Mixing Sports, Healing Patriotism

It was just my third week of college and I was doing what many freshmen do after their first few weekends of freedom: I was trying to recover. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was attempting to overcome both the flu and pink-eye in my dorm room at Penn State University. Those first weeks of college are typically a lesson in excess and learning our bodies’ limits. Mine was telling me to slow down, doing so with a pair of illnesses that made me possibly the least attractive person on campus.

I knew something was out of the ordinary as soon as my roommate woke me up. Even though we had only known each other a few weeks, the look on his face spoke to the severity of whatever was occurring.

“I didn’t want to wake you because I know you’re sick,” he said both sternly and apologetically. “But I thought you needed to see what was happening.”

As my crusty eyes focused on the 25-inch color TV screen that divided our room, I saw what remained of lower Manhattan. “Remained” is the wrong word because the emptiness is what stood out. The World Trade Center had been reduced to a smoldering pile of ash, rubble and nightmares.

What followed was a blur of phone calls.

I first tried my sister, who lived and worked in Manhattan, but I couldn’t get in touch with her. Reaching anyone in New York City at that moment was an impossible task. I then spoke to my mother in New Jersey, about 30 minutes outside Manhattan, who let me know my sister was all right and asked if I wanted to come home. I didn’t feel that it would do any good, so I stayed in bed at school and watched CNN coverage for three days straight. I was too sick to do anything other than sleep, so all my waking hours were inundated with the sadness, horror and anger that came through the TV screen.

What quickly crystalized was how much joy I get from sports how they had always provided me a sanctity and a safety net. I knew I couldn’t be the only person at that moment with the incredibly selfish feeling that a simple baseball game on TV would be the greatest gift in the world. The NFL canceled all its games the following weekend and baseball was away 10 days before returning. There were no distractions, only our own grief and mourning.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves play on Sept. 21, 2001. Just days earlier, Shea Stadium had been a staging area for New York City’s recovery efforts. Now it was hosting one of baseball’s fiercest rivalries in front of a packed house. FDNY and NYPD logos adorned the Mets’ caps as both teams embraced following a tearful Star-Spangled Banner. Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Mets slugger Mike Piazza uncorked a two-run homer to dead center field, releasing a cheer from the crowd unlike any I had ever heard caged emotions that finally broke free.

That blast momentarily relieved the knowledge that just miles away, smoke continued to billow in the footprint of our once great towers. It reaffirmed that while sports aren’t the most important thing in life, they have the ability to galvanize, to alleviate great pains and to lift the collective human spirit.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been as proud to be both an American and a sports fan.