The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, impacted countless people -- and the NFL was no exception. Players, coaches and executives who were in the league at the time share their firsthand accounts of that day and its aftermath.
By Judy Battista | Sept. 7, 2021
Twenty years on, the memories are as clear as the New York sky was that morning. The football season had started two days earlier, and the slight cool in the air was another reminder that summer was about to end. The polite chatter at a Manhattan newsstand was about the beautiful weather and the Giants' loss on Monday Night Football in Denver the night before.
A few minutes later, Sept. 11, 2001, became the day nobody would ever forget. The screaming sirens headed downtown hour after hour, without relief, the acrid burning smell, the ash, the unbearable pictures on television of the collapsing towers, the hole in the Pentagon, the crater in a Pennsylvania field, the rush to donate blood for patients who never arrived, the terrible realization that everyone would know someone.
The NFL experienced that day much the same way everyone else did, confusion giving way to horror, and it was particularly acute for those in New York. Members of the Giants, whose headquarters are just across the Hudson River, could see the World Trade Center from their homes and offices. Vinny Testaverde and Wayne Chrebet of the New York Jets, both of whom had grown up in the area, knew some of those lost. The spouses of two people who worked in the league office perished.
It was a Tuesday, the players' regular day off around the league. Coaches were in their offices, working on game plans, and at the league headquarters in midtown Manhattan, then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue had just gotten on a conference call with the United Way, the volume on his office television turned down.
It was a normal day, until nothing -- that day, that season, all the years since -- would be totally normal again.
John Mara, Giants president: We had gotten in at 6 in the morning from Denver, and I slept on the couch in my office. I remember waking up and seeing Jim Fassel (the late former Giants coach) in the hallway, and him saying a plane went into the World Trade Center. I remember thinking to myself, That's a strange accident. And then the second plane. I walked to the top of the stadium, and both towers were on fire. That sort of image will never leave me. A friend of mine from college called me, and he worked in one of the towers, and the company he worked for was on one of the top floors. He was on his way to Princeton that day, and he was distraught. He said he had to stop. He came over. We sat in the office and watched the towers collapse. He knew he had lost a lot of coworkers.
Vinny Testaverde, former New York Jets quarterback: The training room was full and the TV was on and, breaking news, a tower was hit, and we gathered around the TV, wondering what's going on. I remember Tom Tupa pointing at the TV and saying there's another plane. All of a sudden, you see an explosion. You're wondering, are we under attack? I remember calling my wife, telling her to get the kids from school, and I headed home. My family members wanted to be together, so they came to our house and we watched everything unfold.
Brian Schottenheimer, former Washington Football Team quarterbacks coach, whose father, the late Marty Schottenheimer, was then head coach: A couple of us went into (then-director of player development) John Jefferson's office, and we saw the second plane hit, and while we watched that, a camera flipped on John's television, and we recognized some buildings. It was a weird angle, and someone said, "That looks familiar." That was the Pentagon. Next thing we know, there was an emergency alert asking all employees to go out in the parking lot. We didn't know why. It was because the one plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was missing. You can find [the practice facility] easily from the air, so if they just wanted to have casualties, it would be easy to spot. They put us out in the parking lot for about an hour and a half. They brought us back in and brought the team chaplain in.
Joe Andruzzi, former New England Patriots offensive lineman, whose three brothers are New York City firefighters: My first inkling came when I was in a dentist's chair -- they said a small plane crashed into the towers, and by the time I got to my car, the second plane had hit. I remember going home and putting the TV on and not knowing anything. Just calling. I spent hours doing that. It wasn't until my brother, Jimmy (who escaped Tower 1 just before it fell), saw somebody on the street on a cell phone, he wrote down my parents' number and said, "Call my parents and tell them I'm alive." That person did. It was 12 hours later -- that night, my father reached out and told me everybody was safe.
Paul Tagliabue, former NFL Commissioner: The first day was figuring out what was going on -- could people get home? I spoke to Gene Upshaw (the late executive director of the NFL Players Association) right after the Pentagon was hit. We agreed the immediate need was to take care of our people. What was the damage? You had people who had kids in school down there. There were all those issues on Tuesday. Gene said, "I'll take care of the players," and I said, "I'll take care of the owners." Probably the end of the day Tuesday, I set up a working group of people who had good judgment and would have credibility with the other owners. (Giants owner) Wellington Mara -- it was his city. (Patriots owner Robert) Kraft, (Cowboys owner) Jerry (Jones), (late Chiefs owner) Lamar Hunt. Five, six, seven owners on the working group.
