Thirteen years ago, the 9/11 attacks changed the world. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was among the leaders who were tested like never before, navigating the league through a difficult time with grace and wisdom. He shared with The MMQB some of his letters and notes from the days after the attack
WASHINGTON — I saw Paul Tagliabue cry once. It was five days after the attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan; Tagliabue was in the league office on a Saturday afternoon. This wasn’t a weepy kind of cry, but a bottom-lip-quiver, moistened-edge-of-eyes, handkerchief-out, stop-talking-to-compose himself kind of cry. You don’t expect the NFL’s Margaret Thatcher (maybe not the best image, but you get the Iron Lady idea) to cry, but you also don’t expect 9/11 to happen, to change our world forever, to be the most infamous day of our lives, to change the way the NFL operates.
“The day,” Tagliabue said recently in his Covington & Burling law office in D.C., “when a commercial airline was converted into an intercontinental ballistic missile. The day everything changed.”
So this is the last installment of our NFL 95 series at The MMQB. We’ve tried to take a different look at living history as the NFL enters the 95th season of professional football in the United States. You’ve read Jenny Vrentas describe how the most important single instrument in NFL history, the arthroscope, changed players’ lives and careers. You’ve read about the lasting lessons of Bill Walsh, eerily feeling like a Walsh pupil, sitting in with Greg Bedard as he watched hours and hours of the old coach’s teachings on video. You’ve read (and seen, via an awesome GigaPan photo of Steve Sabol’s office) Emily Kaplan’s story of how Steve Sabol lives on, so impactfully, through an almost-untouched office since his death two years ago. You’ve read Super Bowl champion quarterback Russell Wilson write about the way black quarterbacks are now playing without the adjective “black” in front of their names. And more. For nine offseason Wednesdays, (I hope) you’ve followed our attempt to educate and entertain by telling important stories of the past, and what those stories portend for the future.
We end the series today with the momentousness of 9/11, and how the transformative events got handled by a Tagliabue-led NFL—near the belly of the beast, 3.6 miles uptown in the NFL offices on Park Avenue, in particulate-wafting range from the attack on the Twin Towers—and how massive NFL security changes and the New York Super Bowl idea happened because of it, and how the NFL had to start thinking about things like sarin gas the way it once thought of things like wild-card tiebreakers. Sadly, it just became part of the fabric of the league.
Let’s start there. With sarin gas.
Sarin is a colorless, odorless liquid, an evil the United States government feared could be in the hands of terrorists following 9/11. When enough sarin fumes are inhaled, lungs become paralyzed and death follows within 10 minutes. Weeks after the attacks on lower Manhattan and the Pentagon (and the aborted attack on the White House ending in a field in Shanksville, Pa.), a team of NFL officials was doing a site study at the Superdome in New Orleans to judge its readiness for the Super Bowl. The NFL party noticed huge cooling fans in the bowels of the dome, with no security or barriers around them. The league officials were with Doug Thornton, the facilities manager of the Superdome. Someone told Thornton he was going to have to do something about the cooling fans. Why? Thornton wondered. Because terrorists could put sarin gas there easily, and before anything could be done the fumes would waft up into the crowd, and within minutes thousands could be dead.
Concrete barriers were installed before the Super Bowl, before one of the great Super Bowl upsets of our generation: Patriots 20, Rams 17. And isn’t it notable that when we think of that game, we think of Tom Brady’s resolve and Bill Belichick’s gameplan on Marshall Faulk and Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal as time expired. We don’t think of the NFL pushing Doug Thornton to make cooling fans secure from the threat of sarin gas. Which, as it turns out, is a metaphor for the modern NFL, and for modern sports.
Life will never be the same in the fun and games department.
So, yes, this is a different kind of story as we end our NFL 95 series. It’s a reality show.
* * *
To: [NFL director of security] Milt Ahlerich
[NFL executive vice president] Roger Goodell
[NFL chief legal counsel] Jeff Pash
From: Paul Tagliabue
Date: Nov. 13, 2001
Years ago the astute military analyst Herman Kahn wrote a book about nuclear war—“Thinking About the Unthinkable.”
