This is an article from the Sept. 12, 2011 issue
FENWAY PARK on a warm, cloudless summer afternoon, the United States of America's 235th birthday. I'm in the grandstand, a paying customer, sitting next to my son. It is nearly game time when the stadium announcer informs the fans that we will be hearing a message from Bridget Lydon, a Navy petty officer from Quincy, Mass. Her family is gathered near the pitcher's mound as Lydon's image appears on the massive centerfield scoreboard, beamed from the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan in the Persian Gulf. Lydon has not seen her family since being deployed in October, and now she speaks powerfully to them and to all of us inside the ballpark, concluding with "Happy Fourth of July!"
As she finishes—even a little before she finishes—a door opens in the famous green leftfield wall. A figure emerges, in dress whites. It is the 24-year-old Lydon, at first walking and then running toward her family, which races to meet her in shallow leftfield. They collide, literally and emotionally. Applause swells through the park, building to a steady roar. In the stands a woman dabs at her eyes. A man cups his hand to his mouth and swallows hard. The moment does not fail as theater. But it does not fail as reality, either. In the middle of the seventh inning, Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Garcia sings God Bless America, which is not an everyday occurrence here (only at Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium). There are tears again.
Yet during these moments I also see feet shuffling in the stands, gazes averted to the ground, a palpable eagerness to get on with the game. Ten years have passed since the attacks. Ten years since many Americans went to games to find a salve for their bewilderment and fear and to wrap themselves in familiarity. There was no ambiguity then; we were angry and hurt, and sports helped us find a path through the darkness. A decade later it's not quite so dark, and the relationship between our healing and our games is not nearly so clear.
THIS WAS on a Sunday morning, five days after the attacks. Behind the wheel, four lanes of southbound New Jersey Turnpike rising and falling in late-summer sunshine, nearly deserted instead of chaotic. Past the stadium and the swamp, past the oil tanks and the airport, past the gas stations and the superstores, like so many times before. This used to be my way home. Everything so familiar. Except there to the east where the towers should be, a smoldering plume of dark-gray smoke drifting into the blue sky, symbolizing what lay below.
Over the Goethals Bridge to Staten Island, where the Andruzzi boys were raised. Three firefighters and a football player. On their mother Mary Ann's kitchen table, a copy of the Sunday Staten Island Advance, a venerable broadsheet open to a page with nothing but head shots of firefighters and policemen lost. Then another page. And another. So many of them lived in this borough. Standing outside next to the concrete stoop with Joe, son number three, the football player, waiting for his brothers to arrive. He was once an undrafted free agent out of Southern Connecticut State who discovered that the guys from name schools weren't any bigger or stronger. Five months later, in February 2002, he will win a Super Bowl ring as a starting guard for the Patriots. Then he will win two more.
Joe was in a dentist's chair in Massachusetts when he heard of the attacks. For five hours he feared for his brothers' lives before he learned that they were all safe. Jimmy, the second oldest, escaped from the North Tower less than a minute before its collapse. It had always bothered Joe that he is paid so much to play a game and his brothers are paid so little to risk their lives. That feeling is intensified on this day. "The wage difference, it doesn't feel right for what they do," says Joe. "Athletes have short careers, but [firemen] run into burning buildings when other people are running out." Jimmy comes home and tells me his story, and that story is written. It is a harrowing and emotional story, not unlike many survivors' tales from that day. No more important. No less important. But it is his story. The brother of the football player.
There were no games that weekend. No NFL games. No college football games. No baseball games. On the night of Friday, Sept. 21, baseball resumed in New York City. At Shea Stadium, Mike Piazza hit a game-winning home run for the Mets, and the city celebrated more than a baseball game. "That particular moment," says Piazza now, 10 years later, "I can't describe it as anything more than divine intervention and my prayers being answered and God giving me that calmness and ability to execute in a time of stress." Piazza played four more years for the team and retired after the 2007 season, yet New Yorkers still approach and thank him for that night.
Two days later pro football, America's sport, resumed in full. The Patriots hosted the Jets in Foxborough, and all the Andruzzi boys, along with their father, Bill, a retired New York police detective, were honored in a pregame ceremony. "It's probably the last time you would ever see Patriots fans and Jets fans holding hands," says Andruzzi today. "But they weren't standing up for the Patriots or the Jets, you know? They were standing up for their country."
It was a beginning. But where would we go from there with our games and our new reality?