On that first night, as the nation absorbed the staggering losses, attention in the NFL turned to an awkward question: Would games be played the following weekend, just five days away? Should they? Tagliabue's predecessor, Pete Rozelle, famously had the league play 48 hours after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, at the encouragement of the president's press secretary, Pierre Salinger. On Tuesday evening, Tagliabue went to Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral with one of the league staff members whose spouse was missing.
With Tagliabue just beginning to consider the NFL's options for the next weekend's games, which was to be Week 2 of the season, teams were told to bring their players in for practice on Wednesday as if they were going to play. Testaverde, who grew up on Long Island, stood Wednesday morning with a small group of reporters in a silent locker room at the team's old training facility at Hofstra University and asked quietly, "What are we even doing here?"
Terry Bradway, former Jets general manager: Herm and I were in the office together, and Vinny came in and said, "I can't play. If we play the game, I'm not going to be able to play."
Testaverde: This wasn't the time to play football. I told them I'm making the decision not to go play the Raiders. If you need to bench me, fine me, cut me, I'm willing to take that. I know this is more important than football right now. We know families that have lost loved ones. We want to be with them and grieve with them.
Tiki Barber, former Giants running back: We went in. Sometimes I would come through the tunnel to get to the stadium because it was easier. The tunnel was closed. I had to go over the bridge. It was hellacious traffic. Once I got there, the eeriness set in. The World Trade Center, we could see it from the field -- it was smoking.
Herm Edwards, former Jets head coach: I tell players -- right now, we're scheduled to play. I'm not feeling it, but we're going to try to do our best today. Thirty minutes into practice and it's awful.
Kevin Mawae, former Jets center and player rep with the NFLPA: We were in the flight path of JFK (John F. Kennedy International Airport), and it was dead silent. You hear a fighter jet go by, and everybody jumps.
Edwards: We bring everybody back into the meeting room. I said, "You guys decide what you want to do, and I'll come back." Ten minutes later, I go back. "Coach, we don't want to play." I said, "I'm good with that." I go down to Terry and I said, "We've got to call the commissioner. We're going to forfeit."
Chrebet, former Jets wide receiver: We were all devastated. It was surreal for us, just the fact we knew so many people that were involved. It was tough to get motivated to do something that didn't feel significant at that time. We were going through the motions.
"You're in your 20s, you think the moon and stars rise and fall with how well you do in a football game. Then you get totally sidetracked -- there's a real world that has nothing to do with the NFL." Amani Toomer
Mawae: Vinny talked -- he was pretty passionate, being a New Yorker. He talked about how his dad helped build the skyscrapers. He said, "Whatever happens, I want you guys to know if we go to Oakland to play, you're going without your starting quarterback."
Being the player rep, I said, "Let's just take a vote." There were guys who said we have to play. There were mixed emotions. I have the envelope that has all the votes in it still. We took the vote and we sealed it.
We had a union meeting over the phone. I remember Phil Hansen for the Bills saying the only two people I want to hear from are Kevin Mawae and Michael Strahan. Michael had a clear view of the skyscrapers. He said there is no way we can play. I said the Jets will forfeit. We were willing to start the season 0-2.
Bradway: The hard part for us was knowing that if we did play that week, we were going to have to fly 3,000 miles to Oakland. People were apprehensive about doing that.
There was not unanimity, though. Some players around the league thought the games should go on. So did some owners and coaches, who felt that to postpone the games would be bowing to terrorists. Tagliabue remembers Wellington Mara and Jerry Richardson, then the Carolina Panthers owner, as having misgivings about postponing the games, while Wellington's son John recalls his father being strongly against playing, moved, in particular, by the enormity of the loss in New York. Upshaw and Tagliabue had agreed that there could be no split between owners and players on this.
And the decision was not a simple yes or no. There were scheduling adjustments to be considered. If what would have been the Week 2 games were not played Sunday, would they be made up? And how? Could the Super Bowl, which was set to be played Jan. 27, 2002, be moved to a different date? Could the venue move from New Orleans? But first, the most straightforward question had to be answered: What was the right thing to do?
