Ten years after the most tragic day in the history of the United States of America and her most recognizable city, nearly 80,000 fans will come together Sunday night at MetLife Stadium to commemorate the past and celebrate the present as the New York Jets play host to the Dallas Cowboys just a few miles from Ground Zero.
"I think for the fans, there is going to be a sadness in their heart, but I think they're going to be very excited and they'll be very loud," said former Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde. "The players will feel it."
Take a Stand
But in the hours and days immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, New York's Jets felt the pains of their fanbase and heard their screams of sorrow. Testaverde, the Elmont, N.Y., native, and some of his teammates decided to take a stand against playing football — in their scheduled game at the Oakland Raiders — five days later.
"I think a few of us stood up and said to our teammates, 'We think it's wrong that we're going to play the game this week and we need to take a stand as a team,' and we did. I think the league made the right decision not to play that week," Testaverde said. "I think it was a time where everybody had to heal, put football aside for a week and get back to it when it was the right time."
The 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred on a Tuesday, which is a normal players' day off in the NFL. After opening the season with a 45-24 loss to the Colts at the Meadowlands, the Green & White returned to work as a full team on Wednesday at Weeb Ewbank Hall and their broken hearts were focused elsewhere.
"We had a team meeting that day and Vinny came in front of the room and said that if the team decided to play, that he wasn't going to play and we'd make the trip without him," said former Jets C Kevin Mawae. "We decided as a team to take a secret-ballot vote. Every man took a ballot, made a vote and it was unanimous that we wouldn't play."
The Jets actually attempted to work out before the vote, but the team's rookie head coach, Herman Edwards, pulled the club off the Hofstra practice field after 45 minutes of that midweek practice.
"We told Herm that he could call the Commissioner [Paul Tagliabue] and he could tell the him that regardless of what his decision was, whether he wanted us to play or not, the New York Jets weren't going to play football that week," Mawae said.
"We let Mr. Johnson know that there was really no way that this team was going to be ready to be able to play and I felt that way as a coach, too," Edwards said. "I felt like it was too fast, too soon and we needed to reflect on the situation that happened."
Time to Heal
First-year general manager Terry Bradway placed a call into the NFL office and told a high-ranking league official that the Jets would not play even if games had gone on as scheduled.
"I just said that I don't know where you guys are with the decision — I respect whatever you want to do. But as a team, we decided that if there are games to be played, then we're not going to play and we would actually forfeit a game," Bradway said. "Our players were in no frame of mind to play."
Testaverde — whose late father, Al, was a stone mason and walked on some of New York City's tallest buildings, including the Twin Towers — and his teammates could not think about football. There is a time to play and this certainly wasn't one.
Recalling it as a "sad day" and a "sad time," Testaverde visited Ground Zero four days after the terrorist attacks. He walked among the rescue workers, firefighters, police officers and steelworkers, and all he saw were people desperately trying to save lives amid rubble and ruins.
"I know there would have been a lot of people who would have been upset had we played the game immediately following 9/11," he said. "I felt it was my duty as someone in the public eye, as a quarterback of the Jets, to stand up and say, 'It's not right. We have people that are close with us, communities that are close, that have lost loved ones and we needed time to heal.' I feel good about doing that."
Testaverde returned from his Ground Zero visit with a piece of concrete that he showed his teammates. Then on Sept. 18, the Jets loaded up the buses and headed into the city to lend a hand and voice their encouragement.
"We were ready to go down and help with the cleanup," said Bob Sutton, the senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach in his 12th season with the Jets. "We got all the way down there and as I remember, we couldn't get any further. They found something else in the rubble and they didn't want us to go in. So we ended up loading trucks with water, food, et cetera, for all the people that were helping clean up down there. I don't remember what exactly stopped us, but I do remember we had our masks on and the whole thing. It was really a unique experience."
Pride and Unity
The Jets and the rest of the NFL returned to action on Sept. 23, 2001. Inside the visitors' locker room at the old Foxboro Stadium, there were names printed on a poster of police officers and firefighters who went missing after 9/11. The list of 23 police officers included Ronald Kloepfer, a teammate of Testaverde's at Long Island's Sewanhaka High School.
"We're getting ready to play the Patriots and it's a couple of hours before the game," Testaverde said. "I walk over to one of the posters that they made for 9/11 with some of the firefighters on it who lost their lives. It turns out that a friend of mine I went to high school with that I didn't hear about — he lost his life. It was very upsetting just a couple of hours before gametime. I played that game for him that day."
Wearing FDNY and NYPD caps on the sideline that afternoon, the Jets won, 10-3, in a game in which Testaverde remembered "guys were giving their best efforts but their focus, their sharpness wasn't there."
But none of the players that Sunday will ever forget the greeting both teams received from the fans when they took the field and especially during the National Anthem.
"It was just one of those moments where you really feel a pride and you really feel a unity," said Sutton, who spent nearly two decades coaching at the United States Military Academy. "And not just amongst your team but really the Patriots, us and everybody. It superseded the game and until you really kicked the ball off and were playing the game, your mind and your emotions were other places. I think once the game came, we got to dive into our own little world and get out of that reality that was around us and experience a game."
Tribute to the People
Everyone once again will be able to escape reality and dive into their own little football world as the season commences here in the New York area and nationwide Sunday. A country and a city did rise from the ashes, but according to the 9/11 Commission Report, more than 2,750 people lost their lives in New York and an additional 125 were taken from us at the Pentagon and 44 more on Flight 93.
The phrase "We Will Never Forget" became part of our consciousness. And on Sunday night, the fallen and their families will be honored once again. Then Jets Nation will look ahead and the organization will attempt to represent all of New York in proper fashion.
"I think we all made an assumption that we were going to be here in New York," Sutton said when asked about this year's opener. "I guess my first thought was, 'Man, that's really going to be some game.' It's going to bring out a lot of emotion. To be representing the National Football League here in New York that night, I think it's going to be really special for everyone involved."
Amazingly, a decade has transpired since 9/11. It feels like yesterday for many and the heartbreak is endless for more. When you lose a family member, a friend or a close colleague, nothing is ever the same or complete once again.
"A lot of good people lost their lives and a lot of brave people were involved in the search and rescue," said Bradway, who now serves as a senior personnel executive for the team. "I think it's very important we never forget those people and we draw upon the strength of them to do what we do."
After last week's Kickoff Luncheon, head coach Rex Ryan bused his players to Ground Zero for an emotional visit. There is a massive rebuilding happening there, which will feature a 9/11 Memorial, a September 11th Museum, One Trade Center (the Freedom Tower) and a transit hub, and the Jets were fortunate to witness some of the progress.
"It just feels different to me, the significance of it," Ryan said of coaching his New York based club on Sept. 11, 2011. "It's stronger than any game I've ever felt. I feel more pressure than any game I've ever coached."
It is different. The Jets will once again don those FDNY and NYPD hats on the sideline and you can bet that they'll never feel like the "home" team more than they will this weekend.
"I would be surprised if Rex thought any different because it's a great tribute to the people who lost their lives," Bradway said. "I knew Rex said that and it didn't surprise me one bit, and I'm sure our players feel the same way."