The healing power of college football

Joel Coleman

Larry Templeton pulled up at the airport in Atlanta. The first thing he saw were Army tanks.

Templeton, the former Mississippi State athletic director, along with then-Arkansas women’s athletic director Bev Lewis and then-Auburn athletic director David Housel had spent the previous day in a rental car driving back to the South from Philadelphia after an NCAA championship meeting.

The trio of administrators, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t have needed an automobile. These were no ordinary circumstances.

Planes across the country were grounded. It was in the days immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Now, at the entrance to this airport as Housel tried to get back to his car with tanks everywhere, the magnitude of things really began to sink in for Templeton.

“They said, ‘Mr. Housel, we’ll be happy to take you to your vehicle but nobody else is going with us,’” Templeton recalled last week. “That’s when it all kind of hit home.”

Anyone who can remember 9/11 and the days that followed can relate to many of the thoughts swirling through Templeton’s head. It was a period of time marked by uncertainty. No one knew what the next day would bring.

It’s not totally unlike the current state of affairs in the world, albeit in 2020, it’s an invisible enemy—the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)—that has struck. It has shaken America, and the world, to its core and caused things to grind to a halt.

No, these two situations aren’t identical by any means, but there are certainly parallels, including the stoppage of sports. What follows here is the story of how Mississippi State helped the nation get back to normal 19 years ago by returning football to the public. It’s also possibly a foreshadowing of how, perhaps later this year, college football could once again make things seem right.

The road home

Before the airport scene Templeton remembers so well, he’d spent all the day after 9/11 in the car with Lewis and Housel on the way home. Templeton said most of the trip back was spent with the three individuals all on their phones.

“Wearing them out,” Templeton described it.

The talks were with then-Southeastern Conference commissioner Roy Kramer and the other athletic directors of the SEC. They were doing their best to come up with a plan for football the coming weekend. Initially, it was decided the games would go on, exactly as planned. Only four days after around 3,000 people were killed, football was scheduled to be played….then it wasn’t.

By Thursday, once Templeton had gotten back to Starkville, the NFL had decided it wasn’t going to proceed as normal and the SEC elected to follow suit. Mississippi State’s originally-scheduled game against BYU would get pushed back to the end of the 2001 slate. The Bulldogs did have another game coming quickly though, set for Thursday, Sept. 20—nine days after the attacks. What about that one?

“Commissioner Kramer called me and said The White House wants us to play college football,” Templeton said. “So then all of a sudden we started putting it all in motion.”

Back in the routine

Templeton had things to do. That’s putting it mildly. This was going to be the first college football game and first gathering of this size since the attacks. His plate was pretty full.

Meanwhile, then-MSU head coach Jackie Sherrill had his own job to do. He had to get a roster full of young men ready to return to action for a game that would be unlike any of them had played before, or would ever play again.

“You had to get back in the same routine,” Sherrill said. “Still there were an awful lot of players who had relatives or part of their families are either military people or descendants (or were involved in some way with the aftermath of 9/11). Their thoughts were not focused purely on the game. You had to give the players time to (process everything).”

Quarterback Wayne Madkin recounts practice leading up to the South Carolina game as a time that he and his teammates certainly had trouble locking in.

“That’s the most hard part knowing you’ve got all these other emotions going on around you and yet you still have to be ready to play a football game on national television,” Madkin said. “That’s tough.”

Nonetheless, the Bulldogs soldiered through with all eyes on the Thursday night kickoff on ESPN.

It was a big game too. Both teams were ranked inside the Top 20 and unbeaten. Given the framework of the game though, the contest itself seemed totally secondary to the magnitude of the moment.

“Once we were told that we were going to be back on with South Carolina and that’s going to be the first football game back on, we knew that this was something that was going to be remembered for the rest of our lives,” Madkin said.

Pregame

Despite all the preparations and security measures, there was still, at the very least, a touch of uneasiness amongst many as the fans piled into Davis Wade Stadium.

“Well I know safety issues were talked about during that week,” Madkin said. “We had more security at that game. I think from what I gathered and what I heard there were some helicopters and stuff that were close around. Nobody knew exactly if there was going to be a second attack with this (being a) large gathering. So there were things put in place and some things we probably didn’t even know about as players because Coach Sherrill was still trying to get us prepared to play the game itself.”

Templeton, meanwhile, was quietly confident all was as secure as could be. He saw a team effort come together to ensure the well-being of everyone at the game.

“Early in the process, there were some concerns, but everybody in the world joined in—the Mississippi National Guard, the FBI and everybody participated and I remember we closed some streets around the stadium that normally weren’t closed,” Templeton said. “We put up some barricades in places. Then once we had those people involved, I felt pretty secure in that we were doing the right thing because you could just feel it among the people—the excitement of getting back to doing something normal was important.”

Normal might be a little bit of a stretch, at least initially. This game, for essentially everyone, just felt different.

For those watching at home on television, ESPN commentator Mark Jones welcomed them and described the scene this way as soon as the broadcast hit the air.