Tagliabue: First thing Wednesday morning, we had a conference call of that group. I said, at some point, I want your opinion about what we should do. You'll have to make phone calls to canvas everybody. By the end of the day Wednesday, it was pretty clear. We had a conference call with owners -- (late Ravens owner) Art Modell was talking about 1963. I brought up the fact that Franklin Roosevelt had told Major League Baseball to play after the Pearl Harbor attack, and baseball played through the war, as did the NFL.
The substance of the discussion was, are we caving into terrorists in a way that reflects weakness and gives them a victory, or are we doing the right thing and taking time to heal?
Most of the discussion was, what would the Israelis do? Kraft said in Israel, we have attacks all the time, and life goes on the next day.
Mara, whose father, Wellington, was one of Tagliabue's closest confidants: He was vehemently against playing. He said, "Paul, we don't know how many thousands of people were killed here. They ordered thousands of body bags; we can't be playing football." He was very mindful of 1963. We had a number of friends who lost loved ones. It didn't feel to him the right thing to do.
"This wasn't the time to play football. ... If you need to bench me, fine me, cut me, I'm willing to take that. I know this is more important than football right now." Vinny Testaverde
Tagliabue: I got a call from (then New York) Governor (George) Pataki, and he said the time to heal is here. You can't play this weekend. I knew Pataki pretty well. He had good judgment. Plus, he was speaking for the state, and that meant a lot.
I worked in the Pentagon on a study in 1968 of what was the probability that someone could sneak nuclear weapons into the belly of a plane to blow up Kennedy Airport. This was beyond what people could comprehend -- taking civilian airlines and coordinating them and turning them into intercontinental ballistic missiles. That was beyond the fringe. Once I was able to think that clearly, I said, "We ain't playing."
By the end of the day Wednesday, I knew what I was going to recommend. I wrote two memorandums -- one said we are going to play, and one said we are not. Same memorandum. My purpose was to persuade. You can't describe the situation and logically or compassionately say We're going to play. Once you describe it, it's a no-brainer.
I wrote, These are events that try our hearts and souls. We will carry on -- not move on and forget.
That was the majority view from the very beginning.
On Wednesday evening, Testaverde went to church. There was no service, but the pews were packed with silent worshippers.
Testaverde: We knew a lot of people. You're just hoping we never got a call from anybody.
On Thursday, two days after the attacks, the NFL postponed the Week 2 games. The league still had to decide whether to play those games, and how to adjust the playoff schedule, but in the meantime, the league went dark, joining the rest of the country in mourning. In New York, the Jets and Giants went to Ground Zero, taking similar silent bus rides to the rubble to offer comfort and support to the first responders. Testaverde's father had been a cement mason, and he had worked on the construction of the World Trade Center. Testaverde had visited the towers, going all the way to the top for the view of the city. He spent a few hours that Saturday morning amid the dust and debris, trying to lift the spirits of the rescue workers who, he remembers, were down because there was nobody to rescue.
Andruzzi came back to New York to be with his family, and he remembers standing on the FDR Drive, which snakes down the east side of Manhattan, and looking at the empty spot where the towers once stood, and all the buildings with blown-out windows around that spot.
In Washington, the team went to Arlington National Cemetery for a service. On the way back, the busses stopped.
Schottenheimer: We walked up a little hill, and there was the Pentagon. I'll never forget all the tents, all the people that were camped out waiting to see if their loved ones would ever come out. It was so powerful. Devastating.
Mara: In the [Giants Stadium] parking lot, there was a park and ride. Commuters take the bus into the city. For several weeks after 9/11, you saw the same cars in the same spots. You just knew that they were people who had perished.
With the NFL scrambling to reconfigure its schedule, teams returned after the off week to resume their seasons. The NFL wanted to create a feeling of coming together for the return to action. Jon Bon Jovi, flanked by firefighters, would sing America the Beautiful in front of one of the Manhattan fire houses that had suffered terrible losses, and video of the performance would be played in every stadium that weekend. Firefighters' boots would be passed through every crowd to raise money for a 9/11 fund. The Jets would play the Patriots in New England in a game that, with one Mo Lewis hit on Drew Bledsoe, would change the course of the NFL. The Giants were in Kansas City.
And fans arrived to games far ahead of time, because they had to pass through new, tight security. Testaverde was an early arriver to the visitors' locker room in the old Foxboro Stadium.
