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Golden: Twenty years ago, sports became a welcome distraction after Sept. 11 attacks

Attacks happened 20 years ago

Cedric Golden
Austin American-Statesman
  • Saturday was the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
  • UIL executive director Charles Breithaupt made the decision to have football games after the attacks

Twenty years ago, high school football saved us.

Our Friday night ritual kept the nation sane in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Our emotions ran deep, a bizarre cocktail of shock, anger, hurt, more anger and a deep sadness that permeated through our homes, schools, workplaces and lives as we attempted to process the unthinkable.

Thank God for football.

The kids played and we watched while our hearts ached.

Many believe that sports and politics do not mix, but during those dark days 20 years ago, we needed those games.

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Adrian Caswell, of the Westwood High School band, plays taps during a special ceremony prior to the football matchup between Westwood and Bowie on the Friday following 9/11.

I was in bed at my North Austin apartment when my phone began to ring off the hook around 8:30 a.m. I ignored the first three calls and answered the fourth mostly out of frustration.

My longtime friend Ray Nye was on the other end, calling from Tyler.

“Dude, we’re at war!" he yelled. "This is unbelievable!”

“War? What are you talking about?” I asked, the gravelly remnants of sleep still in my voice.

“Turn on the TV!”

“What channel?”

“Any channel!”

And so it was. War was upon us. America had been attacked by 19 foreign terrorists who, as it turns out, had planned four assaults. A third was thwarted by brave passengers in a plane over Hershey, Pa., but not without loss of life.

I was in my third season covering high school sports in Austin and this was the first major news story that directly affected my beat. Football is a religion in our state and high school football is its heartbeat. With high school games scheduled just three days later, the question immediately turned to whether Friday night's lights in our state’s stadiums should be on or off.

By Wednesday evening, 15 school districts around the state, including the two largest in Dallas and Houston, had announced they would play as scheduled. Flags were flown at half-staff. The Pflugerville band added "Amazing Grace" to its lineup. Students wore "I Love New York" T-shirts to class. Bands from Austin High and the school formerly known as Johnston joined to perform "America the Beautiful" together.

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A University of Texas worker holds up a Hook 'Em Horns sign as "The Eyes of Texas" is played at the end of a National Day of Prayer ceremony on the UT campus on Friday, Sept. 14, 2001.

You have to remember that America was reeling and the biggest priority was protecting our borders from another attack. We didn’t know if something else was in the works.

UIL executive director Charles Breithaupt, then the athletic director of the state’s governing body for high school sports, consulted with his leadership and several heavy hitters from various school districts made the call.

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The games would indeed go on.

“Playing our games will be part of the healing process," Breithaupt told the American-Statesman that day. "The spirit of our student competitions is one of the purest forms of expression left in our country. And while interscholastic contests are insignificant in the face of what happened, we must band together as Americans and let everyone know that our spirit will not be broken.”

It was the right decision. Breithaupt was a fourth grader at Buna Elementary on Nov. 22, 1963 when his teacher informed the class that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Kennedy died on a Thursday, but school districts forged ahead with high school playoff games that weekend.

“I reflected on that time as we made the decision on 9/11 and I remember how scared I felt as a kid because a lot of things happened after President Kennedy died with Oswald, Ruby and Tippit,” Breithaupt said on Thursday. “Our staff agreed, but we got some early backlash from some members of the military. We wanted to do it to honor the victims’ families, the value of the military and the first responders. Once I started seeing the feeds, the flags flying and all the patriotic renditions, we knew we had made the right decision.”

Future Texas star Justin Blalock was a senior a Plano East High School when he saw things his young eyes had never experienced.

“I remember coming downstairs to get ready for school and my mom was watching it on TV,” said Blalock, a starting tackle on Texas’ 2005 national championship team and a member of the Texas Hall of Honor. “I thought it was a movie at the time. It was so surreal.”

Hutto resident Steven Hernandez had just graduated from Lanier earlier that spring and recalled how the community rallied together. Now a father — his son Darius Wayne is a sophomore offensive tackle for the Hippos — he compared watching in horror as the second plane crashed into the second tower as a young man with what today’s youth have witnessed with global natural disasters and the current invisible enemy, the COVID-19 virus.

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“These kids today have already seen a lot,” Hernandez said. “Hurricane Harvey, floods, wildfires. You think about those things and then you think about 9/11. I hope our kids never have to see something like that.”

A pedestrian walks past a field of American flags, each representing every victim killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, at the 9/11 Memorial Healing Field in Tempe, Ariz.

Amen, brother. It was a dark time and it took our nation years to heal, and in some cases it’s an ongoing process. For people like Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, this year's 20th anniversary hits home even harder.

“I was working at USC at that time,” Sarkisian said during Monday’s media availability. “I was waiting to get picked up to go to work for Norm Chow and had the news on and saw it happen. The unfortunate side for me: my cousin was in one of the towers and ended up not making it out. It’s definitely a big moment in our history and one we need to recognize.”

Danny Trant, a trader working on the 104th floor of the north tower, didn't make it out either that day. He was a 40-year-old husband and father who was selected by the Boston Celtics with the final pick of the 1984 NBA draft.

Emotional wounds can subside over time, but the memories last forever.

Blalock's UT teammate Roy Miller was an Army brat who moved to Fort Hood in middle school. The attacks, of course, took a huge emotional toll on the military and their families. 

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"I know this day cuts a lot of us but our community never stopped crying," Miller tweeted on Saturday. "As the rest of the world almost forgot we were at war, we were always reminded by deployments and death. Our parents went to war and some never came back. May we never forget those who died for our freedom."

One can’t change history, but the hope is the horrible events of the past will never be repeated. We all lost something that day, but high school football provided a light during our despair. The games we love gave us a brief respite before we returned home to the 24-hour wall-to-wall news coverage.

The kids played on that weekend and a new generation continues to do so today. The games matter, especially in times when we need something to unify us as a nation. Sure, we have our internal issues, but we will figure things out just like we did 20 years ago.

We can all agree on one thing. We love our kids and the game that unites us all. This nation was built on comebacks and our time of resilience is coming. 

Let's roll.