This is where we are in thinking about anti-terrorism measures.
Do we have in place any guidelines as to how we would react in response to various acts of terrorism or violence in a stadium on game day?
By analogy, Mayor Giuliani said yesterday that the City and State now assume if there is one act of terrorism, it will be followed by others (based upon the September 11 pattern). Therefore the City yesterday immediately shut down all of the bridges, tunnels, etc., until it could determine whether the American Airlines plane crash resulted from terrorism or not.
If we had an act of terrorism in a stadium, would it be our operating premise immediately to stop play in every game and evacuate every stadium? (Probably, once word got around about the one incident in one stadium all fans would evacuate all stadiums on their own anyway.)
Should we not try to reduce to “guideline” form some premises of this type that would guide our decisions in the event of an emergency?
This is what the NFL was doing two months after 9/11.
Tagliabue had been an efficient but sometimes publicly derided commissioner in his 12 years at the helm when the Twin Towers fell. Cold fish. Aloof. Predecessor Pete Rozelle was clubby and chummy, Tagliabue corporate and dismissive. But it turned out that Tagliabue was the right man for the job at the time. Thirteen years has not dulled the memory or the perspective of Tagliabue, now 73. In June, Tagliabue agreed to go over his memories and files from that period of his tenure and share them with The MMQB, to give a clearer picture of just what happened when the attacks happened—and how those attacks changed the way the NFL operates to this day.
“As soon as I knew that the Pentagon had been hit, in addition to the two planes that hit the World Trade Center,” a grayer and quieter Tagliabue told me in his long-time law office four blocks from the White House, “it was clear that it was an attack by some enemy of the United States. I had worked at the Pentagon in the late 60s on lots of different subjects in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. One of the things that I had actually worked on was a study of so-called clandestine attacks on the United States mainland by terrorists. The two targets that were studied were JFK airport and the Pentagon. The purpose of the study was to determine, in 1968, how difficult would it be for a terrorist group to get a small aircraft into JFK or around the Pentagon. I had that background. As soon as I heard that the Pentagon had been hit, it was clear to me that this was an extraordinary event.
“That first night, even before we were outside, walking in midtown Manhattan, the immediacy of the attack and the scale of the tragedy was apparent. Spouses, brothers, sisters, cousins—working in those buildings. We in the NFL had employees who lived in Lower Manhattan and had kids in school not far from the World Trade Center, so all of the sudden there was this panic. What’s gone on? How far is this devastation? Do I have a loved one who has been devastated? By Tuesday night, the grit and the debris and the polluted air and the stench from the fuel, or whatever was creating the stench and the burning, that was all over midtown. You just knew that you were basically in a war zone—first-hand. You didn’t have to watch television or the news. Plus, it was the idea that if these three places could be targeted, [three] if you include the plane that went down in Pennsylvania that was headed for the White House, were there not more targets, including places like Grand Central station, three blocks from our office? So there was this understanding of the scope of the attack and understanding that it was something extraordinary—something so part of American life converted into an intercontinental ballistic missile.
“It was darkness. It was hell. I’ve learned from that experience and also from Katrina that when you’re in the midst of a tragedy where there’s loss of life, you’re in darkness. I’d compare it to hell. What is required by people outside the immediate area of devastation is leadership and hope. Hope can bring some light to that dark and seemingly endless experience.”
Owners Wellington Mara and Jerry Richardson told Tagliabue that postponing the games would be giving in to the terrorists. Brian Billick, coach of the Ravens, said he thought the games should go on.
We can all sit here now and say this was an easy decision to postpone the games the weekend following the attacks. We can sit here and say it’s no big deal that nothing of a remotely terrorist nature has happened in the 13 seasons since the attacks, and since the league implemented strong measures to secure stadiums. But if you say that, you’d be ignoring what confronted Tagliabue in the day or two after 9/11, and in the couple of months after the infamy.
