Sudden death

Sports simply stopped after the awful events of September 11

Updated: March 20, 2013, 10:32 AM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

sept 11Jamie Squire/Allsport for ESPNMary Heath Johnson and Kenneth Veltz support each other with a hug.

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Oct 1, 2001, issue. Subscribe today!

THESE WERE THE DAYS when heroism and villainy were redefined. This was the week when sports went dark, when its spotlight swung around to the firefighters who ran up the stairs, the police and EMS crews who braved the showers of destruction, the laborers who sifted through the debris of a cataclysm to find evidence of someone's life.

The clichéd descriptions we so freely bestow on our athletes -- words like courageous, tireless, inspirational -- have taken on deeper meanings. They now belong to engineers and nurses and heavy-equipment operators, ordinary people performing extraordinary service. Greg Comella was part of a contingent of New York Giants that was ferried over from New Jersey on Saturday, Sept. 15, to visit the rescue workers at the lower tip of Manhattan. "It was an unbelievable effort," said the fullback, using words we once saved for a touchdown run. But then: "One guy told me he had been working 20 hours straight, and that he had lost his brother."

The early calls to resume games -- to refill stadiums, to show them we mean business by walking through turnstiles -- sounded tinny, and fortunately they were resisted by the NFL, Major League Baseball, Division I-A college football and NASCAR. Better that pews be filled than bleachers. Better that athletes, feeling as lost and as small as the rest of us, get a sabbatical than a torn ACL.

Tentatively, the spotlight will swing back to the quarterbacks, sluggers, wings and point guards. We'll see if Bonds can hit 71, if the Chargers and Fresno State are for real, if MJ means what he's been hinting at. But never again will a playoff or final or bowl seem quite as "huge." Not as long as we remember what the Towers and Pentagon looked like before and after, not as long as we ponder the millions of lives touched by the 5,500 innocent people who are dead or missing.

We'll always know where we were Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001. At around 7:30 a.m., Mark Bavis and Ace Bailey boarded United Airlines Flight 175 at Boston's Logan Airport, bound for Los Angeles, on their way to the opening of the Los Angeles Kings training camp in El Segundo. Theirs was the second plane to hit the World Trade Center.

The 31-year-old Bavis, whose twin brother, Michael, is an assistant coach at their alma mater, Boston University, was in his second year as an amateur scout for the Kings. He was particularly anxious to get to camp to see David Steckel, the first-round pick out of Ohio State whom he was instrumental in signing. Bailey, 53, was the team's director of scouting, a former Edmonton Oiler who helped teach the young Wayne Gretzky how to win. More than that, he was a man as beloved in the tight circle of the NHL as anyone. "September comes around," said Kings coach Andy Murray, "and we usually see Ace here every day, and he's always got a smile on his face." Sadly, no more.

If only we'd known what a remarkable woman Mari-Rae Sopper was before she got on American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles to LAX that morning. A two-time MVP of the Iowa State women's gymnastics team, she held both a master's degree in athletic administration and a law degree. In 1996 she joined the Navy, earning a commission as a lieutenant in the JAG corps while serving as a choreographer for the Navy women's gymnastics team. She only recently decided to quit the law and, at age 35, follow her heart and return to gymnastics full-time by accepting the coaching position at UC-Santa Barbara -- even though this looked like the last year for the program. "We were supposed to be getting together with her on Sunday at a barbecue," said junior gymnast Cara Simkins. "We had been e-mailing her, and her e-mails were so enthusiastic. Her arms were so wide open for us." It was the plane Sopper was on that tore a hole in the Pentagon.

"The outpouring has been tremendous," said Mari-Rae's mother, Marion Kminek. "She's got a lot of friends. I mean a lot." Sopper sounded like one of those people we're lucky to know. She was also one of those 5,500 unlucky enough to be in the wrong hellish place at the wrong hellish time.

In the future, do we dare describe fumbles or lip-outs or wind-blown homers as twists of fate? Ian Thorpe of Australia, winner of three gold and two silver Olympic swimming medals at Sydney, was on his way to the observation deck on top of the south tower when he suddenly remembered he had left his camera at the hotel. When he got back to his room, he clicked on the TV and learned that the first hijacked plane had crashed into the north tower. Like millions, he was no doubt watching when the south tower was hit 18 minutes later.

University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino's brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, worked as an equities trader on the 104th floor of the north tower. The week before, Rick and Billy had been out in California, playing golf. When Sept. 11 passed without word from his brother-in-law, Pitino left Louisville by car for New York, girding himself for yet another sad mission: Last March, he gave the eulogy for another of his wife's brothers, who had been struck by a cab in Manhattan.

