Commentary

A whole new game

Ten years have passed since 9/11, and how we cheer will never be the same

Updated: September 11, 2011, 9:44 AM ET
By Eli Saslow | ESPN The Magazine

Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/CorbisTen years after 9/11, America plays on.

This story appears in the Sept. 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

LATE THAT SUMMER OF 2001, the New York Giants began referring to themselves as the NYPD Blue, running plays in practice with names like "rescue" and "explosion." They had lost in the Super Bowl the season before and expected to return and win. The captains recited an informal motto between 100-yard sprints at training camp: "Be ready to sacrifice."

Their season opener was scheduled for Sept. 10 in Denver. It was a matchup of elite teams on Monday Night Football, with 15 million viewers expected, and the first game at Invesco Field. Giants coach Jim Fassel called a team meeting three days before the game and delivered a speech he had made dozens of times in his career, a speech he would never fully believe again.

"Starting now," he told his players, "this game is the only thing that matters."

Games were what mattered to so many athletes and fans that week. From Sept. 8 to Sept. 10, CNN anchors broke from programming for updates that mostly concerned sports. Barry Bonds surged for the single-season home run record. Michael Jordan hinted at yet another comeback. Serena and Venus Williams played in the most-watched women's tennis final in U.S. Open history. America's sports superstars were as brash and indomitable as the country itself.

President George W. Bush scheduled an event at the White House on Sept. 9 to mark the beginning of the NFL season. He walked to a lectern in the Rose Garden wearing a dark suit and carrying an oversize coin. Though he planned to travel to Florida that night to discuss education reform, Bush had reworked his schedule so he could determine which NFL teams would receive the opening kickoff in 10 games. The president tossed the large coin over his head and watched it spin through the air. A crowd of the president's staff members and area youth football players leaned forward as the coin landed. "This is a great day for NFL fans," the president told them. "Here we go!"

It would be President Bush's last public event at the White House before his Secret Service detail tripled and he commanded the country into two wars.


TEN YEARS HAVE passed since the terrorist attacks reconfigured America's priorities, and sports are no longer as carefree as they were in those first days of September. What once offered a respite from the real world has instead become a part of it. A trip to the stadium sometimes means a metal detector at the entrance, a mandatory bag check inside the gate, a no-fly zone overhead and armed police officers standing alongside autograph seekers outside locker rooms. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has helped train colleges on how to guard against terrorism at sporting events. In 2006, the FBI investigated potential terrorist threats at NFL stadiums.

We crave the escape of sports more than ever -- a decade later, attendance, ticket prices and TV audiences are at or near record highs -- but we watch them differently.

This new paradigm not only inhibits our sense of safety, it keeps us from losing ourselves in the games. Nine innings at Yankee Stadium don't feel quite so important when the game includes a moment of silence, an on-field tribute to wounded soldiers, and a live rendition of "God Bless America," during which fans are discouraged from leaving their seats.

We crave the escape of sports more than ever -- a decade later, attendance, ticket prices and TV audiences are at or near record highs -- but we watch them differently. After 19 hijackers sneaked into our airports and disguised their way onto our planes, we are less likely to accept almost anything at face value. Instead of trusting our games, we watch and we speculate: How? Why? This is the age of skepticism, of outright cynicism, when we are not surprised to learn that our champions needed steroids to succeed or that college athletes are as corrupt as the system under which they must nevertheless abide. We were not naive before 9/11. But there is less belief now, less magic. The once-flimsy barrier between players and fans has hardened. Athletes are on occasion required to carry ID cards to board their own team buses, and many hire their own security details.

Every fan is a potential threat. Every athlete is a potential fraud.

"I think of Sept. 11 as the major marker in my life, in sports, in the history of this country," Fassel says. "It's a stark divide. There's what it was like before, and then there's what it's like after."


IN THE FEW DAYS BEFORE, the best athletes in the world lived through some of the greatest moments of their careers. Records fell. Men defied their age. Ecstatic crowds stood for prolonged ovations. There was alchemy that week.

On Sept. 5, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi played past midnight in a U.S. Open quarterfinal, Sampras wearing crisp white, Agassi in all black, the lights of the stadium visible from Queens to Manhattan. They were two of the oldest men in the tournament -- Sampras was 30 and Agassi 31 -- but the announcers described them as "ageless." All four sets ended in tiebreakers. When Sampras finally won, the rivals embraced at midcourt while a crowd of 23,033 stood to applaud them for three minutes. "It was chilling," Sampras said then.

Four days later at Denver's Coors Field, Bonds hit three home runs, numbers 61, 62 and 63, on his way to a single-season record of 73. The first shot came off starter Scott Elarton, who threw a high fastball -- "not high or fast enough," he said. It landed 488 feet away in such a remote part of the stadium that clubhouse attendants spent 30 minutes searching for the baseball. They eventually found it at the bottom of a fountain underneath eight feet of dirty water. Fans chanted Bonds' name, and he came out of the dugout to wave in appreciation. "I've been in disbelief over a lot of things I've done this year," Bonds said.

