NFL season gets off to a powerful start with 9/11 tributes

NEW YORK -- From coast to coast, American flags as large as football fields were unfurled inside stadiums and fans of all ages sang the national anthem with gusto Sunday in a red-white-and-blue observance marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and start of the country's most popular sport: the NFL.

Robin Berretta, wearing a blue Giants No. 27 Brandon Jacobs jersey, traveled from New York to Landover, Md., for the game at the Washington Redskins. Some of her friends suggested she shouldn't attend.

"Everyone's very paranoid," Berretta said. "And they're not even from New York."

She was unfazed, saying, "I even took the Metro."

In presentations relayed to video screens around the league, "Taps" was played from Shanksville, Pa., where one of the hijacked jets crashed a decade earlier, and Arlington National Cemetery. A recorded message from actor Robert DeNiro was broadcast on videoboards reminding fans that "we honor those brave men and women by continuing to show our unity and strength as a country."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell marked the day in Landover, where he spoke to FOX from the sidelines of the Giants-Redskins game.

"We remember our great country and the people that died in this tragic incident, the first responders and their families and all the people that kept our country safe," he said. "This is a chance for everyone to come together and feel great about our country, the sacrifices so many people have had and what we all have in front of us. We've got a lot to be proud of."

Reminders of the changes wrought by that sorrowful day were apparent outside MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., where every car entering the parking lots for the New York Jets-Dallas Cowboys game was checked by New Jersey State Troopers with bomb-sniffing dogs.

"It shows they're not taking any of this lightly," said Lee Loughridge from Mount Arlington, N.J. "I'm glad they're doing it. This is serious. We knew there would be delays, so we just came early and didn't have to worry."

Jets players wore navy blue T-shirts during warmups with the words "Never Forgotten" on the back.

"Actually, I would've felt uncomfortable if I hadn't seen all the security here today," said Lamar Williams, from Paterson, N.J.

Former President George W. Bush praised the rescue workers of that day in a televised pregame show segment before the openers.

In Tampa, Fla., the Buccaneers arranged a surprise reunion during the first half two-minute warning for family and close friends of Army Sgt. Scott Osborn, who was returning from active duty in Afghanistan. The Osborn family lives in St. Petersburg.

At sun-splashed Soldier Field in Chicago, fans applauded the national anthem from start to finish -- a tradition at NHL Blackhawks games -- while tenor Jim Cornelison sang an unusually spirited anthem before the Bears hosted the Atlanta Falcons.

The ceremonies coincided with the regular-season return of the NFL following a summer of labor strife that threatened to stop play for the first time since 1987.

The league planned to auction game-used items and donate $1 million to three memorials and two charities related to the attacks. The balls used for the kickoff of each half were inscribed with special 9-11 logos. Carolina's Steve Smith wore red-white-and-blue gloves and cleats for his team's game at Arizona, catching two touchdown passes in a 28-21 victory.

At Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs and Buffalo Bills helped 150 firefighters and first-responders to hold up an American flag that stretched from end zone to end zone and sideline to sideline.

"American Idol" winner David Cook sang the national anthem, punctuated with a flyover of A-10s from Whitman Air Force Base and crowd chants of "USA! USA!" At halftime, three F-18s streaked across at halftime and names of 9/11 victims were scrolled on the scoreboards.

In Baltimore, fans at the Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game were given miniature American flags, the band spelled out "U-S-A" and military personnel and first-responders helped move the flag from one sideline to the other.

At Jacksonville, two Jaguars players with military backgrounds carried U.S. flags. Cornerback Will Middleton, whose brother is in the Navy, and fullback Brock Bolen, whose father was awarded three Purple Hearts, led the team out of the tunnel.

Before the opening kickoffs, Bush appeared in a 90-second opening sequence of "Fox NFL Sunday" titled, "The Journey."

"What is a hero?" Bush asked. "In the midst of great danger ... nobody asks to be a hero. ... We started to heal with the help of our national pastimes, with the flip of the coin and the roar of the crowd."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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