'The Timeline' kicks off with emotional '9/11' film

NFL Films has tackled many powerful and difficult subjects during its long history. But nothing compares to that terrible Tuesday morning in September 2001.

A new season of the "The Timeline" series kicks off with "9/11" on Friday at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. The film looks at how the events of Sept. 11, 2001 impacted the NFL, its players and its fans. It is narrated by Mary McDonald-Lewis.

Jay Jackson, a co-producer along with Steve Lucatuorto, said the NFL felt the time was right to do a film looking back. The first Sunday of the new season falls on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

"This is something the league wanted to get done," Jackson said. "With the NFL's headquarters in New York, that day affected a lot of people there. Two people in the league office lost spouses on 9/11. The commissioner [at the time, Paul Tagliabue,] also faced the question of whether the games would be cancelled the following Sunday. There was a lot going on."

Jackson, though, said NFL Films had to walk a "tightrope" in doing this documentary. In the scheme of things, the NFL, and sports in general, were trivial compared to the infinitely larger issues facing the country then.

Yet, there were numerous compelling stories to be told from the NFL's perspective.

"The key for us was striking the right tone with film," Jackson said. "We wanted to treat the subject with the proper respect. We wanted to put out there the story of what happened. Sports were completely irrelevant [in the days after the tragedy], but as things went on, the NFL was faced with making important decisions."

The film starts with President George W. Bush conducting a ceremonial coin toss from the White House to start off the first Sunday of the 2001 season. Jackson said the passage shows the president's link to the NFL and how he, like everyone else, didn't know what awaited him a couple of days later.

The Jets and Giants are a prime focus, given their connection to New York. Herm Edwards, then in his first season as Jets coach, spoke about the daze the team was in, as going through drills became a futile exercise in the immediate aftermath. Ultimately, he told the players he would back their decision if they elected not to play the following Sunday in a game at Oakland.

Indeed, there was considerable debate about whether the NFL should postpone an entire week's worth of games for the first time in its history.

"Some players and owners wanted to play," Jackson said. "9/11 was the ultimate punch in the mouth. Some people wanted to strike back immediately and say, 'This is not going to affect how we lead our lives.' "

Tagliabue details in the film how the NFL decided to take the week off. He was lauded for the move, as the country needed those days to recover.

"He was very reserved [in the interview], and poignant as well," Jackson said. "He was deliberate, the same way he was when he was commissioner."

Others, though, had a more difficult time controlling their emotions, which still remain raw 15 years later.

"There were a few times when we had to take breaks so people could collect themselves," Jackson said.

The film shows how the NFL's return to action two weeks later helped bring back a sense of normalcy to Americans. There is a compelling scene in which New England Patriots offensive guard Joe Andruzzi runs out of the tunnel carrying American flags. Awaiting him at midfield were his brothers, New York firefighters who responded to help people at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Andruzzi's story runs throughout the film. It ends up coming full circle for him, as he carried an injured woman following the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013.

Indeed, the personal stories are powerful. Among them is the story of Tony Sichenzio, a passionate Giants fan who attended their game in Denver on Monday night, Sept. 10, 2001. As a result, Sichenzio wasn't at his Cantor Fitzgerald office on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center the following morning. He watched in agony as his co-workers and friends died on that day.

In the days following the attack, Sichenzio left then-Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi a voicemail message. He talked about his love for the team, saying, "My children still have a father because of the Giants."

When the message later was played for the players, there wasn't a dry eye in the Giants' locker room, Accorsi said.

Sichenzio eventually became involved in numerous charities to aid the people affected most on 9/11. The film also shows others doing the same, showing how the country recovered and helped others.

When asked what he hoped people get out of the film, Jackson thought for a moment.

"The mantra should be, 'Never forget,' " Jackson said. "But I also hope people see some good that came from how people dealt with 9/11 and how they are giving back. I'd like for them to see there is some hope in this story."

After Friday's debut, "The Timeline" will air on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

Here are upcoming films in the series.

  • "Last Day in LA" (Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m. ET) -- Exploring the complex history of football in Los Angeles through the lens of Christmas Eve 1994.
  • "Rebirth in New Orleans" (Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. ET) -- The story of the recovery and grand re-opening of the New Orleans Superdome post-Hurricane Katrina.
  • "Night of the Living Steelers" (Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. ET) -- Legendary zombie filmmaker George A. Romero revisits Pittsburgh and members of the 1970s Super Bowl Steelers.
  • "Peyton Manning's Summer School" (Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. ET) -- The story of how Peyton Manning prepared for his record-setting 2013 season with exclusive, never before seen access of Manning that spring and summer.
  • "0 and 26" (Wednesday, Nov. 23 at 8 p.m. ET) -- The story of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their inspired march to a first win that became as satisfying as any the league has ever seen.
  • "There's Only One America's Team" (Wednesday, Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. ET) -- In 1978, NFL Films dubbed the Dallas Cowboys "America's Team." Ever since, no team has become more loved, and possibly more hated.
  • "1984 Comeback" (Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. ET) -- An exploration of what 1980s "cool" really was, and how a team -- the Miami Dolphins -- came to define the style and substance of the league for years to come.
  • "Lombardi's Redskins" (Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 8 p.m. ET) -- The story of Vince Lombardi's one year of coaching in the nation's capital.
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