September 11 and Sports

With the calendar set to turn to September tomorrow, I thought I would write about a subject that is near and dear to me and millions of other people – September 11.  For those of you that didn’t know, I was actually in the World Trade Center that fateful morning.  I had just started law school two weeks before, and my commute into NYC took me on the PATH train and into the Trade Center.  That morning, I had my first exam so I went into school extra early.  Just after 9:00 AM, my train pulled into the Trade Center where we were greeted by dozens of police officers and firefighters directing everyone to exit.  I was focused on my exam, so I calmly walked to the giant escalators thinking that the cops and firefighters had the fire under control.  As I reached the main concourse at street level, I saw thousands of people across the street just staring with their heads facing up.  I exited the Trade Center near the concourse where there was a Borders bookstore.  Not 10 seconds after I got outside onto Church Street, the concourse behind me bursted out in flames.  I ran across the street and saw what everyone was looking at.  I thought to myself “What are the chances that both towers could catch on fire at the same time?”.  At that point, pieces of metal and debris were flying all over the place, so I proceeded to head to school, which was six blocks north of the WTC.  Then the most horrifying thing from that day started happening when people began jumping from the burning floors.  I literally dodged falling bodies and debris by hiding underneath a scaffold a block from the towers.  A huge piece of metallic debris flew down and crashed into the scaffold, causing it to partially collapse above me.  Two people under the scaffold ran out and another man was crushed to death just two feet away from me.  Eventually I made it to my school, which is where I was when the towers collapsed.  I ran away from the huge plume of smoke with my bookbag on my back containing a laptop computer and several law school textbooks.  Hours later, I walked 70-somethings blocks to get over to the Chelsea Piers where I waited for a ferry to take me back to New Jersey.  After being decontaminated, I was finally back in my home state and got home around 11:00 PM.  I was not the same person as I was when I left for school that morning.

I was mentally in shock and fear.  I went to therapy for quite awhile, and even to this day I am still extremely affected by that event.  I get anxiety every year when the calendary turns to September, which is partially what is motivating me to write this.  My school, which was only six blocks from Ground Zero, was closed for several weeks.  During that time off, I had to decide whether I even wanted to go back to school, let alone go back into New York.  I was a complete wreck, which I suppose was an understandable response.  It didn’t help that the entire country was so shellshocked and in mourning.  They cancelled all sporting events for the forseeable future, so I couldn’t even have that to fall back on.

Of all things, the first sporting event that took place after 9/11/01 was wrestling.  Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment (then known as the World Wrestling Federation) decided to do a live Smackdown on Thursday, September 13, 2001.  I remember watching (yes, I am a huge wrestling fan) that show and feeling a little better that at least something came back.  The show was a dedication to the events of two days earlier as all storylines were abandoned for the night.  There was no good guy/bad guy dynamic.  The show was put on to entertain people and help the country start to heal by going back to normal (or whatever normal now was).  

Vince McMahon, The Rock and the rest of the WWE roster salute the USA at the first live sporting event after 9/11.

The NFL cancelled its Week 2 games for that upcoming Sunday.  I had mixed emotions about this.  I understood that it was done out of respect for the victims and the American public as a whole.  But this would have really helped me and millions of people try and get back to normal a little quicker with a day filled with great football action.  Plus, one of my last memories of my pre-9/11 life was the Monday Night Football game the night before between my New York Giants and Denver Broncos.  The Giants lost that game, so I was looking forward to seeing them come back with a vengeance to get that bitter taste out of my mouth.  But alas, there was no NFL that week.

Baseball came back much quicker.  I remember the Mets playing a game in Pittsburgh where they received a hell of an ovation.  It was quite emotional to see these guys, who were down at Ground Zero trying to help, and now going out to play baseball.  You could tell by watching guys like Mike Piazza, John Franco, Todd Zeile, and Robin Ventura that they realized what they do for a living is just play a game.  They were quite emotional and realized how important they were to the healing process.  But the single most amazing event that happened for me during this initial post-9/11 timeframe happened on September 21, 2001 when the Mets played their first game back in New York after 9/11.  Of all teams, they played their bitter rivals – the Atlanta Braves.  Before the game, the Mets and Braves players exchanged hugs and pleasantries.  The normally hostile Mets crowd cheered for their nemesis Chipper Jones.  It was a completely different dynamic and environment.  In typical 2001 Mets fashion, they were unable to mount much offense all day despite a brilliant pitching effort by the well-traveled Bruce Chen.  But in the bottom of the 8th inning with the Mets trailing 2-1, Braves’ pitcher Steve Karsay threw an outside fastball that Mike Piazza majestically sent into the New York night as the ball hit off the camera facade way out in centerfield.  I went to my parents’ house to watch the game by myself because that was what I wanted to do.  When Piazza rounded the bases and Shea Stadium erupted into a frenzy, I completely broke down into tears.  Emotions just completely overtook me and I cried for several minutes both enjoying the Mets’ comeback and also coming to terms with what I had been through.  The Mets’ comeback down the stretch of 2001 faded into obscurity thanks to the failures of John Franco and Armandi Benitez.  But Mike Piazza, my favorite player, gave me something to truly believe in and feel good about.  That moment right there helped begin my healing process because I started to care about baseball again. 

Mike Piazza hits a go-ahead 2-run HR in the bottom of the 8th inning in the first game played in New York after 9/11.

With the 9-year anniversary of the worst tragedy on American soil in history coming up, I wanted to reflect on how sports helped get me through that traumatic experience.  As passionate as we get about the games, our home teams, and our fantasy leagues, we must remember that it is only a game.  But while it is only a game, its important and significance to us as people is invaluable.

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