

    Thanks for your service CC, and thank you for the post.
    God Bless America.

    Anonymous said...

    I was still in bed (California) when my dad called to let me know. Fall classes hadn't started yet, so I spent the rest of the day/week watching the news at home/work.

    Even though it's only been 5 years, it seems like it happened a lifetime ago.

    Unsilent Majority said...

    anonymous posters are the most courageous.

    nothing really seemed back to "normal" until Rudy and a collection of NYC's Finest and Bravest reopened Saturday Night Live.

    Lorne: So we're allowed to be funny?
    Rudy: Why start now.

    Otto Man said...

    Yeah, that SNL moment was pretty nice. I never really liked Rudy until he demonstrated some actual leadership on 9/11. (Unlike most others.)

    I remember a week after 9/11, my now-wife and I were walking across 6th Ave. and saw a cabbie scream profanities at a bike messenger in a crosswalk, and get the finger in return. I turned to my lady and said, only half kidding, "You know what, baby? I think we're gonna be alllllright."

    Anonymous said...

    I was in the middle of Nowhere, USA. Remembering that I was no where near harms way connects me to the horror felt by real terror targets thousands of miles away.

    Now, the government gives me money to protect the annual Blueberry Festival on old Route 34A... and the New York fire department still doesn't have working radios.

    Paul said...

    Nice post.

    At the time I was working in Milwaukee. I was getting ready for work, listening to the local knuckleheads talk sports on the radio when the sports guy (Czaban, btw for you DC people) asked them did you see that a plane flew into the WTC. The Bob n' Brian replied they did, it was old news. Czaban said rather forcefully ANOTHER plane had flown into the WTC. I was driving into work when the Pentagon was hit (misreported by the idiot Mancow). From there on out it was non-stop radio and TV coverage for the rest of the week.

    There are a couple of things I remember most about it. I can still recall the blueness of the sky that day and seeing the planes flying into the airport while driving into work. I remember the surrealness of not having any airplanes flying, especially at night, and then wondering why a plane was flying in the 3 days after . I remember driving around that night and seeing people on corners holding vigils and waving flags and thinking if this were another country, would there be curfews or worse.

    The Dar said...

    I was watching a 9/11 documentary the other day and found myself watching the images as if I was seeing them for the first time again. No matter how many times I see them, there is the same shocking, visceral reaction. I can't believe it actually happened.

    If you think about the fact that the NFL's popularity really spiked during the Cold War, your analogy becomes that much stronger. A great read!

    Brian said...

    I was at work. Just called a buddy of mine about lunch and he asked if I'd heard that a plane had hit one of the twin towers. Jumped on the various news sites, and the web started coming to a crawl. Someone nearby had a radio and we gathered around.

    I left work soon after. I work in DC, but I never felt like I was in any danger. I just needed--I just needed to be with my wife and kids. To know we were all OK together, ya know? I guess today I feel a little the same way...

    Unsilent Majority said...

    I imagine tonight's pregame ceremony will be inspired. i just hope the traffic doesn't keep me from seeing it.

    Anonymous said...

    I was heading to the Chicago Loop, trapped by our awful rush hour traffic, chatting away with my now-wife. We heard over CBS radio that a small plane had crashed into the WTC. I actually laughed, because a B-52 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building. I said, "geez, they need some air traffic guys over there. NYC has no luck with this stuff."

    Boy, what an effin jerk I was.

    Then the second plane hit, and I said, "We're under attack." I dropped my wife off and headed towards the Loop via the L. A woman was running up the train ramp, saying "They're throwing themselves out of the Towers." She was a mess crying.

    The Sears Tower was about 2 miles away, and I was petrified just to look at it. I got on the L, and it was totally silent.

    Got to work, and that's when the Pentagon was hit. I had a new boss that day, and I said "Jeff, I'm going home." He said "me too."

    I was 2 blocks from the Sears, and all of the employees were instructed to take their CPUs with me. I went down LaSalle, and police were pouring into government buildings with rifles.

    I still think about it. I always will, and firefighters became an inspiration to me. Thanks.

