September 11, 2001.
It was America’s darkest day in the last 70 years, and arguably in all of history.
19 radical extremists changed the world forever, killing 2,977 victims, attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with hijacked aircraft, while also crashing an aircraft into a field near Shanksville, PA, after some heroic citizens fought back against the terrorists to avoid further attack against American landmarks.
Shortly after the attacks, which were 14 years ago today, Alan Jackson penned a somber anthem called “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning”. The world, obviously, didn’t really stop turning, but from the first news of the attack, the world virtually and collectively stopped what it was doing, first to watch the events unfold, then to mourn the unthinkable loss and try to figure out what in the world to do next, meaning that title phrase was perhaps the greatest analogy to how the world reacted to the catastrophic events.
You may be wondering why a sports blog like this one is writing about September 11, even on the anniversary of such a generation-defining event. After the attacks, however, the sports world also stopped turning, because sports suddenly didn’t matter. At all.
There is some irony here, because the top story before 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, even in the mainstream news media, was a sports story. Michael Jordan, who was 38 at the time and had retired in 1999 from the NBA, was hinting at a comeback (which he would eventually make later that fall with the Washington Wizards), and the question of “Will he or won’t he?” was the top story on NBC’s Today Show, among others.
Within two hours of Today coming on the air at 7 a.m., Jordan, and the rest of the sports world, was totally irrelevant. Everyone’s attention was focused on New York, and later Washington, as the attacks unfolded.
Major League Baseball games taking place that night were quickly cancelled by commissioner Bud Selig. While other sports sanctioning bodies who were in-season in mid-September of 2001 like the PGA Tour, NASCAR, and particularly the NFL and NCAA Football, had time to decide, as their events would not commence until the weekend, baseball, as an everyday sport, had to make their decisions much more quickly and on-the-spot.
MLB later cancelled all games through Thursday the 13th, then through Sunday the 16th, deciding to resume the season on Monday the 17th, and tagging the six days of games that had been cancelled on to the end of the season, delaying the playoffs, and resulting in the first November games in the World Series in history.
As the weekend approached, the PGA Tour cancelled the WGC-American Express Championship in St. Louis, an event which had a very strong field before its cancellation, as well as an alternate event, the Tampa Bay Classic.
NASCAR cancelled its race scheduled for Sunday the 16th, tacking it on the end of the season on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The NFL cancelled all of its Week 2 games scheduled for Sunday the 16th and Monday the 17th. This was perhaps the largest cancellation of all of them, partially because the NFL is the most-watched and most-followed sports league in the United States, and partially because the NFL had not cancelled games after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, a decision then-commissioner Pete Rozelle later called his biggest regret.
The games which were cancelled by the NFL were added on to the end of the season, resulting in the first February Super Bowl. Ironically enough, due to changes in the NFL schedule, only one Super Bowl since has not been in February.
The decision in college football wasn’t made as willingly by everyone. While the Big East and ACC cancelled games fairly quickly, and seven Big Ten schools called off games on their own before the conference’s decision, the SEC came very close to playing games as planned on Saturday the 15th. The thinking was that they would be helping heal the nation’s psychological wounds by going forward with the games, since sports is in many ways a form of entertainment. Additionally, after President Bush said in an address that the nation getting back to normal as quickly as possible would be a sign to the terrorists that they had not completely destroyed American culture, the league thought playing on Saturday would signal a return to normal way of life (particularly since in part of the country where the SEC resides, football is a big part of that normal way of life). The scheduled games included a big rivalry game in Gainesville between #8 Tennessee and #2 Florida.
This wasn’t without controversy, as years later SEC spokesman Charles Bloom recalled that the league got numerous messages from fans disapproving of playing just four days after the attacks. Bowling Green was scheduled to play South Carolina in Columbia, but pulled out of the game because the team didn’t feel comfortable traveling by air. Steve Spurrier, then at Florida, said his team couldn’t focus at practice after the attacks.
Then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer later said he had contacted the NFL as early as Wednesday the 12th, and at the time had gotten the impression they were considering going forward with the games, which led the SEC to initially plan to play on. The NFL announced their cancellation on Thursday the 13th, after which the SEC, Big 12, and WAC followed. The SEC’s reluctance to cancel games had been the most public, and later remembered in an al.com story 10 years later.
By Sunday the 16th, as athletes watched the aftermath of 9/11 unfold with the rest of us at home, the Ryder Cup announced its postponement for a year until 2002. The bi-annual golf event between the United States and Europe had been scheduled for September 28-30, at The Belfry in England, but it was decided that an American team traveling overseas for a hostile event like this one (the 1991 edition in Kiawah Island, SC was dubbed the “War by the Shore”, and the most recent edition in 1999 had been perhaps the most controversial of them all) wouldn’t be in the best taste, given the real “war” that was beginning to unfold. The players which had qualified for the event in 2001 would play the event in 2002, which resulted in a couple of players who had clearly earned spots on the 2001 team coming into the 2002 competition in poor form. Instead of playing the Ryder Cup again in 2003, it moved to even-numbered years after the 2002 edition, and remains in even-numbered years to this day.
