Vikings share their 9/11 memories

Steve Hutchinson (Tom Hauck/Getty)

Not many of today's Vikings were NFL players when terrorists hit the United States 10 years ago, but all Americans living at the time have their memories of that tragic day. Here are the stories of five Vikings, some from military families, spread across the country that day.

September 11th.

There are certain dates that carry a stigma with them, but only one has the seemingly lasting impact that the year doesn't have to be included – Sept. 11. That fact alone speaks to the magnitude of what happened and how much the United States of America changed in the span of two hours on a sunny September morn on the East Coast.

Sept. 11, 2001 became the seminal moment of this generation, and just about everyone knows exactly where they were and what they were doing when they got the news. For our grandparents' generation, the moment was Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and got the U.S. into World War II. For the next generation, it was Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas.

This generation had seen its moments – President Ronald Regan being shot, the space shuttle Challenger exploding – but they didn't match up with the magnitude of national sorrow that the previous ones did. Until Sept. 11, 2001.

Everyone has their own story. Viking Update asked a handful of players to comment on their recollections of Sept. 11 and the reaction was a bit unexpected. They will explain their versions in their own words.

Vikings head of security Kim Klawiter has his own interesting tale of that day. He was hired by the Vikings in 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks and concerns that stadiums with 60,000 or more fans could become terrorist targets for those looking for a "body count." He set the tone for what the rest of the interviews were going to bring. When asked what he was doing on Sept. 11 when he first heard the news of the terrorist attacks on the United States, his response brought up the hair on the back of one's neck.

"On Sept. 11, I was at Camp Ripley [near Little Falls, Minn.] teaching police officers how to conduct law enforcement funerals," Klawiter said.

When the news came out of a second plane crashing into the World Trade Center, followed just minutes later with reports that yet another plane had plowed into the Pentagon, Klawiter said it became readily apparent that this was going to be a day that, like Pearl Harbor, would live in infamy.

"We realized immediately that it was something huge," Klawiter said. "We were teaching people from the border patrol and law enforcement agencies from all over the country. We suddenly realized what we were teaching them we were going to have to put into practice very soon."

The reaction of Vikings players wasn't expected to be as chilling. After all, only a handful on the current roster was in the NFL at the time and most were either in high school or middle school. But age didn't make a difference on Sept. 11, 2001. The tragedy hit home with everyone in some way, shape or form.

What follows is a random sampling of how Sept. 11, 2001 changed how people perceive themselves, the world we live in, our own safety and, in many ways, our own mortality. Random death has a tendency to get people more patriotic and more spiritual. These are just five disparate stories. There are more, because, as we have found out, Sept. 11 is a day that will remain imprinted on the memories of just about everyone old enough to comprehend what happened that day.

What delineates a defining day? The memory it leaves. Sept. 11 is burned in our memory – like it or not. We all have a story. These are among them.

Redefining What A Hero Is

Christian Ponder was in his eighth grade Spanish class in Coffeyville, Texas, when the news broke. Ironically, his first impression of that day was a strange quirk of fate.

"Our Spanish class was in Room 911," Ponder said. "I'll never forget that. It was such a weird coincidence, but one that I still remember and kind of get a chill – just strange."

His lasting impression as someone barely old enough to comprehend the massive loss of life – and rock-in-still-water ripple effect of sorrow – is the real definition of a hero. Football players are the object of hero worship and Ponder said he gained a valuable lesson in humility as to what qualifies someone as a hero. The decade since hasn't changed that opinion. The thought of that day and the brave men and women who went up into the choking smoke and flames when everyone else was running away as fast as possible has imprinted itself in Ponder's memory.

"We just play football, we're not saving lives," Ponder said. "They sacrificed themselves going up into burning buildings. It's so unbelievable. What great heroes those people were – to sacrifice their lives for someone else – people they didn't even know. I don't know what I would do in that situation. I would like to think that I would be one of those people, but it's hard to tell, because I wasn't in it. It was a tragedy, but the way those people responded has always stuck with me. We came together as Americans that day and found some new heroes."

Tense Days For An Army Family

Linebacker Erin Henderson was a high school sophomore when the Sept. 11 attacks took place, but his wasn't a typical high school. Growing up in a military family, Henderson lived on the base at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. That fateful morning, word spread through his school almost immediately and he hasn't forgotten it since. With war on the horizon, Sept. 11 resonated louder and deeper for those with families in the military. They were heading into harm's way and the response was immediate.