Jacksonville Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin's son, Tim, worked on the 60th floor of the south tower as a trader for Morgan Stanley. But the family was able to monitor his descent to safety by cell phone. Carlos Perez, a sophomore wide receiver at Florida who grew up in Hoboken, N.J., had one brother, Danny, who worked in the World Financial Center, next to the Twin Towers, and another, Euris, a Marine who often had business at the Pentagon. Fortunately, Danny had the day off and Euris was at Henderson Hall, a Marine barracks in Arlington, Va. Still, Carlos felt the loss: "The Twins, the Mellisos. Every Fourth of July, we would go to a park near them. They were there. They were always there."

Joe Andruzzi, a starting guard for the New England Patriots, has three brothers, all of whom are New York City firefighters. Jim, who works at the fire station closest to the WTC, was one of the first to respond to the attack. He was told to climb to the north tower's 80th floor, one of the early hot spots, but on his way up, at the 20th floor, a firefighter beside him began having chest pains. Jim helped his comrade out of the building just before it collapsed. But neither Joe nor his firemen brothers Bill and Mark, both of whom were on the scene, learned Jim was safe until Tuesday afternoon. "I'm fortunate in that I have my brother back," said Joe. "Other people aren't that lucky."

The feeling of dread seemed to spread all through the sports nation. Few teams were as caught up in the tragedy as the Miami Fusion of MLS: Defender Carlos Llamosa worked in the World Trade Center as a janitor when it was first bombed on Feb. 26, 1993; midfielder Shaker Asad had to explain to his teammates that even though he is from Palestine, he was deeply shaken by the terrorism; and midfielder Jim Rooney grew up in Deer Park, Long Island, playing roller hockey with the sons of Ray Downey, chief of special operations of the New York City Fire Department, who was killed in the collapse of the north tower.

Sports had other reminders of mortality. Over the weekend, eight University of Wyoming runners were killed in a car accident, and race car driver Alex Zanardi lost his legs and nearly his life in a gruesome collision 12 laps from the end of the newly renamed American Memorial 500 in Germany. Huge stories any other time, now mere footnotes to a gigantic tragedy.

The term "sudden death" in sports is just for hype. It used to be we'd say "it's a war out there" while talking about beanballs or slashing or a Heat-Knicks playoff game. But now we -- and the athletes we dote on -- know what war is really like. There was something strangely gratifying about the humility readily shown by the jocks we normally associate with pride, greed and distance. Guys who seldom offer anything worthwhile couldn't stop talking; they were as frightened and as angry and as concerned as the rest of us, and they needed to vent. "It's a feeling of complete despair," said Mets catcher Mike Piazza. "You're hurt, you're scared, you're in shock, you're pissed off."

"I hurt a lot for those people," said Barry Bonds. "I hurt a lot. "

"If I were commissioner," said Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling, "first day back I'd have every guy donate that day's salary to the victims."

The real commissioners made the right calls in shutting down their sports. They listened not to the commentators or the historians or the accountants, but to the players themselves. The NFL player reps told Paul Tagliabue they did not want to go through with Week 2 after heeding Kevin Mawae of the Jets and Michael Strahan of the Giants, who said they would be willing to forfeit rather than play. "Out at our practice field, we can see the smoke," Strahan told them. "I am missing two towers that I have looked at for the last eight years."

"The country is in mourning," said Steeler Jerome Bettis, "and we are the country's entertainment. I don't know if the country wants to be entertained right now."

On Friday the 14th, Bettis was one of 25 Steelers who went to Somerset, Pa., for a memorial service honoring the victims aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed nearby after passengers Thomas Burnett, Jeremy Glick and ex-rugby player Mark Bingham prevented the hijackers from flying the plane to Washington. "They're the real heroes," said Bettis.

It seems inconceivable that some good could come out of a horror so monstrous. But anything good, no matter how small, would be a blessing. On Dec. 21, 1988, 270 people were killed when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up by terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland. Among the passengers were 35 students from Syracuse University. A year later, the Syracuse lacrosse team, under coach Roy Simmons Jr., visited Lockerbie to begin teaching the sport, and he has since gone back several times. And now Scotland has its own national lacrosse team.

Maybe it's good that we stopped caring about sports for a while and used that devotion for people who needed our prayers and donations, our blood and our time. Maybe, when sports comes back, we'll appreciate football, baseball and the rest for different, nobler reasons. Maybe we'll see they really do have restorative powers.

When the football Giants visited the valiant people working at Ground Zero, a firefighter accosted Joe Jurevicius. "You cost me money in my fantasy league," the fireman told him. "You catch any one of those passes Collins threw to you Monday night, I win."

"Not his fault," Kerry Collins chimed in. "I should have thrown it farther."

"You're right," the firefighter said. "You should have!"

There, in the midst of destruction, they smiled.

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Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer