Death of bin Laden triggers memories of a chilling week

My 9/11 nightmare began in Denver. That's where I was when Osama bin Laden pulled the world from under our feet. That's the first place my mind went upon hearing the news Sunday night that he had been killed by U.S. forces.

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On Sept. 10, 2001, I was covering a "Monday Night Football" game between the Broncos and Giants for The next morning, football and practically everything else that didn't relate to the horror in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., suddenly became an afterthought.

The memories are as vivid and jolting today as the experiences were nearly 10 years ago.

Waiting to take off from Denver on the early-morning flight I had just boarded, and getting that frantic phone call from my wife saying, "Get off the plane, now! They're crashing planes into the World Trade Center!" Leaving the airport terminal -- along with thousands of other panicked passengers whose flights would not be departing -- and hearing a man in his 20s say to no one in particular, "This is our Pearl Harbor." Sitting with a group of hotel guests in front of the lobby television, shortly after the second plane hit the Twin Towers, and realizing that three women crying inconsolably were flight attendants for United Airlines as the reality that their co-workers were among the earliest victims was setting in.

And then, once it became clear that I would not be getting home by plane any time soon, the drive back to Western New York. The nearly 1,400 miles through eight states, with plenty of caffeine and the thought of hugging my wife and children pushing me to make the trip as fast as I possibly could. Seeing those American flags hanging from overpasses and trucks on the highway. Exchanging "check-in" phone calls with my long-time friend John Clayton, who had been covering the same game for ESPN and was driving back to Seattle at the same time. Looking into the faces of people at rest stops along the way, and not needing to say a word to know the chilling uncertainty that we shared.

At some point, we would go back to dealing with football, but not that week. The NFL properly postponed its Week 2 slate of games, mostly at the urging of players from the Giants and Jets that were the closest to the carnage in New York and greatly impacted by it.

Everyone was left reeling, and a season that had just started would have to be put on hold as the NFL, like the rest of the world, tried to pull itself back together. Players from the New York teams couldn't think of practicing or playing, especially the many who had witnessed the smoke billowing from the World Trade Center from their homes. Joe Andruzzi, a guard for the New England Patriots, had three brothers who were New York firefighters -- and all lived to talk about 9/11, including Jimmy Andruzzi, who reached the 27th floor of the north tower before being ordered to evacuate because the south tower had crumbled.

When the NFL games did resume, there were strong displays of patriotism at every stadium. Former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman was so moved that he quit football to enlist in the military, a decision that drew tremendous admiration but wound up having such tragic consequences.

Thanks to bin Laden, we are forced to remember so much that we wish we could forget. The NFL is recognizing the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which coincides with Week 1 of the 2011 schedule, by having the Jets play at home, and the Giants visit the Redskins. Assuming those games are played, the pre-game ceremonies no doubt will have a different feel, in light of bin Laden's death.

For me, the memories will begin where they always do. In Denver.

Follow me on Twitter @viccarucci

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