Testaverde: As I was getting ready, next to my locker, there was a poster of all the head shots of the rescue workers who had lost their lives. One of them I happened to see was my high school teammate. That was the first time I saw it. That was a tough day for me personally. One of those things -- you're wondering if you'll know somebody, wondering, and then bam, there it is. My high school teammate.
Chrebet: Going into that first game, it was, let's just give people three hours of distraction. It was a unique coming together of the fans to be out there and forget about what was going on. It was powerful. We didn't get booed. I don't really remember the rest of the season except that event. We were just happy to get through it. All I remember about that year was how terrible it was.
Barber: We walked out for warmups (in Kansas City), and they were all cheering us. We're football players, and they saw us as an extension of those 3,000 New Yorkers who lost their lives. It was odd. It was cathartic. Until then, I didn't think sports played that kind of role. That was the first time I think I realized that.
Toomer: Guys were crying before the game. You're in your 20s, you think the moon and stars rise and fall with how well you do in a football game. Then you get totally sidetracked -- there's a real world that has nothing to do with the NFL. It really shocks you. There's a real world, and football is just an escape people use.
Andruzzi: Mr. Kraft came up to me and asked if my brothers would like to come up. Coming up here and being honorary captains for that game against the Jets, it meant so much that day for what they represented. They wore their uniforms for all that perished that day. Hopefully, it's the first and last time Patriots and Jets fans are holding hands.
There were many butterflies for me, going through the tunnel. They called my name, people knew my story. I knew my brothers were out there on the 50-yard line. I looked to my left and there were two flags taped to the wall. I ripped them off the wall, held them high in the air, knowing what they stood for, my brothers on the 50-yard line.
Edwards: The first game was hard. That was the Brady game. We unleashed Captain America.
SUPER BOWL XXXVI
On the day Tagliabue postponed the Week 2 games, throwing a wrench into the entire season's schedule, Jim Steeg, the league executive responsible for putting on the Super Bowl, was on the road somewhere between Atlanta and New York. He had been in Hawaii on Sept. 11, with a group of NFL colleagues who were working on the Pro Bowl. He was able to fly to Atlanta, but with airspace around New York closed, he had to drive home. By Friday, he was investigating options.
Within days, the NFL committed to playing a full 16-game regular season, but that meant something had to change with the postseason. Among the options: eliminate the Wild Card Round, jam the rescheduled games in with every team playing three games in about 14 days, or move the Super Bowl.
Moving the Super Bowl back a week, to Sunday, Feb. 3, seemed impossible initially -- there was a massive convention of automobile dealers scheduled for that week in New Orleans, taking up thousands of hotel rooms, and the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) was adamant it would not switch dates. A meeting with the auto dealers, Steeg and Roger Goodell, then one of Tagliabue's senior lieutenants, went nowhere. The league considered moving the game to another city -- Miami, Florida and Pasadena, California topped the possibilities -- and the idea of playing in New York was even floated. Had the game changed venues, the league would have given New Orleans a future Super Bowl -- the one that would have been played several months after Hurricane Katrina, as it turned out.
Tagliabue felt it was important to play the Super Bowl, no matter what had to be done. Tagliabue recalled a conversation he had in January of 1991 with Jack Kemp, a former player who was then the housing secretary for President George H.W. Bush. The Gulf War had begun just days before Super Bowl XXV was to be played, and there were questions, as there were in 2001, about whether the game should go on. Kemp called Tagliabue and told him that Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of United States Central Command, said to play the game because the troops wanted to watch.
Finally, with word leaking out that the NFL could pull the game from New Orleans entirely, Louisiana government and business leaders stepped in. Sen. John Breaux called NADA and Tagliabue and told them to figure out how to move their dates.
Steeg: NADA's main operations guy hated the NFL. They would book their convention 10 years out, and as we moved the Super Bowl from the second week in January to the third or fourth week, his people would not go to the convention if it was Super Bowl weekend. It was a constant challenge for him with his convention.
$8.5 million later, they moved. We paid them to move.
All of the busses in the United States were headed to Salt Lake City for the (2002 Winter) Olympics -- we had to find busses. Nobody ever gets married on Super Bowl weekend, so all of a sudden, ballrooms had to get canceled. There was a wrestling tournament for the state of Louisiana that weekend, and room rates went up 10 times. They wanted us to reimburse them for the cost of their hotel rooms. There was a group of women going to Vegas for a bridge tournament or canasta tournament; their date was the week after the Super Bowl. Now that it moved, Vegas threw them out. They wanted us to compensate them for that. There was a minor league hockey team in New Orleans that had games. We had to negotiate with them. It was ridiculous. There was a jewelry show in the convention center, and they were very difficult to get moved. It was always something.
