On Monday night, Sept. 10, 12 hours before the terrorist
attacks, the Florida Gators were already thinking of war. They
had just finished an intense, 90-minute practice in preparation
for their upcoming battle against SEC rival Tennessee, and at
that point no enemy seemed more sinister and no task more
important than whipping the Volunteers, who were scheduled to
visit the Swamp in five days.
On Tuesday morning, however, as the Gators learned of the
horrific events in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Somerset
County, Pa., they quickly realized how trivial their rivalry with
Tennessee was. Nonetheless, no major sport was more divided over
whether to cancel last week's games than college football, and no
major conference took more time than the SEC when it came to
asserting its own unimportance. While the ACC, Big East and
Pac-10 announced last Wednesday that they were postponing all
league games, SEC officials said that they were following the
suggestion of the Bush Administration in deciding to go ahead
with the conference's schedule.
Even after the Big 10 and the Big 12 started pulling out on
Thursday morning and the SEC reversed field that afternoon, SEC
commissioner Roy Kramer still seemed skeptical of the move,
telling The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, "We can't sit in
our living rooms watching television 24 hours a day." A day
earlier, on a sports radio show broadcast from Birmingham, he'd
scoffed at Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville for voting, in a survey
of conference coaches, against playing at LSU on Saturday night.
"He might have voted against going to Baton Rouge whether we had
this [terrorist] event or not," Kramer said.
Amid this chaos, Florida players struggled to cope, and perhaps
none was more unnerved than sophomore wideout Carlos Perez, who
was hurrying to a speech class that morning when he saw
classmates walking toward him. "Class canceled," one said with a
shrug. Puzzled, Perez returned to his dorm room, flipped on the
television and couldn't believe his eyes. "I started to panic,"
he said last Friday. And with good reason: His 28-year-old
brother, Danny, works as a consultant in a building across the
street from the World Trade Center. Carlos tried in vain to get
through to family members in Hoboken, N.J., by telephone. Then
his own phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line
said, "I'm fine. I'm off work today, and I'm safe." It was Danny,
and he was standing on the Hoboken waterfront, staring across the
September 23, 2001
Even Florida players fortunate enough not to have family or
friends linked to the tragedies were gripped by the need to hear
the voices of loved ones. "My first thought was that we'd gone to
war," said junior cornerback Lito Sheppard, who was in the locker
room getting dressed for a weightlifting session when he saw the
news on TV. "All I wanted to do was talk to Mya [his
four-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in
Jacksonville], but she was in preschool."
Nearly an hour later, as reports aired about the plane crash near
Pittsburgh, Sheppard and seven teammates headed to an on-campus
press conference that had been scheduled for weeks. The players
were to have been queried about Tennessee's ground game and
defensive schemes. Instead they were asked to make sense of a
national tragedy that several of them knew very little about. "It
seems like all hell is breaking loose," said junior tackle Mike
By midday, with classes canceled and most players staring at TV
sets in their apartments or dorm rooms, the status of Saturday's
game wasn't on the players' minds. Students posted signs around
campus that read COURAGE, while one Gainesville citizen waved a
tablecloth-sized American flag as he roller-skated near campus.
As sunset approached and students gathered for impromptu services
at churches, the Gators trudged quietly to the practice field.
"The thought of playing football was sickening at that point,"
says junior tight end Aaron Walker. Before drills began, the
players knelt on the field and bowed their heads for a prayer led
by senior fullback Rob Roberts. Count your blessings, he said
solemnly, and pray for the victims and their families.
The players' performance in practice was awful--"not much pep in
our step" is how Sheppard described it--but even Steve Spurrier,
one of the most demanding coaches in America, didn't have the
heart to holler about it. "When I saw the attack on TV, I had a
hard time going back to football," he'd said earlier that day.
"We could all tell that it affected him a great deal," said tight
ends coach Buddy Teevens, who had two acquaintances on one of the
ill-fated planes. "That's the human side to Spurrier that most
people don't see."
After practice the coaches went home, where game tape was put
aside in favor of continuing news coverage, and the players
gathered in small groups. Pearson, Walker and their roommates
called to check on former Florida quarterback Jesse Palmer, a
rookie with the New York Giants. "We never got through to him,
but we found out that he was O.K.," says Walker.
The next morning a majority of SEC officials agreed that going
ahead with the nine football games involving conference teams
would be an opportunity to, as Florida athletic director Jeremy
Foley put it, "celebrate the strength of our country." Upon
learning that they would wear American-flag decals on their
helmets and that $1 million in proceeds from the SEC games would
be donated to victims' families, some Gators began to get excited
about taking up the cause. As stories of heroism reached campus,
Sheppard and teammates talked about wishing they could have been
in a position to help the airline passengers in their struggle to
overcome the terrorists. That evening, after a more inspired
practice, some players gathered to watch Robin Hood--to get a
breather from the news.
By Wednesday night and Thursday morning, when players flipped to
a sports network, they heard one pro athlete after another
denouncing the idea of playing games over the weekend. Some
Gators started voicing their discomfort at the prospect of being
the nation's highest-profile sporting event on Saturday. Safety,
already a concern for the more than 80,000 people expected to
attend the game, was becoming a larger issue in light of
hurricane warnings for Florida. "As if we didn't have enough
distractions," says Pearson. The Gators started to wonder not
only about how appropriate playing on Saturday would be but also
about how well they could perform under the circumstances.
Last Thursday afternoon Spurrier was told that the SEC had
postponed all of its games, and he conceded that he was relieved.
"The mood of the country isn't on sporting events," he said. Soon
after the coaches entered the locker room, where players were
getting taped for their regular conditioning workout, and
announced the news. "There were sighs of disappointment and sighs
of relief," says Walker. "We had switched emotions on and off so
many times over those few days that we all felt a little of
After the Gators finished their sprints and were dismissed until
Monday, Spurrier said he was going home to be with his family and
suggested that the players do the same. Most of the team's 75
Florida natives obeyed, including Sheppard, who jumped in his
Gator-blue 1976 Chevy Impala and took off for Jacksonville, where
Mya would greet him. Perez called his mother, Patricia, who was
in the midst of an 18-hour drive to Gainesville to watch him
play. She was in South Carolina when she took his call and told
him that she was coming anyway, "just to be close" to him. "I'm
at the end of an emotional roller coaster," Carlos said that
night. "I think that it worked out the way God wanted it to work
On Friday, as the university packed food that was intended to be
served before the game and shipped it to rescue crews in New York
City and Washington, D.C., some Florida fans still felt the games
should have been played. "By not playing, the bad guys won a
small victory," said Gainesville resident Bob Wessells. Others
maintained that the postponement was for the best. "Victims are
suffering," said Jess Johnson, a sophomore who has attended
Gators football games since he was five. "Games can wait."
The Tennessee versus Florida game is likely to be rescheduled for
Dec. 1 and the SEC championship delayed a week, until Dec. 8. By
then football rivalries might feel right again, and the Swamp
will again be teeming with fired-up fans and players. At 3:30 on
Saturday, at what would have been kickoff, the stadium was eerily
silent in the wake of the tropical storm that had passed through
the night before. Over to the west, above the site of countless
kickoffs to come, the sun was beginning to break through.
The Gators started to wonder not only how appropriate playing
would be but also how well they could perform.