They wear it on their sleeves. Right there, above the piping on the upper arm of the New York Mets jersey, "9-11-01" is bracketed by two embroidered American flags. Beautiful. Tasteful. Painful.
In many ways, we all carry that apocalyptic day with us. Nothing -- not sports, not America, not the very sight of an airplane overhead -- will ever be the way it was. It's not just "God Bless America" trumping "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," or the long lines for security, or the moments of silence. The agony of that day not only pushed baseball into November and football into February, it also forced thoughts and feelings into uncharted territory. We saw that the most valuable players wore all sorts of uniforms, that a sacrifice wasn't simply a bunt. And that, for a while, sports didn't matter all that much.
But in the days and weeks after 9/11, Franco and the Mets -- and all the athletes from so many teams who took the time to show they cared -- found out that what they did mattered that much more. Says Franco, "Going down to Ground Zero a few days afterward, I saw a firefighter sitting on a curb, exhausted, covered in grime. He looked up at me and smiled in recognition ... that's how I knew we could make a difference."
As then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, "Sports was able to get our minds off the terrible, horrific events and give us perspective, and then allow our minds to come back, maybe in a more realistic and stronger way." Indeed, in the SportsNation survey conducted for this issue, 40% of respondents say sports played a major role in the post-9/11 healing process. You could feel it as early as Sept. 21, in the Mets' first home game back. At the suggestion of a season ticket-holder, the team wore hats bearing the insignias of the city agencies that lost people at the WTC. Then the Mets went out and beat the Braves, 3-2, to cut what was an eight-game lead on Sept. 11 to 4 1/2. It was the night New York came alive again.
The Mets, of course, fell short, but the Yankees took up the gauntlet, flying the tattered flag from the WTC over their stadium in the postseason for all the world to see. Through October and beyond, sports did its very best to lighten our burden. In and around D.C., Michael Jordan provided diversion for another region of mourners. An overlooked football team named the Patriots kept surprising people right up until the last seconds of their Super Bowl victory. And then came the Salt Lake City Games, which went off without a hitch and generated a whole new set of American heroes.
Ah, heroes. The saving grace of 9/11 was that it turned ordinary people into heroes and heroes into ordinary people. The anonymous folks who risk or put aside their lives for us needed nobility. The pampered and idolized athletes needed humility. And hopefully, they now know they need each other. "To be honest, the thought of a work stoppage in baseball sickens me," says Franco. "I know how much it meant to some people to be taken away from the pain for even just a few hours."
This article appears in the August 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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