As everyone, I think back to where I was and what I was doing on this solemn remembrance of 9/11. On a personal level, it was an obviously gut-wrenching time as I, like so many people, lost someone I knew in the tragedy. On a professional level as an executive with the Packers, it was a week of many twists and turns, navigating a landscape that was changing by the hour, if not the minute. It was a week during which the Packers were scheduled to play a game a few miles away from Ground Zero, a game that did happen, but not until three months later. Here is my memory..
Driving into work at Lambeau Field early on that Tuesday morning following our opening game—a home win against the Lions—I heard a report on the radio that some sort of plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. The mood was not terribly serious at that point, but it was unclear what exactly was happening.
The tenor of the moment changed dramatically when I arrived at our Lambeau Field offices moments later. I first saw Jerry Parins, our Director of Security for many years and a former police officer, staring blindly at the television set with tears flowing down his cheeks, watching one of the Twin Towers fall, followed soon by the other. Upon seeing that, I knew that beyond the personal tragedies going on, everything in our professional world would also be changing. I also remember that as the magnitude of the moment became clearer, there was an odd sense of security living in our remote location in rural Wisconsin.
Business as usual?
As the day progressed, the more mundane matter of what to do about the Week 2 schedule took center stage. The Packers’ scheduled game was against the Giants at the Meadowlands, a couple of miles away from Ground Zero. Staging a game there, of course, was not going to happen; Giants Stadium—as it was called—was being used for staging of emergency medical services.
I tried to communicate with the NFL offices but connectivity to New York City was spotty at best. I was able to reach one NFL contacts who informed me that everyone there was safe but they were fearing the worst for the wife of a colleague who worked in the Towers. Tragically, those fears were realized.
When I finally heard back from the league after seeking some direction on the weekend, I was told that things were still fluid and commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFLPA chief Gene Upshaw would be addressing the matter when they could. As it turned out, Tagliabue and Upshaw had each lost close friends in this disaster and strengthened an already close working relationship with a deeper personal bond through this tragedy.
Moving the game to Lambeau Field?
In discussing potential options with the league over the next two days while deliberations between Tagliabue and Upshaw were ongoing, a number of potential scenarios were discussed. One increasingly discussed option was that the Packers would host—rather than visit—the Giants, and the game would be on Monday night of that week. We would do so even knowing we would also be hosting Monday Night Football the following week, against the Redskins. Two consecutive Monday night games at Lambeau was certainly a unique and unheard-of possibility, but these were unique and unheard-of times. That possibility, however, dissipated after the NFLPA and Upshaw held a player conference call on Wednesday evening of that week.
From what I heard about that union conference call, players were adamant about not playing the game due what was going on in our country yet still finding a way to get paid for the week. Following that call on Wednesday night Upshaw and Tagliabue made a decision: The Week 2 schedule would be postponed until the weekend following the last scheduled regular season game, and the bye week prior to the Super Bowl would be eliminated. We would not be hosting Monday Night Football two weeks in a row, but we would still be hosting it the following week. The decision not to play, as I remember, resonated through the country as football—as popular as it was—was insignificant at that time.
When the schedule resumed, crowds were steeped in patriotism, nowhere more vivid than our Monday night game. We commissioned a massive flag for the anthem, which was to be held on field by firefighters and policemen from around the state. In a scene etched in so many memories, our linebacker Chris Gizzi—a graduate of the Air Force—came sprinting out of our tunnel carrying the flag and leading our team. It was a truly special moment in time following the worst tragedy of our era.
Back to Ground Zero
We did play that game against the Giants, originally scheduled for Week 2, at the end of the season. It turned out to be a meaningless game for playoff positioning and is now known as the game that Michael Strahan, ahem, sacked Brett Favre to set the regular season sack record.
More vivid in my memory is the day before the game, when we were given a tour of Ground Zero. The solemn nature of the site was striking, especially the notes left by children to parents who had perished. I observed NFL football players brought to tears this day before a game. Management later regretted not making this trip mandatory and felt sad for our players who opted not to take the tour and proceed directly to the hotel. It was a special moment for which we should have mandated attendance, unless the player had any special reason against doing so.
The flag and the anthem immediately became more ingrained in the pre-game script in staging our games and games around the league. And many of us, including myself, felt a bit queasy with verbiage referring to our draft room as the “War Room” for a time. As with all things, however, time dissipated that patriotic fervor (although now renewed as part of this protest issue) and draft rooms were soon called “War Rooms” once again.
The memory and impact of 9/11, however, will always live on.