It was Football Friday Night in America. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. Believe me, it was hotly debated before the decision was made to move forward with the week’s scheduled games. This was no ordinary Football Friday Night, this was the Football Friday Night a mere 80 hours after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. It was also only one of two times I’d been brought to tears associated with a football game, either as a coach or a player.
In the grand scheme of things, football is not life. Sure there are ups and downs, wins and losses, injuries and triumphs all associated with this great game. Even so, I’ve never really felt the need to cry over a sport, even one I am so passionate about. But on that night, September 14, 2001, standing on a football field in my homeland of Wyandotte County, KS, tears streamed down my face from the emotion of that awful week in American history.
The powers that be in the state decided to go ahead and play the scheduled games that Friday. I don’t envy the people who made that decision; it had to be a difficult one to say the least. But we needed to move forward, we needed to establish a normalcy in our own backyards. We needed to find some way to accept the inexplicable tragedy and restore some means of logic into our lives.
At Tuesday practice the evening of the tragic events, all I remember is that we were shell-shocked. I don’t recall much from that afternoon except trying to establish some sort of normal practice within the quagmire of shock. And these poor teenage boys asked question after question of which there were no answers to.
After we watched the horrific images on television, we tried to cope with the unimaginable event as best we could for the next two days. America was attacked on its own soil by terrorist. As hard as it was, we tried to keep this on the periphery and keep a football focus in order to give the kids a place to escape the tragedy, if only for a few hours.
Friday came. Game day. We made a two and a half hour bus trip to Kansas City Piper High School. The normal pre-game preparations ensued as game time crept closer. I was looking forward to this trip because this game was in Wyandotte County. I was born and raised in Wyandotte County, it is in my blood. It is a tough-minded place that produced tough-minded people. The whole Kansas City family was there and my own family made the trip also. I felt a great sense of pride coming home coaching the visiting team against a school I really hadn’t liked since the misguided days of my youth.
Both teams lined up before the game in the middle of the football field. Uniform color did not matter one bit as the kids and coaches and officials stood together for a moment of silence in memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks. So there I stood in silence, the soil of my homeland holding me onto a planet tipping wildly out of control, questions and chaos threatening to punt me into the stratosphere of despair.
The moment of silence seemed to last forever and a day. There was nothing but stillness and quiet. No whispers and no jokes from even the most immature of teenage boys. No noise from the large crowds gathered, the traffic seemed to freeze in time and even the sun dove for the horizon in hues of orange across the cloud-tinged blue sky. Solemn. The very meaning of the word.
Then the National Anthem began and I think everyone within a ten mile radius of the stadium sang the Star Spangled Banner that night. It was beautiful. It was meaningful. Of the hundreds of times I’ve sang it in school and the thousands of times I’ve heard it at various events, it has never really hit an emotional string. But, this time, on Piper High School Field, mere days after terrorists attempted to destroy the very heart and soul of America, the national anthem hit home.
We sang it loud and we sang it poorly. Nobody cared. We were united. When we hit the last three lines, I think the true spirit, emotion, and meaning of the Star Spangled Banner flooded across me for the first time ever.
“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
I understood. The meaning was crystal clear. Our flag was still here, our country was still here, and it would take more than an act of terrorism to squash our spirit. The flood of emotions pent-up all week flowed down my cheeks in the tears. The horror, the sadness, the loss, the pain, and the total helplessness dripped with each salty tear from my eye.
I wasn’t sure whether it was right to play those games on the Friday night until that moment. It was the right thing to do. By moving forward with these sporting events it not only provided a distraction away from 24 hours of news coverage, it gave a reason for Americans to congregate and spend time with their community. It gave us a chance to begin the healing process.
We won more than a football game that night. We, as a group, learned to persevere and to move forward.
God Bless America!