Cardinals fans at University of Phoenix Stadium cheer the American flag during the national anthem Sunday on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Thousands of red, white and blue flags fluttered above the sea of Cardinal red and black, honoring the nearly 3,000 lives lost a decade ago in the attacks of 9/11.
The mass of miniature flags, poking out of pockets and visors among the sold out crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium, were a somber reminder that although the years have passed, 9/11 is long from forgotten in the minds of Americans.
"I love football," said John Burns, a former police officer on hand for the Cardinals opener. "Football is American. This is our way of telling them we'll never stop being American."
This is the second time since the attacks the first Sunday of the season fell on Sept. 11. In commemoration of the 10th anniversary, the Cardinals, like every NFL team hosting a game, paid tribute with performances of "Taps" and the unfurling of field-length American flags before kick off. Players, coaches and sideline staff wore 9/11 tribute ribbons, and the logo was featured on the fields.
"It was beautiful,'' said Jodi Geiger, who wore an FDNY shirt.
The anniversary also provided an opportunity for fans to honor local Arizona hero Pat Tillman. Just months after 9/11, Tillman turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals to enlist in the army. Tillman, a Ranger, was killed by friendly fire on April 22, 2004 in Afghanistan at the age of 27.
"I really admire Tillman," said Roger Shaw, among hundreds wearing Tillman's No. 40 at the game. "He did what a lot of players wouldn't do."
Shaw, who regularly attends the Cardinals season opener, noticed an increased sense of patriotism Sunday. He took the strong sense of pride as an indicator of the nation's successful recovery in the decade since the tragedy.
Geiger wore her firefighter's shirt in memory of a friend and New York firefighter who lost his life on 9/11. She recalled watching the towers fall separated from her husband while at a trade show in Miami.
She rushed home on the first flight available to Phoenix. For Geiger, watching one of the country's most beloved pastimes, offers a meaningful way to show support for the firefighters and police officers who risked their lives on that day.
"[This is] a celebration of America," Geiger said. "That we all must stand together no matter what."
Diehard Cardinals fans Angie Gavin and Meghan McGuire paint their faces for every game. Sunday, they also wore full-size American flags and included the stars and stripes in with their usual Cardinals-themed garb.
On the day of the attacks, Gavin, a personal trainer, remembers having to describe the attacks to her blind client as she watched two of the country's most recognizable landmarks disappear.
"There [were] no words to explain, really," Gavin said. "But we wouldn't have missed this [game] for the world."
Gavin's sentiments were shared by the mass of fans whose passions for their game and their country erupted in loud cheering. When the flag was unfurled pre-game, they chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"
After long months of uncertainty over a season threatened by a lockout and on the 10th anniversary of a day that put the nation's strength to the ultimate test, Cardinals fans did not hesitate to demonstrate the sort of pride and resilience that so embodies the spirit of a nation that refuses to be kept down.
Moments after the national anthem rang through the stadium as thousands of fans rose to their feet to salute the flag, Steven Hernandez perhaps spoke for everyone. "I feel very blessed to be here."