“I think it’s been lost by history what a big role Tagliabue had in leading the NFL through a crisis period,” said Pro Football Hall of Fame vice president Joe Horrigan. “I have always believed the actions he took following the attacks were critical not only for the NFL, but for America. The nation looked to its political leaders for strength and a sense of security. But we also looked to the private sector to help re-establish the all-important sense of normalcy that was taken from us all. I think his course of action became the template for crisis management in sports, and business.”
It wasn’t a clear path. Two lions of the league, owners Wellington Mara and Jerry Richardson, told Tagliabue that postponing the games would be giving in to the terrorists. Brian Billick, coach of the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, said he thought the games should go on. Players for 11 teams voted to play the games that weekend.
This was different from the decision Pete Rozelle faced in 1963—and those who know Rozelle will tell you that deep down he didn’t really regret playing the games two days after the JFK assassination, despite his claims to the contrary the day he retired in 1989. It was different because, as Tagliabue told owners on a conference call on Sept. 12, 2001: “This is not the Kennedy assassination. This is not Pearl Harbor. It’s worse.”
There was a dinner scheduled at the 21 Club in New York on Sept. 11 to honor one of the lawyers who’d successfully brought home a positive league verdict in one of the Al Davis cases, so several owners were in town. The dinner never happened. Tagliabue went to mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 5:30 that afternoon with Management Council lawyer Ed Tighe, whose wife was unaccounted for in the tower collapses. (Tighe’s wife, Diane Lipari, died.) The next day, Tagliabue, who was leaning against playing the games, began to consider the options going forward. They were:
- Cancel the games, play a 15-game regular
season and keep the postseason intact, playing as scheduled.
- Postpone the games, eliminate the wild-card round of
the playoffs, and reschedule the Week 2 games for
the wild-card days.
- Postpone the Jets’ and Giants’ games because of their proximity to the attacks (and possibly Washington’s and
Pittsburgh’s as well). Then play the Week 2 games on Monday and Tuesday.
- Play games
on Sunday so as not to conflict with a possible
national religious service, and start those games at the same time. That way, some in the league felt, the nation could have a three-hour respite from the weight of the incident.
- Move the Super Bowl back a week and fit all the games in, with Week 2 played on the original wild-card weekend in early January 2002.
When Tagliabue first mentioned moving the Super Bowl to a week later in New Orleans, he was told by his Super Bowl planners, You can’t move the game. We’ve been planning it for three years. Plus, there were more than 30,000 car dealers and auto executives set to take over the New Orleans area the week after the game, so the Superdome and hotels weren’t available.
“My response to that,” Tagliabue says now, “was, Nothing is impossible. Two weeks ago it was impossible to dream that there would be no World Trade Center. It was impossible to think that commercial airlines could be made into ballistic missiles. So whatever was impossible two or three weeks ago is not impossible today—we will get it done.”
Nothing is set in stone. Sound like a familiar refrain? That’s how Roger Goodell has operated since taking over for Tagliabue eight years ago.
Interesting story about the National Automobile Dealers Association convention: When Tagliabue and Goodell first met with the auto dealers about switching weeks—the car dealers preceding the Super Bowl instead of going after it—the NADA asked for $20 million. The NFL offered $2.25 million. For a while, it looked like the deal wouldn’t get done. Tagliabue and Goodell discussed the possibility of moving the Super Bowl to New York, to give the local economy a boost, and giving New Orleans the Super Bowl it would be losing three or four years later. Once that news got out, and once New Orleans civic leaders began to pressure the auto people to be reasonable, the car dealers lowered their demand to $5 million to flip weeks. The NFL said yes. But the response about a New York/New Jersey Super Bowl was so positive in so many corners that the game ended up happening 12 seasons after 9/11.
But that didn’t happen till 22 days after 9/11. Tagliabue, in figuring whether to play the games that weekend, kept coming back to a statement he recalled by one of the country’s founding fathers, Thomas Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” So when he sat down to compose his thoughts at 4:45 a.m. in his kitchen on 78th Street in Manhattan, he hand-wrote:
Such events try our hearts and souls. As a nation and as individuals, we will respond in many ways on many fronts. We will carry on—not move and forget—but carry on. But we will not play NFL games this weekend.
