2001: A Football Odyssey

Every year around this time, and especially this weekend, columnists the world over will trot out their “where was I on 9/11″ story or the old “9/11 made us realize life is bigger than football” trope. It’s human nature to relive and scrutinize something as insane as September 11th, 2001 and the couple years that followed. I’m not going to argue about how you personally should feel this weekend when the Ravens and Steelers kick off on Sunday. Some of you will forget it’s September 11th 40 seconds after the national anthem, and others will have the anniversary color their entire weekend. Whenever I think about my personal experience of those strange days, football is an inextricable part of that memory. It was a terrible, life-altering, and confusing time, but when I look back on it today, September 11th makes me nostalgic. It makes me think about the NFL. 

The Baltimore Ravens won their first Super Bowl during my senior year of high school. How awesome is that? There are few better times in a person’s life for that to happen. Hard Knocks debuted that August and before I went off to college, I got to visit Ravens training camp at McDaniel College for the first time. I was even caught on camera briefly, as I waited for Ray Lewis to sign my Super Bowl XXXV program. I had loved football on the whole since I was old enough to know what it was, but this time was like an official marriage and honeymoon with the team that had ventured from Ohio to Baltimore. Now, to attend Xavier University, I was venturing from Baltimore to Ohio. Somewhere, a tour guide of the B&O Railroad Museum is nodding in approval.

The second weekend I was at college, Labor Day, I skipped the largest fireworks display in the midwest (and a possible date with a Spanish girl) in order to participate in my first real online fantasy football draft with my high school friends. That league has since spawned a spin-off league, with both running strong even today. This feels important because from that moment on, I would follow the NFL with a proximity that some would call “excessive.”

This is the part where I’m supposed to explain where I was when someone woke me up to tell me America was under attack, and how I felt when I first turned on the television and saw smoldering structures in New York and D.C.. Most people’s 9/11 stories are all very similar and only interesting to the person relating the account. I’ll spare you mine, and just say that as a freshman in college whose classes were already cancelled that day anyway, we watched a lot of television.

In his standup act, David Cross refers to 9/11 as “the week they cancelled football.” I suppose I’m able to laugh at that now because that’s the type of person I am, but it’s worth noting that he made that joke around 2004. I don’t know exactly what I did on Sunday the 16th, but as much as I was in love with the NFL, but I don’t recall stewing that much over a missed week of games. My parents were due to come out the following weekend and watch the Ravens play the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium with me. Being of an age now where we’re starting to think about having kids, I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to send your firstborn off to college three states away, then have the world go crazy two weeks later. Plus, my mom hates air travel, so given what airport security must have been like on September 22nd, it was a big deal for them to come out.

That was my first and only time seeing the Ravens play as the visitors. I recall being disappointed that the Bengals decided to wear their white jerseys, presumably due to the sun and heat, so it just looked like a regular Ravens home game. Pro-football-reference.com tells me it was 66 degrees, with a relative humidity of 78%. This feels like information that’s important to have. Anyway, the Bengals had been 4-12 the previous year and had just beat the Patriots (who were nobodies as of yet) in week 1. Hours after the Ravens would lose to this plucky 2-0 Bengals team (which would finish the year 6-10, to the pure delight of everyone in the area), Drew Bledsoe would be injured in the late afternoon Pats-Jets game and a scrawny guy from Michigan named Tom Brady would take over under center for the Pats.

From that moment forward, the NFL crystalized for me in the form I’ve known it for a decade. I spent that 2001 season lamenting a Ravens team that did not have Jamal Lewis due to injury but still managed to go 10-6 and make the playoffs (kicking off a decade of losing to Pittsburgh in seemingly every postseason).  As a side note, I think people remember that season as being worse than it actually was for Baltimore. They made something out of what is not a terribly impressive roster when you look at it now. I suppose it’s not surprising, but four coaches of that team other than Brian Billick went on to be NFL head coaches.

During this 2001 season, adjusting to college and getting to know my peers during what was a ludicrous time in our history, the NFL was the common denominator. I’d watch Eagles and Redskins and Rams games with people on my floor I barely knew and learned about their worldview based largely in part on who they rooted for. I didn’t know all of the guys on my floor that well, but I definitely knew who their team was. It was that season I also began the tradition of donning my Todd Heap jersey, going to Buffalo Wild Wings with my roommates, and simultaneously watching every NFL game going on at the time. We spent money we didn’t have on wings and soda, and because we were 18 and terrible people, we obnoxiously and publicly relished our team’s triumphs. Especially when Baltimore was beating Cincinnati.

Maybe following football so closely was a coping mechanism for our fragile 18 year-old minds. Maybe it was our version of walking around being super nice and baking American flag cakes. Whatever it was, the memories of that season are more vivid than any other before or any since. I suppose September 11th had possibly everything and nothing to do with it. Would I have met the same people I met through football if 9/11 hadn’t occurred? Or, if there were no horrific state of panic, would I have stuck to taunting my friends back in Maryland via our online fantasy league?

This weekend, as the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks are commemorated by the NFL, we will all think back to where we were and how we felt during that strange 2001 NFL season. Make no mistake, there is no great way for the NFL to handle this. The league loves to pump itself up and do fighter jet flyovers and drape itself in pomp and circumstance for its kickoff weekend. With this Sunday’s games falling on the exact anniversary of a national tragedy, and the NFL eager to scream in your face that it’s “Back to Football,” it will be tough to find a respectable balance between celebratory and somber.

The culmination to that 2001 season was, of course, Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans (which actually happened in 2002, but you get the picture). Newly minted hero Tom Brady led the underdog Patriots to a game-winning field goal over Kurt Warner’s Rams, much to the chagrin of all my new friends from St. Louis. U2 played the halftime show, with Bono ripping open his leather jacket to reveal an American flag inside. Somehow, I feel this would be endlessly mocked if it happened today (so much for 9/11 being the “death of irony”). The names of the 9/11 victims were projected behind the band as they played “Where the Streets Have No Name.” At different times, I’ve gone back and forth mentally about whether that was the most powerful tribute to the tragedy I’ve ever seen or the most overwrought. After all, what does September 11th have to do with football?

 

Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report.  He is currently working on a novel about college football.  Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com