    Anonymous said...

    Very well done. Couldn't have said it better.

    I was at the U of South Carolina, just skipping music appreciation to get in some quality video game time, when I heard someone sprinting around the hall, beating down doors and yelling at us to turn on our tvs (I later found out it was our RA). I did so, and stumbled out of my room in disbelief. It was in another room on the hall that I saw the second plane hit. The guy I bought chronic from immediately asked who was ready for war. I tried to make sure my friends in MD were okay, but couldn't until very late that night. I distinctly remember the entire hall trying to comfort a fellow who's mother worked either in or very near the towers. Two days later, we found out that she had gone out of town that very day, and was fine.

    Anonymous said...

    Since we are sharing-

    I'm in Chicago and was driving to work when local radio station said a Cesna hit one of the buildings.

    So I was near my sisters house and turned on CNN to hear the interview and the guy starting screaming "Here comes another one!!" and bam the second plane hit on tv.

    So sad and terrible. I grew up in the 70's and 80's and we were raised on the fear of nuclear war with the Soviets doing "tornado drills" in class to get under our desks when sirens went off.

    God bless those who lost their lifes, and keep the faith to those New Yorkers living there today.

    Anonymous said...

    That was an extremely well written tribute...I was in college in Indianapolis, Butler University, and was waking up to go to class when I turned on the TV to hear a plane lost it's course and crashed into the firt tower. Only a few minutes later I saw the 2nd tower get hit live and I remember calling anyone and everyone who I knew in NYC. A family friend narrowly escaped the devastation by going down the street for some overpriced coffee that morning. You want to talk about every emotion possible from disbelief to hate and everything in between. Once again, amazing tribute and I will never forget...

    Anonymous said...

    I was hungover in bed after watching the GMEN on Monday NIght Football. When I saw the TV I thought it was a movie. Then my old man called crying b/c my uncle was on the 104th floor.Very sad day.

    Anonymous said...

    I'm from New York and had an internship on Murray St. (4 blocks away from WTC) that summer but I was in my dorm room in Boston. I got up early (for a college student) to finish some homework and get the final score of the Giants-Broncos MNF game which I had missed. Skipped class and spent the next hour in the chapel praying my mother (who worked on Park Pl. (3 blocks away, used the WTC train station and got coffee in the shop in the basement of WTC) was still alive. Spent 5 hours bouncing off the walls of my dorm room waiting for a call until some friends from NYC came to distract me. Finally found out at 5 that my mother had taken the day off (an extremely rare occurrence.)

    To his day, I will never forget the loss by the Giants tothe Broncos from the night before because of how insignificant it seemed the day after.

    Anonymous said...

    I live on Long Island and work down the street from the tower site now. I had a late appt that morning, so I took a later train in. I got to watch the whole thing from a train window with an almost surreal quality. Those of us who were there before and after will never forget it, and it is nice to know that others are thinking. Most of us in this area lost people special to us that day, and the relief of re-connecting with our families that night is somthing I will never forget. That being said "GO BIG BLUE"

    JMW said...

    Walked into my midtown office and saw several people gathered around a TV in a colleague's office, all looking upset. We watched for a while, and then all dispersed. My girlfriend ran up from her downtown office and we had lunch at a diner (it was too surreal for us to have lost our appetites at that point; I think we literally weren't registering it). Then we walked through Central Park for a while, wondering how we would get home to Brooklyn (and wondering if the fighter jets screaming overhead were ours or someone else's; it's easy to forget how unclear things were). We ended up staying at the home of a friend's father in Manhattan. Strangest, saddest day of my life.

    Anonymous said...

    Don't know if other NYC residents feel this way, but the greatest lasting effect 9/11/01 has on me today is that seeing an airplane flying directly over Manhattan still freaks me out.

    Anonymous said...

    As a native New Yorker, I do get slightly uneasy whenever I see a plane a little closer than you'd normally expect.

    I was up at college, resting before the second day of fall baseball practice when my phone rang. My sister was four blocks away, in her first week as a freshman at Stuyvesant High School.