One of the problems was airlines. They have presold tickets and were going to say non-refundable. Two senators went to Delta and American and said, "You're going to change the policy."
With the Super Bowl rescheduled (the Week 2 games were moved to the end of the season), almost everything around it had to be changed, with an understandable focus on security. It had been increased at stadiums for regular-season games already, and by the end of 2001, the Super Bowl was designated a National Special Security Event, which put federal agencies in charge of security. Among the big concerns, Tagliabue remembers, was the possibility of an attack using sarin gas.
Peter Abitante, NFL Vice President, Special Projects: Almost in an instant, we needed to go from paper credentials with no background to working with the Secret Service. Every credential had to have the name, organization and photo. Photos would have to come in, had to be cut, put on a paper credential and then laminated. It wasn't like it is today, where you can do it digitally. To get that done was a huge undertaking.
Steeg: We had barricades around the building, and we had a zillion cameras. We had to send people in six weeks early to seal the building. We had to go around to all the air vents -- they had to be protected -- and cameras had to be put on them in case somebody put something in one of the vents.
We were in a tabletop exercise with the fire department, the police, 50 people. Somebody said if we have anthrax in Section 103, how do we respond? They said you have to wash everybody down with water. Everybody has to strip down naked. I said, "What?"
If you look at an overhead of the Superdome, there were giant trucks outside. Those were water trucks if we had to wash people down.
There were also less serious, but memorable, adjustments for the game, including the one that gave Super Bowl XXXVI its epic halftime show.
Steeg: We had to change the logo -- normally that process was painful, because everybody has an opinion. This time, we just changed. It's the United States -- red, white and blue. All those people had started going to marketplace -- glasses and cans, and all of a sudden, that had to change. It's kind of like a train going down the track, and it's going fast.
The NFL had already booked Janet Jackson for the halftime show and the Bee Gees for pregame. The pregame show was altered to reflect the moment. Steeg and Fox Sports executive David Hill redesigned it over a few bottles of wine while watching the World Series and the Emmys in Hill's hotel suite in New Orleans; they were in town for an early November press conference held to assure everyone that all was well with the game and there was no need to panic.
Jackson was replaced -- she had a much-talked-about appearance at the halftime show two years later -- after, in October, a group of league executives saw U2 in concert at Madison Square Garden. It was one of the first large-scale post-9/11 public gatherings in New York. At that show, the names of the victims of the attack rolled on a big screen while the band sang, and Bono revealed that the lining of his jacket was an American flag.
Steeg: We flew to Vegas and met with them. That was an easy conversation. It was the perfect show. We could never get Mariah Carey to sing the anthem -- that was an easy phone call. Getting the Boston Pops to come in -- a lot of things fell into place.
The pressure was on to knock it out of the park.
On December 28th, I was sitting in my office in New York and my secretary said, "[John] Eastman is on the phone and wants to talk to you." He says to me, "My brother-in-law would like to perform at the Super Bowl." I said, "Is your sister's name Linda? I think we can make room for your brother-in-law." Paul McCartney was the last act before the anthem.
The game was not technically a sellout, Steeg remembers. A number of teams had returned a portion of their ticket allotment, but the league opted not to tell anybody, believing that if they had put the tickets on public sale, it would have created uncertainty among fans about the security of the game. There was already fear about being on airplanes and going into big buildings. Steeg felt that pulling off the Super Bowl without any issues, in combination with the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which were beginning just a few days after the Super Bowl, was an important moment in the recovery of the country.
The game managed to match the moment. The underdog New England Patriots -- led by the young quarterback the Jets had helped propel into the starting job on the weekend games resumed after 9/11 -- upset the St. Louis Rams on Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal as time expired. It was Tom Brady's first championship.
But it was the Patriots' owner, clutching the Lombardi Trophy, who put the final note on what might have been the NFL's most meaningful season.
"We," Robert Kraft said, "are all Patriots."
Editors: Ali Bhanpuri, Tom Blair, Brooke Cersosimo, John Marvel
Illustration photos courtesy of: Associated Press, Getty Images, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets