It was a Tuesday.
Tuesdays are off days for players, but many come in to the Cardinals’ complex to get in a lifting session or just to stop by, and it wasn’t any different back in 2001. There were an odd number of teams in the league – 31 – and the Cards had been the lone team with a bye opening weekend the couple of days previous. Players were anxious to have the season start.
A decade has passed since that day. The 10-year anniversary of 9/11 falls on a Sunday, as most NFL teams open the regular season. For the Cards, who also have the legacy of Pat Tillman to consider, emotions will flow.
Just like 10 years ago.
“It was so weird how everything happened,” said Wilson, one of the players who went in to the facility that day. “You could tell how the atmosphere changed. The room was real quiet. There were a lot of guys who had family out there. Being a 21-year-old kid, it was scary. It showed we were vulnerable.”
Wide receiver Rob Moore, who had played with the Jets and grew up on Long Island, talked at the time about seeing the World Trade Center towers on the skyline whenever he’d drive into the city – and how “unbelievable” it would be now to not see them.
Tillman came into the Cardinals’ media relations offices that morning and parked himself in front of the television next to a couple of writers, watching the destruction and surely having some of the seeds sown for his eventual entry into the Army.
Tillman knew the Cards were supposed to open the season in Washington D.C. that Sunday, and that their team hotel was only about a quarter of a mile from the Pentagon, which had also suffered through a terrorist-forced plane crash.
“I wouldn’t be worried about our safety,” Tillman said while staring at the screen. “My concern would be if it would be appropriate. The importance of football ranks zero compared to what happened.”
Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill was in New York that day, and was later forced to drive back across the country with son Michael. Michael Bidwill, meanwhile, called Anthony Edwards – who was and is director of player development for the Cards, as well as an ordained minister – and asked Edwards to lead a prayer service for the organization.
“I remember that vividly,” Edwards said. “It’s a fresh reminder every year whenever we come to this date, the ones that lost their lives and the ones who lost their lives trying to help.
“The biggest thing is we talked about it. The coach (Dave McGinnis) talked to the team about it, we had players affected. We communicated all the time about the situation. There was an understanding, ‘Yeah, we still have a game, but at the same time, let’s not forget.’ It wasn’t throwing it to the side, ‘Oh, we have to play football.’ We talked about, just to let the healing process begin, ‘We can play and not miss games.’ ”
Games were missed, though. It took a couple of days, but the games that weekend were eventually canceled. It was inevitable. Players for the New York teams especially were hurting, with then-Cardinals receiver Frank Sanders saying at the time players reps from those squads insisted their teams “were in disarray, at least emotionally.”
“That was my first year in the league,” said current Cardinals tight end
NFL teams are built on routine, and the situation was anything but. Practice went on Wednesday and Thursday, but Friday the players were off again – I remember seeing a 3-on-3 football game on the practice fields Friday, featuring Tillman and Kwamie Lassiter. The Cardinals finally played a game Sept. 23, losing at home to Denver on ESPN’s Sunday night telecast, 38-17.
There was a trip to play the Giants in November, allowing many, including myself, to visit Ground Zero. It was an amazing and painful time, even two months later. The Cards made up their game in Washington in early January to end the season, with the Pentagon being rebuilt just down the street.
The following May, McGinnis told a couple reporters and the world Tillman was leaving football for the military. Tillman fought in the Middle East in wars precipitated by 9/11, and while he never talked publicly of his reasons, the impact of the Towers falling and his need to do something about it was part of Tillman’s thought process.
It was bigger than being a professional athlete.
“That was his point,” Edwards said. “We were worried about football games … (but) that’s why he chose to go.”
Across the NFL, remembering 9/11 will be a part of Sunday’s presentation. Wilson is gearing up for the impact it will make.
“It’s going to be very emotional, from the standpoint of not only what happened that day but the sacrifices of Pat as well,” Wilson said. “To have all that emotion tied up in the first game and 9/11 and for us Cardinals and fans, everything with Pat, it’ll be overwhelming.”