This Sunday marks the start of yet another NFL season. Fans of 30 teams (minus the Pack and Saints who played Thursday) will be gathering in droves to watch their favorite team begin their march towards Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI. Jerseys will be worn, beer and wings will be consumed, a celebration that millions of Americans enjoy every year.
This year isn’t just another opening day however. This Sunday also happens to be September 11th. The 10th anniversary of this generations “Pearl Harbor.”
Everybody that is old enough can remember that day like it was yesterday. We know exactly where we were and what we were doing when the pictures started coming across the nation’s TV screens and the country realized that it was under attack.
On that Tuesday, the week one games that we were all still talking about were quickly forgotten.
The Steelers had lost the season opener at Jacksonville two days earlier, and were preparing for a primetime showdown with the Cleveland Browns. It wasn’t just a national ESPN game against a Division rival, but it was also going to be the first regular season game ever in their new home, Heinz Field.
That game did not go on as scheduled. The NFL made the decision to postpone the games scheduled the week following the 9/11 attacks. Although some questioned the decision at first, it quickly became obvious to most that this was indeed the right thing to do. Thousands of innocent people were just killed, and their deaths basically aired live for the world to see on just about every TV channel, so watching a ‘game’ was the last thing on people’s minds. As the days went by, people were still grieving, some were still scared, most were angry, but life was starting to get back to as close to normal as you could hope. For most though, life could never be considered normal ever again.
When the NFL made the announcement that the games would go on the following week, it was hard for many to get back into the football mentality. The wound was still fresh, so how would fans going to react when the games started again? How would the players react? It’s easy at times to forget that these superstar NFL players are also just regular people like you and me. They have emotions too, so how would they handle getting back on the field.
Although I love football and the Steelers are a huge part of my life, I wasn’t sure exactly how I would feel trying to watch a game that soon after such a tragedy. On 9/11, I was actually talking on the phone to a co-worker at the Pentagon, probably 30-45 minutes before the attacks. That chilling fact was still resonating with me a week and a half later when I sat down to finally watch ‘week 2’ of the 2001 season.
There were American flags everywhere. Military flyovers and the National Anthem brought tears to everybody’s eyes. I’ll never forget seeing the tears stream the faces of these massive gladiators during the Anthem. Letting the world know that they too feel the same as the rest of the country, and that showing this type of emotion doesn’t make you any less “manly.”
I had my jersey on, Black and Gold everywhere, and had a great view of the game as the Steelers returned to the field by defeating the Buffalo Bills. That was the first of 4 consecutive wins, propelling them to an AFC best 13-3 record, and home field throughout in their stadium. They went on in the playoffs to beat the Ravens (some things never change), and then hosted the Patriots in the first AFC Championship Game in Heinz Field. A great way to christen their new stadium. While they fell to the Patriots 24-17 in that Championship game, that Steeler team gave Hienz Field a great inaugural season.
That entire NFL season was a season filled with highly emotional games. Cheers and tears at every NFL stadium. At least we were given a couple hours every Sunday to ‘get away’ from reality for a bit, to indulge ourselves in something that we enjoyed. As much as we love our team and the game that they play, the events 10 years reminded us all that it really is just a game.
This Sunday, the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the NFL will open with a moment of silence and have 9/11 tributes before every game. Once again the American Flag will be seen everywhere, and while there might still be some pain and sadness, a strong sense of unity and patriotism will be felt throughout the league.
We will honor those lost on 9/11, and those in uniform who are protect us every day from another attack by those who wish us harm. We will say a prayer, wipe a tear, maybe even raise a toast to those not with us.
Then we’ll settle back into our seats and get ready to be taken away from reality for a couple hours.
The Steelers open with the Ravens, and although on this day we are reminded that it is only a game, it is THE GAME. The couple of hours we get to watch the Black and Gold knock around the Ravens will bring joy to some of those still haunted by the affects of 9/11.
Like the motto of 9/11 says, we will ‘Never Forget.’
But thanks to the NFL, the games will make anniversaries like this Sunday at least a little more bearable.