"I remember it very vividly," Henderson said. "I saw a bunch of parents coming in and taking their kids out. We lived on an army base and there were nuclear weapons on the base. There was a lot of chaos trying to figure out where we were going to go from here and what we do next."

Military types are trained not to panic in a crisis and, for the most part, the evacuation of his high school took place in an orderly fashion, but it was clear that there was concerns that the attacks on New York and the Pentagon might merely be a precursor of things to come.

"We were only about three hours from New York and closer to Washington D.C.," Henderson said. "We didn't know if, because of the weapons we had there, if we might be a target. Those were some rocky days."

While normalcy of life returned in the ensuing days, Henderson said the entire school year was impacted, from football to the growing reality that the 9/11 attacks would lead the United States into war.

"That whole year, it kind of threw off everything, from football to everything else," Henderson said. "We had to cancel a couple of games because of that. There were a lot of people nervous about what might happen."

Ten years later, Henderson said that day has never left his memory. It is etched there for all the wrong reasons, but he hopes that something good has come from the tragedy.

"At this point in time, we just try to remember them and pay respect to the people that lost their lives on 9/11 and that we can make them proud," Henderson said.

Delayed Rookie Season

Steve Hutchinson had just finished the first professional game of his career in Seattle when the Sept. 11 attacks took place and, like so many others, he was notified of what was going on early – he saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center on television – and what was supposed to be his first regular-season off-day – typically a painful form of relaxation – was spent glued to the non-stop news coverage of the events.

"It was the Tuesday after my first game," Hutchinson said. "Because I lived on the West Coast, it all happened early in the morning out there. My phone starting ringing right after it happened – so quickly after it happened that we didn't know if it was a bombing or what. I was glued to the couch all day watching TV like so many other people were that day."

Hutchinson and other players gravitated to the team facility on their off day wondering where they would go from there. Perhaps out of wanting to share the experience with their football family, it was an event that brought people together. At that point, the NFL hadn't decided how to approach the tragedies. Could they play? Should they play? Hutch recalls there was heated debate on both sides of the issue.

Following the JFK assassination (on a Friday, no less), the NFL opted to play Nov. 24 to bring a sense of normalcy during national mourning. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative that the NFL didn't show the required respect for the death of the president to play. Due to the national news coverage of the assassination, none of the games were televised. The rival AFL announced it was cancelling its game out of respect. The NFL had a huge, raw egg hit it squarely in the face – Pete Rozelle said it was the worst decision he made as commissioner. Paul Tagliabue didn't make that call until Thursday afternoon, Sept. 13, 2001.

There were valid arguments on both sides from an angry nation that alternately wanted to mourn and spit in the face of the usurpers that dared bite the big dog.

"I remember the big argument that was going on within the league," Hutchinson said. "One side of the argument was do you go about business as usual and not give the terrorists the satisfaction that they disrupted our way of life? The other side was, do you [not play] out of respect and mourn that weekend? We didn't know until the end of the week what we were going to do. There were rumors that there could be more attacks in major cities. In Seattle, there was talk we could get hit – a landmark like the Space Needle and because we were a port city. It was hard to practice Wednesday and Thursday not knowing if we were going to play or what was going on. We were going through the motions, but I don't thing anyone's heart was fully in it."

As everyone knows, the NFL decided not to play that weekend. Hutchinson said his lasting memory is when they did return the following week. The shock had subsided. Defiance took over. An angry population wanted its NFL. His Seattle Seahawks hosted Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles and he still intimately recalls the pregame ceremony that involved not only the players, but local first responders.

"Donovan and I were talking about it the other day, because the Eagles came to Seattle to play us," Hutchinson said. "They had a flag for that game – it still gives me goose bumps – that was literally 100 yards long by 50 yards wide. It covered the entire field. I remember firemen, policemen and EMTs on either side of me as we all held the flag. It was special. It's something I'll never forget. A lot of the guys [in the current Vikings locker room] were very young then, but, as a professional athlete at that time, seeing the impact it had on us, our league and our fans was pretty substantial. It was an overwhelming deal."

Hutchinson said the lasting impact of the post-Sept. 11 world has been obvious, from beefed up security everywhere from malls to airports to changing attitudes toward what is termed a hero. There was a certain loss of innocence that day that, as Americans, we were safe from terrorism on such an enormous scale. Sept. 11 changed all that.