Tagliabue felt that in those hours he had to bury some of his emotion and make responsible decisions. But he also knew he couldn't be devoid of emotion. He cried with Ed Tighe. He told league office employees to pray for the missing. He walked up to New York cops on the street and thanked them. And he had to think about stadium security as he never had before. In short, he had to lead.
“I think if you’re a chief executive, or you’re the captain of the basketball team, or you’re the principal of the school, you know that it’s your responsibility to lead and to make decisions,” he says now. “Leadership is about lots of things, but it includes making decisions and making hard choices. It also means acting quickly in crises … It was clear that we had a platform that was respected. We had a voice that would be listened to if it was saying intelligent things. I think the league can really set a tone and be a leader in ways that go quite beyond football games.
“At the time, the country was looking for leaders who were doing things that people felt needed to be done. I think most of all, it was, Forget about your differences. Forget about your own needs. Focus on what you have in common with other people and focus on the needs of others. Make it your own responsibility to support others and be a good citizen. I felt from the beginning, don’t worry about replaying the week of games that we’re canceling. In some way, we’ll get that done. That was a detail.”
The league ended up keeping the 16-game schedule. Tagliabue and Goodell made the deal with the auto dealers, and the Super Bowl was pushed back a week. Tagliabue was right. That was a detail. The games went on, a week later. Tagliabue told his staff the league needed to create a sense of community across the country; the nation had to feel what New York and Washington and Shanksville were feeling. And the NFL planned for a boffo Sept. 23 re-emergence: With somber New York firefighters flanking him, Jon Bon Jovi sang the national anthem from a Manhattan firehouse that had suffered horrific casualties with firefighters rushing to the towers. That anthem was piped in to every stadium as the players lined up for the games.
Firemen’s boots would be passed through the crowd at every game, to collect money from every crowd for the 9/11 fund for the victims’ families. In Kansas City, the defending NFC champion Giants would be coming to town to play the underdog Chiefs—two lion owners, Clark Hunt of the Chiefs and Mara of the Giants—facing off in an emotional game. Hunt said he would match whatever money was stuffed into the hundreds of firemen’s boots during the game. College students in shorts and T-shirts threw in twenties. Kids who knew the plan that day brought their piggy-bank money; one dumped in $54 of change. Fans were told to arrive early, and they did. Because before the game, the new NFL mandated security was in force: Every one of the 78,000 fans was security-checked on the way into the stadium.
The heartland hates big, bad New York, mostly. That day, when the New York Giants jogged onto the Arrowhead Stadium turf for warmups, every fan in the place rose. Standing ovation. Tagliabue was in the stadium. The ovation, again, made him misty. During a pre-game rendition of "God Bless America" the Giants didn’t stand in formation on the sidelines, as they do for the national anthem. They stood next to the bottom row of the stands; each player holding hands with a fan.
“The fans, the players, so many people, were crying,” said Jason Garrett, the Giants’ backup quarterback that day. “One of the most amazing days I’ve ever seen on a football field.”
Most in the press box cried, too.
“Stadiums full of fans in red, white and blue, flags waving and teams honoring the victims and first-responders and the military … all of that was as unifying and healing as anything the government could have done,” said Horrigan. “The games became a metaphor for life.”
* * *
The Carolina owner, Jerry Richardson, had just eight years of ownership experience since the Panthers were awarded a franchise in 1993. But he’d earned a lot of respect in the league in his time as Carolina’s steward, for a few reasons. He was a former NFL player, a backup Baltimore Colts wide receiver who took his 1958 NFL championship earnings and plowed the money into buying a Hardee’s franchise in the Carolinas, where he was from. Tagliabue loved that he was a self-made man, and self-made by virtue of what he did in the NFL. Richardson kept adding fast-food franchises till he owned a slew of them and had made millions.