The return to normal in the sports world mirrored the return to normal throughout the nation. On Monday the 17th, the New York Stock Exchange re-opened in the morning, and the Major League Baseball season resumed that evening.
On Thursday the 20th, the PGA Tour season resumed at the Marconi Pennsylvania Classic, which happened to be played in Ligonier, PA, only about 40 miles from Shanksville. The event used American flags in place of the normal numerical flags on each hole.
That evening marked another return, as the first Division I college football game was played in Starkville, MS, between Mississippi State and South Carolina. Pre-game ceremonies were both patriotic and emotional, as the game returned while remembering the lives lost nine days earlier. If football is America’s game, this could be said to be the night when America, at least partially, returned to normal, as its favorite sport was played for the first time since the tragedy.
On Friday the 21st, 10 days after the World Trade Center fell, New York held its first professional sporting event since it had been attacked. The New York Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium in Queens, winning 3-2 after Mike Piazza homered off Steve Karsay (who happened to be a New Yorker). While many said “it’s just a game” when sports resumed after 9/11, and while that was in many ways true, this particular game gave New York something to smile about, even as they began to recover all the destruction that had occurred.
The NFL returned on Sunday the 23rd, 12 days after the attacks, with a very emotional set of games. The ESPN video below says “Our football heroes honored America’s real heroes by playing, and by playing hard.” The most watched sports league in America provided a welcome distraction, at least for one Sunday afternoon. Simultaneous to the NFL’s return, NASCAR also ran its first Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) race since the attacks in Dover, DE (a race recap and the final few laps are in the second video below; notice the American flags on most of the cars, with a few cars completely red, white, and blue).
Once everything resumed in the sports world, those who wished to take a break from the aftermath of the attacks could now watch SportsCenter or listen to sports talk radio, and those programs had games and results to talk about. As the MLB season closed, the Mets missed the playoffs narrowly, but the Yankees, who had won the World Series in four of the previous five seasons, cruised into the postseason.
And suddenly the Yankees, the team everyone loves to hate, who had 26 World Series titles at the time and in 2009 added a 27th, were the sentimental favorites. They lost the first two games of their best-of-five series against the Oakland Athletics, but then won three straight against them to advance, and won the best-of-seven American League Championship Series in five games over the Seattle Mariners, who had posted an astonishing regular season record of 116-46. The Yankees advanced to the World Series, where they met the Arizona Diamondbacks.
And what a Series it was.
Arizona was dominant in the first two games in Phoenix, but when the Yankees returned home they won all three games at Yankee Stadium, all by a single run, with two of the three going extra innings. Games 4 and 5 are considered by many to be among the greatest World Series games ever played.
Game 4 was played on October 31, but ended after midnight, becoming the first World Series game to touch November, and ended with a homer by Derek Jeter, who was instantly called “Mr. November”, an homage to Yankee great Reggie Jackson, “Mr. October.”
Arizona won the final two games at home, winning the series, including another classic in Game 7. The only time that most of America was cheering for the Yankees, they lost the series, but the Yankees had been 6-3 in their games in New York in the playoffs, losing only once after the opening round, and winning all three at home against Arizona. They, too, did their part in helping the healing of New York.
The complete stoppage of every major sports league in the United States wasn’t unprecedented, as sports had mostly stopped during World Wars I and II. However, the days after the September 11 attacks are the only time in my lifetime sports has stopped nationwide. And it was absolutely the right call on all of the leagues making the decisions, because there were much more important things going on in the country, and it wouldn’t have been right for fans to be cheering someone for running over a white line or hitting a ball over a fence when nearly 3,000 lives had been lost.
The events of September 11, 2001 changed the world forever, including the sports realm. An ESPN article from October 2001 that I found in doing research for this post said “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 (thousands of) innocent people who are dead or missing.”
Security in sports stadiums will be forever changed, as tens of thousands of people gather in a single, compact place, something that everyone knows is a potential terrorist target. But that being said, hopefully there is more civility in stadiums, both on and off the playing field, after America, and the world, was permanently changed after 9/11.
Never again since September of 2001 has there been any event to stop sporting events nationwide for even 24 hours, much less for several days like it was after 9/11. Hurricane Katrina stopped many collegiate events in the part of the southeast where it hit, and moved pro sports out of New Orleans for over a year. Other tragedies since 9/11 have led to cancellations locally, but everywhere else the games continued after a tribute or moment of silence beforehand.
But after 9/11 sports handles tragedy differently. Helmet stickers and uniform patches have always been commonplace after a noteworthy loss of life, but stadium atmospheres and pre-game ceremonies seem to be somber and respectful after such events, as perhaps sports learned how to honor those lost after we lost so much 14 years ago. (Then again, I’m too young to remember how sports dealt with tragic loss before 9/11.)
September 11, 2001 is a day no one who was old enough to remember will ever forget. It was a day when, figuratively speaking, the world stopped turning, watching in stunned silence as the worst of humanity was on full display.
(Editor’s note: Last year, Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush’s press secretary on 9/11, “live tweeted” what he and the president were doing on 9/11/01, in real time. It is a fascinating read, and this article has put the highlights in chronological order)