A RESTAURANT IN Tempe, not far from Sun Devil Stadium and the campus of Arizona State University. Across the table from me sit a senior linebacker named Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin, a baseball player at the same school. Ten years post-9/11, Pat Tillman is the most famous casualty of the wars that followed the terrorist attacks. He was taken in the seventh round of the '98 NFL draft by the Cardinals and played four seasons before turning his back on football, and football money, to enlist in the Army. Kevin, who had played for a year in the Indians' system, also enlisted and was assigned to the same Ranger unit. Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.
Wherever it is that 9/11 intersects with sports, Tillman is standing there in a uniform. Which one you picture him wearing says much about your view of this entire paradigm.
Hours of footage and millions of keystrokes have been expended deciphering Tillman's reasons for joining the military, which he never discussed publicly. The Tillman who spoke that day and the next in 1997 understood that sports are not larger than life, just a part of life. He had no use for honors. He had just been named Pac-10 defensive player of the year, but dismissed it. "It doesn't do me any good to be proud," he said. He loved the purity of a big shoulder hit and the intellectual triumph of reading an opponent's body to know where he might go (and then to get there first). He loved to win and to get better and to move on to the next thing. If Tillman had not enlisted in the Army after 9/11, it would have been fascinating to see what nonmilitary motivation he would have drawn from the attacks. And this, for many, is the seminal legacy of 9/11 and sports: It has given some people a purpose to their competition, and a deeper meaning to their own personal games.
Someone like Christa Horrocks. Her father, Michael, once the quarterback at West Chester (Pa.) State and later a Marine, was the first officer on United Flight 175, the second plane flown into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He was one of 65 people killed aboard that flight, including five hijackers and eight other crew members. Michael left behind a wife and two children in the Philadelphia suburb of Glen Mills, Pa. One of them was a nine-year-old named Christa.
Since she was seven she had loved to run. Her mom tried to get her to ride a bike, but she ran instead. And on some days her dad would run alongside and then outkick Christa at the end, reminding her that somebody wins the race and everybody else loses. "He was very competitive," says Christa, "which is where I think I got my edge."
After her father was killed, Christa, her mother and younger brother didn't go home for a week, instead staying with an aunt and uncle. When she did return home, the pain of her dad's absence was so powerful that she would simply go outside and run. And find him there. "It was my way to be a part of him," Christa says. "In my mind, [the attacks] made running more important, because I felt like I was doing something for my dad." Such a little girl, and she would run for as long as 90 minutes. Slowly, something she did to escape the pain of losing her father was transformed into a goal to chase.
She became a sprinter at Penncrest High, specializing in the 200 and 400 meters. She runs upright, with her chest a little too high, and that's just the way her father ran too. When Christa was a freshman, her aunt Jennifer watched her run and was so reminded of Michael that she began to cry. Now Christa is a sophomore on partial scholarship, running for the track team at the College of Charleston—and never alone. "I feel because he's gone," Christa says of her father, "it's the only way I can give glory to him. It's the only connection I can have. I want to make him proud, still, and he really is with me."
Or someone like Jason Read, who had done two unusual and admirable things long before 9/11. First, in 1994 at the age of 16, he became the youngest emergency medical technician in New Jersey, working out of the station in his hometown of Ringoes. Then, at a little under 6 feet and barely 160 pounds, he became one of the best heavyweight rowers in the country, excelling at Temple and on U.S. national teams in a sport in which his boatmates commonly were eight inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. It was a measure of not just his freakish aerobic system but a deep reserve of toughness and will in a punishing sport.
Read didn't make the 2000 Olympic team and watched the Sydney opening ceremonies from a dorm room at Princeton, where he was training. He promised himself: There's no f---ing way I'm watching on TV in 2004. In the days after the attacks on 9/11, Read, who was both training for crew and working as a chief rescue officer, spent four days working on the pile at Ground Zero. "My generation had never seen anything like this," Read says. "No World War II, no Korea, no Vietnam. But I had always felt pulled toward citizenship and service." The work unhinged Read, as it did many others. "There was a palpable and incredible spirit down there," says Read. "But once you withdrew from that environment, it was hard to reconcile the work you had been doing, which was pulling bodies out and putting them in body bags."
He found release back on the water, his hands on an oar. "What got me out of it was rowing," he says. And then even more. "I've probably done CPR on 100 people," says Read. "I did CPR on an 11-year-old boy who was on his way to church, and died. But in that role, you detach yourself. The lesson of 9/11 for me was that reality can become mortality in a nanosecond. And hard exercise is the most underprescribed antidepressant on earth."
In the summer of 2004, Read sat bow seat in the U.S. eight that won its first gold medal in 40 years. At 33, he is the oldest man actively competing for a sweep spot in the U.S. team that will row in London next summer. He remains driven by the urgency he learned a decade ago and intoxicated by the athletic performance it fueled. "You're representing everyone," he says. "You can win a gold medal to honor those who were killed."