Richardson desperately wanted an NFL franchise for the Carolinas, but he didn’t try to pirate an existing team. Rather, he pursued an expansion franchise, and got in line with the other cities frothing for a team, and did everything right in pursuing a team, which he was awarded in 1993. Talk about doing it with the right touch, and capitalizing on a burgeoning two-state market: Richardson was so intent on building a regional team (with roots in North Carolina and South Carolina) that he put training camp in Spartanburg, S.C., and the team in Charlotte, N.C., and when he built the stadium, he had plants indigenous to South Carolina on the southern half of the perimeter of the stadium, and North Carolina vegetation on the north side of the perimeter.
Tagliabue had a kitchen cabinet for quite a while, with Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney and the Giants’ Mara cornerstone members. But in just a few years, Richardson had gotten into Tagliabue’s inner circle. He was a big man, 6-4, with a big presence and booming voice. Richardson’s word was bond with Tagliabue. Before Richardson left New York a couple of days after 9/11—in a black car, ferried by his regular Shamrock Car Service chauffeur when he came to New York, driving the 716 miles from New York to Charlotte because no one was allowed to fly in the days after the attack—Tagliabue was swayed by Richardson wanting to soldier on and play the games that weekend. Swayed, but not convinced.
Which is why the most significant piece of correspondence Tagliabue recalls receiving after he made the decision to grieve and pray that first weekend, rather than play the games, came form Richardson. It was dated Sept. 15, 2001, the Saturday after the towers fell, and postmarked Charlotte.
The note, cursive written in black pen, was sent to Tagliabue and copied to Mara and Rooney and players union chief Gene Upshaw. It read:
I was wrong. You made the right decision to cancel all NFL games this weekend.
* * *
On Oct. 12, 2001, Tagliabue gathered all NFL office employees in New York for a staff meeting to brief them on all league issues. He showed me a transcript of his remarks, and the remarks of league counsel Jeff Pash, that day.
Tagliabue told the owners “that we need a change of mindset throughout the league, which is the same change of mindset that needs to take place throughout the nation. We need to recognize that these threats are real. They extend to every part of the economy, including sports and entertainment.” He said the league, very quietly, had done three things about security:
- Perimeter security of all stadiums was strengthened, pushing the perimeters for security out hundreds of feet “to eliminate the risk that vehicles can be used, as they were in Oklahoma City, to deliver a bomb or other toxic material, to a stadium on game day.”
- Air space above stadiums. Though advertisers wanted to resume overhead ads and blimp shots of stadiums, the league and the Federal Aviation Administration kept the post-9/11 restrictions hard and fast.
- Domes. “There have been major changes in how the domes are operating,” Tagliabue told the employees, “because we have been advised that the air circulation system in a domed stadium could be used by a terrorist group to disseminate whatever that group wanted to disseminate. So some stadiums are no longer taking in external air—they are simply recirculating internal air. All stadiums have put air-intake systems under armed guard.”
I asked Tagliabue in Washington: Don’t you find it amazing that in the 13 years since the attacks the NFL hasn’t had a major incident at a stadium?
“I think it starts with government policy and government strategy and activities—intelligence-collecting,” he said. “I think that we tend to underestimate the importance of all of that as a society. The private sector, I think, has collaborated well with the government. I know we did at the NFL, collaborating with the FBI and other agencies of the federal government—including Homeland Security. Being vigilant and investing in resources and techniques that make it very difficult for people to contemplate attacking public venues. Other societies … we’ve seen recently in Africa where a shopping mall becomes a target. Not just a target, but also a killing ground. We haven’t had that, and I think it’s because a lot of people have become vigilant and smart. Maybe there’s a little bit of luck too.”
* * *
“You were commissioner for 17 years,” I said. “Where does responding to 9/11 rank on your list of accomplishments?”
Tagliabue never has been a self-promoter. I thought he’d say, That’s for others to judge. But this is how he answered:
“I think in terms of the importance of this issue to the league and to the nation, this has to rank as No. 1.”
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