September 16, 2011

M-Blog: September 11 Memories

September 15, 2001. University of Florida at University of Connecticut, Women's Soccer on Sunshine Network.

That date and that game marked the only time in my career that I did not want to do play-by-play on television.

You've learned through this blog how much I love stadiums and arenas, coffee and eating. You can add doing television to that list.

Just not that day. Only four days removed from September 11, 2001, it was still too emotional. So I had audibly exhaled when I received the call from Sunshine that the game and the telecast had been canceled. I was actually relieved. I had never felt like that before, or since.

But we would get back to normal, or close to normal as possible. Slowly but surely. The games would start again. And the telecasts would, too.

September 22, 2001. UCF at Tulane. The Superdome looked like an armed fortress that afternoon, with military and police presence inside and outside the stadium. This was NOT what a college football game was supposed to look like. Security and suspicion mixed with sports and it was disconcerting.

Jay Gruden (current Bengals' offensive coordinator and Jon's brother) was my partner that season and we were discouraged from using the term "bomb" for a long pass, or using military terms to describe players and teams. It just didn't seem appropriate, and we agreed.

It was an awkward game and, at times, an awkward broadcast. The players returned to the field for the first time and we were back in the booth for the first time. If you remember, there was conversation about whether we should be playing games at all, after what transpired on 9/11. I remember talking to UCF players and coaches that week and leading up to kickoff, and they were adamant that this was absolutely the right thing to do. Slowly but surely, we were getting back to normal.

I must tell you one thought that crossed my mind as we flew the team charter to New Orleans for that game. I thought that if the terrorists had decided to hijack this plane, man, had they picked the wrong one. I actually kind of chuckled thinking about that. After a couple weeks of worrying, it had felt good to smile.

As for getting back to normal, that seemed to come the next week.

September 29, 2001. UCF at Virginia Tech. If the week before in New Orleans seemed more surreal, this Saturday afternoon in Blacksburg, VA seemed real. And so right, the way college football should be. The Superdome just doesn't have the college game day atmosphere as Lane Stadium, so when the stadium PA started blaring "Enter Sandman," as it does when the Hokies are about to enter the field, and the fans and band began jumping up and down, the tradition

But it was the sight of Brian Welch, a Virginia Tech linebacker, that made everything seem so right, so unabashedly American. Welch had lost his father, Army Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Welch, 17 years earlier in the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. 18 days earlier, he had worried about his mother, Linda, who worked at the Pentagon. That Brian would carry the flag, the symbol of freedom -- and at that time, hope -- onto the field for the Hokies only seemed to be a fitting reminder and a portrait of the resolve of this great nation. Knock us down, we'll get back up, only this time, even stronger than before.

The colors of both schools; black and gold of UCF, maroon and orange of Virginia Tech, were overshadowed that afternoon by red, white and blue. And a junior linebacker who honored, "The greatest man I never knew."