As everyone, I think back to where I was and what I was doing on this solemn remembrance of 9/11 a decade ago. On a personal level, it was obviously gut-wrenching as I, like so many people, lost people that I knew. On a professional level, I will never forget that time as an executive with the Packers, as we were scheduled to play the Giants a few miles from Ground Zero that weekend.
Driving into work at Lambeau Field, I heard sportscaster Warner Wolf – a well-known figure in Washington, D.C., where I grew up – report on the Don Imus program that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. At that point, the mood was not terribly serious as it was not entirely clear what was happening. When I arrived at the Packer offices moments later, the tone had changed dramatically.
Jerry Parins, the Packers’ Director of Security, was staring at the television set with tears flowing down his cheeks. Jerry has a heart of gold and was a favorite of all of us at the Packers; his mood reflected what was going on as we watched the towers fall. There was an odd sense of security living in our remote location in Northeastern Wisconsin, but a fear nonetheless in what was and could be happening around the country.
The game ahead
As the day progressed, the more mundane matter of our game taking place a few miles away from the site of the tragedy had to be broached. That, of course, was not possible. Giants Stadium was being used for staging of emergency medical services and the recipient of hundreds of body bags from the disaster.
Communication with the NFL office in New York was spotty at best. I had been trying to reach friends there all morning without success although one colleague there did leave a message that everyone was safe but our friend – not named to respect his privacy – was fearing the worst for his wife who was in the towers. Tragically, his fears were confirmed (my wife also lost a friend and her friend's daughter who were on the flight that originated in Boston).
We were told later that night that things were still fluid and that Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFLPA chief Gene Upshaw were yet to take up to the matter of games that weekend, as they were ensuring the safety of their employees and families first. Tagliabue and Upshaw, who already had a good relationship, forged a deeper bond through this tragedy as both lost close friends in the disaster and helped each other through it personally and professionally.
Moving game to Lambeau?
Over the next two days, a number of potential scenarios were discussed. If the games were going to be played, we were preparing to host – rather than visit – the Giants on Monday night. We would then be hosting two consecutive Monday night games, with the Redskins coming to Green Bay a week later. But, due to the obvious, playing at the Meadowlands was out.
Now, as I drove my family 18 hours back to the east coast for a wedding – flying was out of the question – I was working on the premise that we were to be hosting the Giants on that Monday night. However, after the NFLPA and Upshaw held a player conference call, some strong doubt surfaced about playing the game.
ICONStrahan led players in voting against playing.
Players were quite vociferous in showing their strong opposition to playing; Giant players Michael Strahan and Jason Sehorn among the harshest critics. By the middle of the week, a decision was made to postpone the games of that weekend until the weekend following the last scheduled regular season game, with the elimination of the bye week prior to the Super Bowl. The decision resonated with the teams, the league, and the entire country as football was insignificant at that time.
When the NFL resumed its schedule the following week, patriotic feelings had never been stronger. As scheduled, we hosted that Monday night game against the Redskins and unfurled a monstrous USA-shaped flag for the anthem held by firefighters and policemen from around the state. When our linebacker Chris Gizzi, a graduate of the Air Force, came sprinting out of the tunnel carrying the flag and leading our team – a scene recreated this week in the opener against the Saints – spines tingled throughout Lambeau, Wisconsin and the nation. It was a truly special moment in time following the worst tragedy of our era.
Back to Ground Zero
We did play that extra game at the end of the season, the game known for Michael Strahan, ahem, setting the regular season sack record by sacking Brett Favre.
More importantly, we were given a tour of Ground Zero on the day before the game. The starkness of the site was striking, and the notes left on the wall by children to their parents who had perished caused dozens of big, strong, and tough football players to stand there reading and crying. I felt sad for our players who opted not to take the tour and proceed directly to the hotel – this opportunity should not have been missed. I am sure they regret that.
This was our story at the Packers a decade ago this weekend, a weekend without football following a week that changed the world. We remember that day and those who perished a decade later...
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