"I think everybody got a wake-up call to what reality was and that's apparent the way we live day-to-day now," Hutchinson said. "You go to the airport now on any given day, and the way security is now as opposed to what it was 10 years ago everything has changed. Coming from a military family, I've always looked up to the armed forces. My dad was also a police officer, so that sheds a little different light on it, but, on that day, the firemen and police officers that gave their lives going up those towers when everyone else was trying so hard to get out, it definitely opens your eyes a little bit."

Is President Bush Coming Here?

Phil Loadholt was a high school freshman when the attacks took place and, like Henderson, he came from a military family. Except his was on the other side of the country – in Fort Carson, Colo. He said that the school became a military zone immediately after the second plane hit and it was a little unnerving for the students, not being fully aware of the implications or why those entrusted with the children of military personnel went into Defcon 3 mode.

"I just remember that we were in class and were told the World Trade Center had been knocked down," Loadholt said. "Everyone was glued to the TV. I went to an Army school, so everything was locked down. They wouldn't let us out until everything was cleared. My parents had to go into work because of it. Everything was locked down. When they sent us home for the day, we got an escort back to the base."

Loadholt said the atmosphere was extremely tense and, given the location of the school, there were rumors that President George Bush, who was in the air for much of the morning of Sept. 11 zigzagging the country out of fears that terrorists had dozens of planes, might be coming to town.

"I was scared," Loadholt said. "My dad was from New York, so it hit him pretty hard. I figured that out later. But, with us being so close to NORAD, where they have always said they would take the president if there was a need for it, we were worried they may try something here, just because he might be coming. It was very strange. I was a little scared."

We're Going Where On Saturday?

Ryan Longwell was in his fifth NFL season when the Sept. 11 attacks took place and, while he spent his off day following the news reports, he and his teammates had concerns of their own during the unsettling time when they weren't sure if there were going to be additional acts of terrorism. While the harshest of conspiracy theorists couldn't rationalize an attack on Wisconsin, Longwell and his Packers teammates were scheduled to play at the Meadowlands, where the smoke of Manhattan at the smoldering remains of Ground Zero was still visible.

"I remember it vividly, because we were supposed to play the Giants in New York that weekend," Longwell said. "We went into team meetings at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning and I don't ever remember it being that quiet – before or since. I remember Coach [Mike] Sherman having to stand up and say, ‘Guys, it pains me to say that we have to prepare for this game and go to New York this weekend. I know nobody wants to go there, but we have to. It's our job.' The room was just silent. It was shocking. We didn't find out until late Thursday that the games had been postponed."

The Packers did eventually make the trip and, in the process, it brought the tragedy full circle for many of them.

"On the flip side of that week following Sept. 11, was when the game was made up in Week 17," Longwell said. "It was almost four months later and you could still see the devastation. They took us on a tour to Ground Zero and it hit so close to home for the guys from New York on our team. We didn't have to accept the offer, but almost all of us did. We wanted to see it for ourselves. It was months later, but it still looked as though it had just happened. I'll never forget that."

Memories fade over the passage of time and, as the saying goes, time is supposed to heal all wounds. While the fear and 180-degree shift in the mood of an entire country that was a by-product of Sept. 11 has subsided over time, one thing seems clear – those who went through it – even on the periphery in their own lives far away from Ground Zero – still have memories that trigger just as strong a decade after. It is our generation's defining moment and deserves to be acknowledged on its 10th anniversary, even if it is an anniversary of national despair.

For some, this writer included, the lasting memory of Sept. 11 was in the days and weeks that followed. It didn't matter if you were white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American. For a (much too) brief time, we were all family. We were Americans and somebody messed with ours. That wouldn't stand.

With all the tragedy that hit on Sept. 11 and followed after – we continue to lose Americans as a result of the Trade Center tragedy, as first responders continue to die due to complications from what they were exposed to in the days that the massacre was still a rescue mission and not a recovery mission.

Unfortunately for us, if history repeats itself – which it tends to do – our children will likely have "that day," just as our parents had the Kennedy assassination and our grandparents had Pearl Harbor. We hope it doesn't happen, but, if it does, hopefully there will be another common man that says "Let's roll" and makes us proud.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here. Recommended Stories