Jordan stood outside his Chicago restaurant the following afternoon, Sept. 10, and hinted to a group of reporters that he would make a comeback to play for the Wizards. "I'll be ready to go," the 38-year-old said. He had been practicing in secret for months, shooting a rumored 500 jumpers each day and working out with NBA-caliber players. He told the reporters he still loved the game as much as in 1984, when the Bulls drafted him.

On that same Monday around that same time, Dan Trant, a player selected in that same 1984 draft, left his office at the World Trade Center and took the subway uptown for a Yankees game. Trant, a scrappy, undersize Irish kid from Massachusetts, had been a two-time All-America point guard at Division III Clark University, where he started four seasons. The Celtics drafted him with the last pick of the last round, 225 spots behind Jordan. Trant failed to make the team, played professionally for a few years in Ireland and for a season in the USBL, then retired. He got married, had three kids and moved to Long Island. He got a job as a bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial firm on the 104th floor of Tower 1. He loved the work but abhorred the long hours. He rarely had time for a game.

His best friend, Lance Faniel, had bought four Yankees tickets earlier in 2001 as a gift for Trant's 40th birthday, and now the men marveled at their good luck. Roger Clemens was scheduled to start for the Yankees, pitching against the Red Sox with a chance to become the first pitcher ever to start a season 20-1. "We thought we'd be witnessing history," Faniel says.

They took Trant's two young sons and sat in section 17, box 467. The men drank beers. The boys, 12 and 10, ate hot dogs. It started to rain a few minutes before the first pitch. The game was delayed, then canceled. The four took a car back to Trant's house on Long Island.

The boys went to bed, and Faniel and Trant went to the basement. It was late and Trant had to wake up early the next morning for work. But still: "Let's put on the Monday night game for a few minutes," Faniel said. They turned on the television and started to watch the Giants.


JIM FASSEL PACED the Invesco Field sideline in his blue Giants sweater-vest, shouting instructions into a headset. His team kept it close for a while, but the Broncos offense found its rhythm in the second half, and Denver won 31-20. The stadium was still shaking by the time the Giants returned to the locker room and huddled around Fassel.

"Some good, some bad," the coach said.

The players thought mostly about the bad. They showered and boarded a team bus for the airport around 11 p.m. Some wore bandages and ice packs, others headphones. Nobody talked. "There's nothing more silent than those moments after a loss," linebacker Jessie Armstead said.

Their United Airlines charter flight to New Jersey lasted a little more than three hours. Midway through it, Fassel told his coaching staff to plan on going straight to work at Giants Stadium after the plane landed. He wanted to break down film and talk about what had gone wrong. The Giants had a short week of practice before their next game, at home against the Packers. It felt like the only thing that mattered. The plane descended from the sky as the sun rose over New York City on Tuesday morning. "You get used to seeing night turn into day as an NFL coach," Fassel says.

Instead of trusting our games, we watch and we speculate: How? Why?

Shortly thereafter, Dan Trant would wake up at his house on Long Island, rush through breakfast and leave for his job on the 104th floor. He would never return.

In the weeks ahead, Michael Jordan would donate his Wizards salary to families of the victims. Roger Clemens would visit troops in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Qatar. The Giants would spiral to a 7-9 season, which Fassel would nonetheless call "one of my proudest memories as a coach, because our guys kept going, even when the games didn't feel so important."

Ten years would pass, and so much would change. Rams center Jason Brown would lose his brother in the war, then turn against it, just as Pat Tillman's family did when the former NFL safety died in Afghanistan. Other athletes would view 9/11 differently. A minor league pitcher named Eric Junge would see a September call-up as a blessing from three friends who died in the towers, while a number of former soldiers would find a new cause on the playing field. Sporting events would take on a heightened role as a place for politics and patriotism, of heightened security and catharsis. In 2009, George Bush tossed a coin before another NFL game, the Cowboys against the Giants, his hair grayer this time. Some in the crowd cheered and saluted, while others turned away and booed. The country and its sports fans would grow divided over so much more than which team to root for in a game.

But before all that, on Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, just after dawn, the Giants' charter plane landed at Newark International Airport and pulled up to Gate 14. Nearby, United Airlines Flight 93 idled on the tarmac. It was a cross-country flight from Newark to San Francisco scheduled to depart at 8 a.m.

Inside the airport, 37 passengers waited at the gate. Some drank coffee. Others read about the Giants' loss in the morning newspapers. Four men carried weapons, likely box cutters and knives, disguised as cigarette lighters.

At 7:39 a.m., the gate agent invited all of them to board.

Eli Saslow is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter: @ESPNmag.