TEN YEARS ago Americans watched their Piazzas, their Andruzzi boys. They watched in New York City, and they also watched in places far from New York City and drew strength from being together and embracing the familiar. "People were looking for some association with consistency and normalcy as it was known prior to that day," says Bobby Valentine, who was the Mets' manager in 2001. "Sports provided that."
A memorial will officially open at the World Trade Center site on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. But the grieving will continue a very long time for America, the healing even longer. Epic as they can be, the sports we adore as fans are not built to carry us emotionally forever. They move us through the cycles of a game or a season, letting us escape into a world that is more exciting than our own. An athletic metaphor is appropriate: Sports could not possibly keep up the pace at which they helped soothe Americans in the days following the attacks on 9/11. Eventually, they would just be sports again. Have people used them to remember? Or to forget and escape? And would this question have been answered any differently on Sept. 10, 2001?
Joe Higgins, 50, is a former Marine and retired New York City firefighter who lost his older brother Tim on 9/11. Higgins left the fire department in 2003, suffering from illnesses he believes are related to his time at Ground Zero. He is also a boxing coach who runs one of the top amateur gyms in the New York metropolitan area, and like Jason Read, he sees athletics as a conduit for patriotism. "I absolutely believe that I can change attitudes and make kids feel proud to fight for their country and fight for the flag," says Higgins.
But that's very different from deputizing America's professional athletes and teams to extend the feelings beyond the early recovery. Higgins remembers the Piazza home run. "It was therapeutic," he says. "It was almost like a reverse situation. They were treating the real heroes in this world like they should be treated, and we appreciated it." But now? "I don't think 9/11 has changed sports at all."
No, it changed us. And since 9/11 the experience of going to a game has changed significantly. It's not possible to enter a professional or major-college stadium without surrendering to a security search of some type, one that many fans find superficial at best, comical at worst. And there are often ceremonies like the one that brought Bridget Lydon back to Boston. At Nationals Park in Washington, for instance, around 30 premium seats for each game are set aside for veterans, active-duty servicemen and their families. They are introduced at the end of the third inning, to regular ovations. Cynics might dismiss such rituals as forced or even exploitative, such applause as the perfunctory expression of a guilt-ridden, captive audience. But it should be noted: As 9/11 recedes in memory and wars continue in remote regions with little media coverage, stadiums have become one of the few public venues that regularly ask Americans to pause and reflect on American suffering and sacrifice.
Consider William (Spanky) Gibson. A native Oklahoman and wrestler in high school, Gibson enlisted in the Marines at 17, completed Ranger school and did combat tours in Iraq and Somalia before he turned 30. He was working as a recruiter in Japan on 9/11 and volunteered for more combat. On May 16, 2006, in Iraq, he was shot in the left knee, and his leg was amputated above that knee. Five months later he ran a 5,000-meter road race on his prosthesis, followed by a half-Ironman triathlon and the Marine Corps Marathon. "When you're hurt like I was, people keep telling you what you can't do," says Gibson. "My first reaction was to say, 'I'll show you what I can't do.'" He later returned to Iraq as the U.S. armed forces' first above-the-knee amputee to be deployed in a combat zone.
Now 40, Spanky Gibson is the catcher on the Wounded Warrior softball team. He received a Tillman Scholarship from the Pat Tillman Foundation that Gibson used to help pay for tuition at Maryland, from which he graduated in 2010 with a degree in psychology. Gibson goes to games and sees the ceremonies. He is not among the bitter or the cynical. "What they do in those ballparks," he says, "it's enough. Today's society is so different. Everything is quick. Honor the veterans! Play the game! Go home! But here's the kicker: Those fans are thinking about something for those few seconds. Nine-eleven or the war or servicemen. Then there will be another split second somewhere when it happens again. And those split seconds add up. And then they'll see me getting gas somewhere, and they'll come over and say 'Thank you for your service.' It happens all the time."
We are a country that customarily paints in grand strokes, whether in the darkness of tragedy or in the bright light of celebration. We go big or we go home. One morning airplanes dropped from the sky and changed our lives. Sports were there to help, giving us public venues to gather to mourn the lost, places to praise the brave and to promise that we would always carry on. Places to hold hands and beseech a safe and distant future.
A decade later, the passion has hardened, complicated by the hard and divisive work of safety at home and war abroad. We have grown impatient with our leaders, perhaps unsure at how to express exhausting emotions, unsure of our prospects in Afghanistan and Iraq. But this much is true: That future is closer. Sports are still here. Still helping. On Sept. 11, 2011, many moments of silence will be observed in many stadiums across the country. Let them all resonate.