    I couldn't get through on the phones. I found out she alright when the broadcast said so.

    Baseball practice was optional and offered only because nobody knew what to do otherwise. I practiced - it was the only time all day I felt that I could see straight.

    Anonymous said...

    Several of the major airports in Southern California bring planes in for landing directly over the freeway. Every once in a while I will be on the road when a jet flies less than 1000 feet overhead. You'd think after five years the association would fade when that happens, but I still think of 9/11.

    Anonymous said...

    Caveman, no need to show that photo at the top of the post. Nice work, though.

    Anonymous said...

    I brushed my teeth. The news was on. One plane had hit. They said it was an accident. I left for work. The world changed in the time it took to walk to the office.

    Anonymous said...

    The comment above has a time stamp of 7:26. For some reason, I will always remember that that was the time (7:26 am, Pacific) I woke up and turned on the TV. The today show wasn't making any sense, with a long-lens shot of some office tower, and a bunch of captions from more than one source superimposed on the image. Two minutes later, I had only just figured out that it was not an LA skyscraper on fire when it fell. Shortly thereafter, the reality that both buildings were gone finally sunk in.

    I work in a tall building. After another hour of watching the TV from bed, stunned, I called into work letting them know I would stay home. It was the first time in my life that I was worried about the safety of myself or my family, and going to work in an office tower near an airport was the wrong thing for me to do that day.

    Anonymous said...

    I worked on a trading floor--so we had TV, all the time. I walked in that morning and asked everybody "Did you see the Ed McCaffrey play last night where he broke his leg?" Within the next hour and a half that was the furthest thing from my mind--

    Anyone who works in the financial industry on the East Coast knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who survived or was a victim of Sept 11. A friend of mine from Eurobrokers walked down 84 flights of stairs and made it out, and another friend's brother had just retired as a Manhattan firefighter but went into the city from Long Island to help his brothers and the people in need. I myself had been in the WTC a couple of years before--going up to the 102nd floor, I was truly frightened going up in the elevator and looking out those windows at that panoramic vista--that morning of Sept 11, I thought back to that day, and imagined seeing a plane flying toward me, and got sick.

    My recollections mean nothing compared to the suffering and sacrifice suffered that day--but know, my friends and fellow Americans, that I will never forget you. And never forgive those reponsible.

    Spirit of Jack Morris said...

    I was in Riyadh Saudi Arabia giving the daily intel brief to our S2. I really can't even explain the feeling...

    The only thing we knew was that life was about to be really different, and we were going to be a big part of it...

    Anonymous said...

    By the way Caveman, thank you for your service to our country

    JB* said...

    I spent the day at O'Hare. I had taken off right as the first plane hit - we barely got up into our ascent when they brought us RIGHT back down. As a guy who simply despises flying... I felt nauseous.

    That paled in comparison to the rest of the day.

    Waiting for luggage, I spent the day in a stone quiet O'Hare. It was bizarro land. No constant announcements of flights. Only people talking, and rumors. All the TVs were off - at least where I was. All we had were people on cell phones telling us what they heard from their cousin who heard from... and so on. I talked to a guy from NBC5 about two hours later and got some facts.

    I didn't see the Towers fall. I, for one, am glad I didn't see it live. I don't know how I would have reacted. I then sat in my car going back to my then-fiancee's house by Joliet, listening to WGN 720 and Spike O'Dell try to make some sense, trying frantically to get ahold of my best friend, who lives in NY and whose dad is a fire fighter... Both were fine.

    Mike said...

    CC, nice tribute. I was underway (squid, on nuclear power) getting ready to practice launching TLAMS at the evil 'Country Orange'. Lost our comms circuit to the omnious "this circuit has been taken for national tasking." Never heard that before. We figured 96 hours later we'd be loaded for bear and headed to the IO. Didn't happen, though.

    I'm glad CNN chose to re-play their coverage of that day yesterday over the web. I've always felt like an outsider looking in since I didn't experience it first hand.

    Semper Fi, Mac.