“Welcome to Starkville and welcome back to college football,” Jones said. “College football has always been inextricably and distinctively woven into the fabric of America. Fabric that was temporarily, I add just temporarily, severed—but not irreparably—back on Sept. 11. Well today the players, with mindful hearts, are back on the field competing on the gridiron of brotherhood. The fans, they have come, too, in support. As for us (at ESPN), we are here simply to document the game and perhaps weave a single thread into the diverse fabric and quilt that is the greatness and the pride of our nation.”

From there, players from both Mississippi State and South Carolina walked slowly onto the field as a gigantic American flag was unfurled. The Bulldogs and Gamecocks held the flag together as one. MSU’s Famous Maroon Band played ‘America, the Beautiful’ during the proceedings.

“It was surreal,” Madkin said. “It’s something I can tell my kids about one day. Matter of fact, you don’t realize it, but that was part of something that is now sketched in history. You know, usually the opposing team gets booed when you go out and you get a little homefield advantage. In this particular case, we’re just all Americans. I may be in maroon and you may be in white and red right now, but right now, we’re all Americans and we’re going to show solidarity towards our country and get a sense of that normalcy and let everybody know it’s going to be okay. I think being part of that was really special.”

When the band went quiet, the crowd picked up the slack with loud chants of, ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’.

It was followed by a moment of silence that was eventually ended when a fan let one of the men suspected to be behind the 9/11 attacks know exactly how he felt—the way perhaps only a southern college football fan could.

‘I still remember to this day when there was complete silence, somebody yelled, ‘Go to hell, bin Laden, go to hell,’” Madkin said.

Virtually all in attendance then erupted as a prelude to another special moment. Sherrill’s daughter, Bonnie, sang what surely has to stand, given the circumstances, as one of the most powerful national anthems in the annals of college football.

Watching on was a proud father, about to coach his football team in a game that played a part in the healing of his country with his girl providing part of the soundtrack. As for that last part, Sherrill said he had to talk Templeton into letting Bonnie sing the anthem.

“Larry didn’t want to (let her),” Sherrill said. “He didn’t think she could. You have a lot of really big-name artists that won’t sing the national anthem because you have a delay (because of the echoing while singing on the field). What they’re hearing is not what they’re singing (in the moment). It takes an awful lot of concentration and the ability to not hear what you’re saying. There’s no question she did a great job. She finished it by hitting the high note which is very impressive.”

To wrap up the pregame festivities, all in attendance—players and fans alike—sang along as the band played ‘God Bless America’. Finally, both teams headed to their respective sidelines. It was now, after all the nation had been through in the days ahead, time for some football.

Game time

The game itself turned into a defensive battle. South Carolina ultimately came away with a 16-14 win. State scored a touchdown in the contest’s final minute to close the gap to the final margin, but the Bulldogs were unable to recover an ensuing onside kick.

“We ran out of minutes as we were coming back,” Madkin said.

As cliche as it might be, this was a night though where both the Bulldogs, Gamecocks and everyone at the stadium and watching at home on television could claim some level of victory. For it was just a little over one week before this when it seemed fair to question when Americans would feel safe again. This night in Starkville rubber stamped the fact that after the mighty sucker punch that was 9/11, the country was back.

“To be honest, I don’t even remember the game,” Templeton said. “There were so many things going on and once we got it started, there was such a relief. I thought, ‘Hey, we pulled this off and the nation is watching us.’ Both teams put on a great show and it accomplished what the country needed that night.”

Adds Sherrill:

“You were able to help set the stage to heal a lot of people’s feelings and move away from their fears. Every Mississippi State person can be very proud that they, either in person or in spirit, was able to watch Mississippi State do something and be the first to do it to help heal the U.S. after 9/11. It is a big deal for the Mississippi State family.”

The sequel?

So in the same way Mississippi State and South Carolina helped heal the country in the fall of 2001, can college football do it again this September as America attempts to get past the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on society? It remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that football would go a long way toward making things just seem right again.

Yes, other sports have already either restarted or put plans in motion to restart as the nation creeps back towards its old habits. But a gigantic exclamation point for the country’s comeback would be a glorious return of football to college campuses nationwide.

“I think there’s no question about that and I don’t know that it can get here fast enough to bring the country back together,” Templeton said. “I just know people need something to rally behind and the one thing that’s not political are sports. You know, you have your team and they have their team and we’re going to line up and go fight each other. So I think everybody is itching for it and ready to go.”

Hurdles absolutely remain to get to that point. And still, as of today, there are no guarantees when or even if college football will indeed be played as scheduled—or something close to it—in 2020.

Things have seemed to start trending that direction though. There have been encouraging decisions and signs that seem to point towards there being hope.

If that hope is realized, look no further than nearly two full decades ago in Starkville for the proof of how college football has the power to heal. It has done it before. It can do it again.

“The one thing that is consistent is that we’re all going to always be okay,” Madkin said. “We’re always going to make it over and you’re going to see brighter days and brighter times. If anything, you know history repeats itself. You’re going to have some times where it’s going to be a stumble. You’re going to have moments like in 2001 where it kind of humbles you, then you turn around and keep living and keep growing.

“I think it goes in that same court. We’re going to beat this. We’re going to come back stronger. It may take some time but at the end of it we’re all going to be better people for it.”

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