I remember where I was when I found out about the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2011, but I do not remember as well as I would like. I can recall coming out into the kitchen to see on the little TV-radio a blonde reporter standing in front of a sheer wall of dark smoke. I saw it, but I did not understand it. Something was wrong. My mother looked devastated. I wished my father was home.
I was on the bus when the towers fell.
Maybe this is why for me, 9/11 becomes more difficult each year. Because each year, the gravity of that day hits a little deeper, like my mind wants to make up for the incomprehension I felt 10 years ago. I read more about it. I watch the footage. I try to remember.
What I do remember, better than anything, is the national reaction. I remember how a country that had been horribly divided by politics found a way to throw down their differences in an attempt to show the world that through the worst of tragedies, America could stand strong. To me, the thing that made this unity so obvious was something that even a seven-year old could understand. It was something that somehow put everything into perspective in a way that the news could not. It was sports.
One of the more famous stories is the first New York Mets game at Shea Stadium since the attacks. If you are unfamiliar with the outcome of the game, Mike Piazza hit a homerun in the eighth inning to lead the Mets in a come-from-behind win over the Atlanta Braves. The place went insane, and a city raised a resilient fist in victory. They were joined by a nation. Through sports, America had begun to bandage its wounds.
A month later, then-President George Bush threw out the first pitch at Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, between the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Derek Jeter claims to have said before heading to home plate to catch for Bush, “Don’t bounce it. They’ll boo you.” Now, most people take the first pitch a few feet in front of the mound, to ensure they have a good throw that will not result in embarrassment. Bush had other plans.
The Commander in Chief walked out to the mound, stood on the rubber, and stopped. He gazed out at the crowd that numbered more than 50,000 strong. He saw New Yorkers who knew victims of the attacks. He saw a city whose heart was shattered. He saw the eyes of a nation that was looking for answers, looking for hope, looking for a leader. President Bush saw the pain, saw the fear, and saw the suffering.
The most powerful man in the world looked out on all of this, raised his right hand high into the air, and smiling, gave the Yankee-crowd a thumbs up.
Without saying anything, Bush said everything. The United States has often been compared to a phoenix since 9/11, one that rose from the ashes of the Twin Towers. On that night, that phoenix was born. In the midst of a national fear unlike anything any of us had ever experienced, our leader told us one thing: we would be alright, we would push through the struggle. We shall overcome.
And when that same man dug into the mound and tossed Derek Jeter a perfect strike, it seemed as if America had, just for a moment, found its stride again. For a moment, our fears were abated. For an instant, the future looked like it would work itself out. For a second, things on the horizon were no longer fogged by the black smoke that had filled that same New York sky just a few weeks earlier.
The sound of the crowd at Yankee stadium may have sounded like a bunch of die-hards to the casual ear, but after Bush threw his strike, the sound took on a different tone. These were not just Yankee fans and D-Backs fans; these were Americans. The only allegiance that mattered was the one we had to the stars and stripes. Somehow, one of sports’ biggest and most coveted competitions had resulted in a unity that our country desperately needed.
Once again, sports served as America’s scar tissue. And that is what it is: scar tissue. We cannot expect ourselves to forget, and we should not try to forget. This country needs to remember what happened, because we need to remember what it felt like to come together in all aspects of life. Whether you were cheering for the Mets or Braves, Yankees or D-Backs, you were an American. At the end of it all, that is what mattered, and sports helped us realize it.
Everyone was an American then, including the athletes that we now so idolize. Kevin Durant remembers hearing the third plane strike the Pentagon on his way to Jr. High School. Ray Rice, then a freshman in high school, remembers standing on the roof of his Baltimore home and seeing the cloud of smoke in the distance. John Smoltz, who was a pitcher on that Braves team that gave up the homer to Piazza at Shea, remembers having the chance to visit Ground Zero during that series, but never going because he did not believe he could control his anger. Tony Gwynn remembers feeling like winning and losing was no longer important.
Everyone has a story, and when we discover that the people we see on TV every night went through the same tragedy we did, it only reinforces that unity we had searched for. America had even found a way to create a bridge between its blue-collar folks, its white-collar folks, and its superstars. In our grief, we finally had become “one nation.”
Ten years later, the impact of 9/11 is the same. You and I both have our memories of that day. Kevin Durant has his too. So does George W. Bush. And while these memories may vary in their degree of clarity, the emotions that we felt and the reverence our country shared for those we lost will never ever be forgotten.
I realized that it did not matter how vividly I can picture the events of that Tuesday morning, because what really matters is now. We need to remember how we stood together during a time when we all needed each other. We need to remember how we put aside our differences and faced an enemy that everyone was afraid of and nobody knew. We need to remember the role sports played in all of this.
People on ESPN are saying right now that sports can help us heal. I say that they already have.