Every person has a story to tell, and every American remembers where he or she stood when the country suffered her greatest tragedy on her own soil on Sept. 11, 2001.
This writer was on the highway heading to work when he heard the radio report that a “Cessna” had flown into one of the Twin Towers in New York City.
Vikings cornerback Fred Smoot was in Washington, D.C. when another missile loaded with civilians was flown into the Pentagon. Smoot is like the rest of the Vikings we spoke with last week – remembering exactly where they were during that fateful day.
The Vikings were supposed to fly to Baltimore the following weekend, but those games were postponed until the end of the season.
“It was crazy. I just didn’t know what to expect, especially living in that area,” said Smoot, a rookie at the time. “Who’s to say that plane couldn’t have landed in my neighborhood. It was an experience a 21-year old wasn’t ready for, I can tell you that.”
The week following was nearly as memorable.
“It was scary, like a moment of silence. Everything runs through your head; it was like a week of silence,” Smoot said. “Nobody knew what to say. What can you say? It most definitely was worse than when the D.C. Sniper was running around there.”
Fullback Tony Richardson was in a unique position as well. He was the representative to the NFL Players Association for the Kansas City Chiefs and part of a conference call held that week to decide if the NFL should continue on with its games that weekend or not.
“Some of us were saying we could still play and show as a sign that we’re still unified. But then when you talk to guys that were on the conference call and in D.C. and in New York, that wasn’t even a possibility to them,” said Richardson. “Mentally, there was no way in the world they could have gone out and performed their jobs knowing that people were suffering around them.”
Playing in Kansas City and with few relatives on the East Coast, Richardson was somewhat detached from the personal experience many were going through on 9/11. But it was his father, a master sergeant in the Army, who called him that morning to inform him of the tragedy.
It didn’t take Richardson and the other player representatives around the league to come to a consensus that the games would not go on – at least not that following weekend. It took only a few accounts from his fellow reps with the New York Jets (Kevin Mawae), New York Giants (Michael Strahan) and Washington Redskins (Brian Mitchell) to understand the gravity of the situation.
“They were able to give us a pulse on what particular guys on their team were talking about. Not only were they thinking about their own personal concerns, but you’ve got 52 other guys in the locker room who are going through a time of adversity,” said Richardson, whose sister is also active in the military.
The conference call wasn’t long, Richardson said. The games would be delayed.
Now, five years later, the Vikings will be playing in the nation’s capital on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
“I think about 9/11 every day, so that will be a part of our history forever. Hopefully people, with the tragedy that took place, maybe they can get a couple hours away from it and enjoy a game of football,” quarterback Brad Johnson said. “But really, the game of football has nothing to do with it. It only lasts for a couple of hours. What happened on 9/11 will last for a lifetime. Hopefully we can bring enjoyment to a few people watching the game.”
That seemed to be the attitude permeating the Vikings locker room as they prepared for the game.
“Do we really want to embrace what happened on that day? We know what happened and we understood what happened, because there are going to be mixed emotions,” receiver Marcus Robinson said. “We just want to get out there on the field and give Americans what they want – everybody loves football – and give them a great show.”
To a man, the players said they don’t have concerns about security. They will play football and let those in the government and security business do their jobs to keep everyone safe.
“They didn’t just find out last week that we’re going to play on 9/11, so from a security standpoint you know that this thing has been planned out for a year,” Robinson said. “I think we’ll be fine. We’ll just go out and play a game and let people know that we’re still standing strong and they can’t stop our way of life.”
Several players also mentioned their faith in God and allowing that to keep them from having overriding concerns for their safety.
Yet every player, like every American, has a remembrance of that day.
“(Defensive coordinator) Mike Tomlin was asking everybody the other day where they were at. You have Ray Edwards, who was on the 11th grade, and then a guy like Darren Sharper, who was five years into the league already,” cornerback Ronyell Whitaker said. “It’s going to be a big deal. Not only are we going out there to play for ourselves and help this team win, but we’re also trying to give the people a good game so it takes their minds off of that.”
Wide receiver Billy McMullen's uncle was supposed to be delivering something to the Pentagon that morning but for unknown reasons did not go. Two hours later the Pentagon was hit.
Kicker Ryan Longwell’s Packers, like most of the teams, were on their day off, which is Tuesdays in the NFL. Longwell was about to leave for a charity golf tournament when the news came on TV. The tournament was canceled. He talked about how surreal it was that they had to prepare for the New York Giants until the games that following weekend were postponed.
Running back Mewelde Moore was in school sleeping at Tulane and was awakened by his roommate.
“I really didn’t understand the impact of it just yet. But at my school, a lot of people from the Northeast and in the New York area were there. They or their parents knew somebody that was in that building,” Moore said. “As the day went on, you really realized how much of an impact it had on us just being in Louisiana, so I knew what it was going to be like across the nation.”
Long snapper Cullen Loeffler was a student at Texas and remembers he was in class when it happened. A woman came in late and notified them. Classes were canceled, and many of them sat at a student union and watched on TV.
For Smoot, that following week was much more personal, more real. He was still in the nation’s capital at the Redskins’ complex under the watchful eye of security.
“We had security guards every day there – not regular security guards, I’m talking about servicemen. Troops with guns – big guns, no pistols,” he said.
A little more removed was Robinson, who was playing in Chicago at the time. He saw the episode unfold on television, went the Bears complex for rehab on a knee injury and found many of the players lifting weights, oblivious to what had transpired.
After finding out, they, like many across the country, became glued to the television.
“You couldn’t focus on work with that. We had this little bitty training room with the TV in there and guys were just stuffed in there. Nobody was doing nothing, and then you had certain guys getting on their phones and calling around,” he said.
Five year removed, the Vikings are concentrating on work even while being constantly reminded that they will be on America’s television sets come Monday night. While they try to view it as just another game, they also realize that sporting events in America are a great release from the stresses of the world today.
“It’s one of those things where it’s a sense of us standing strong. We can play this game on Monday night,” Moore said. “It’s a symbol of America just standing strong and sticking together. … It shows how strong Americans are as a people. It’s beautiful.”