Friday, September 23, 2011

Only A Game

Ten years later, the pain is still there for many.

The United States of America was forever changed on September 11th, 2001. The terror attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the hijacked plane that crashed near Shanksville, PA killed nearly 3,000 people...and affected millions of other lives.

The recent ten-year anniversary of 9/11 was handled in a variety of ways. For some, it was a chance to reflect and remember. For others, it was a day that reopened old wounds.


Many Americans took time to honor 9/11 at their homes

The National Football League faced its own unique challenge -- balancing entertainment with respect and humility. After a lockout that lasted throughout the summer, the NFL was back in business -- bringing a lot of hype for the new season. But with the majority of Week 1 games falling on a solemn day across America, the league had to be sensitive in its presentation.

The NFL had to be respectful with its 9/11 presentation

In the New York City metropolitan area, reminders of 9/11 exist almost every day. From the construction in lower Manhattan -- to the additional security presence at subway stations, bridges and tunnels -- residents continually deal with the fallout ten years after the attacks, while remaining vigilant for new threats.

Now, all of these elements were about to converge.

The Cowboys and Jets faced off in Week 1, just miles from New York City

The NFL's Sunday night primetime game featured the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys, taking place at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey...just a stone's throw from New York City. With the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 looming as a backdrop, the eyes of America would focus on the area that was most directly affected by the attacks.

Before I even arrived at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, the additional security was already leaving its mark. With an unconfirmed, but credible threat placing authorities on high-alert, almost every vehicle was being checked by State Police officers. The resulting traffic delays stretched onto the New Jersey Turnpike, but it was a small price to pay for everyone's safety.

Tailgating parties went on as usual -- once vehicles passed the extra security checks

In Lot 26D -- over four hours before the opening kickoff -- tailgating parties went on as usual. Smoke rose from grills throughout the parking area, while football fans ate, drank and kept track of the afternoon games.

When it came time to head into the stadium, another example of living in a post-9/11 world presented itself. Thanks to heightened security, the lines at the entrance gates were long and slow. Guards conducted pat-downs while police looked for anything suspicious. Fans, meanwhile, were growing weary of waiting...with some starting to boo the extra measures.

Extra security measures caused long lines at the MetLife Stadium gates

Inside MetLife Stadium, a special pre-game ceremony awaited. Former President George W. Bush took part in the coin toss, drawing some cheers and polite applause from the crowd.

Former President Bush meets with Jets' backup QB Mark Brunell after the coin toss

Next, actor Robert DeNiro offered some reflections on that fateful circumstances that occurred ten years ago. Fans stood and silently watched as a Marine bugler played "Taps" from Hoboken, New Jersey...just across the Hudson River from the former site of the Twin Towers. In their place, beacons of light shined upward into the evening sky.

MetLife Stadium remained silent as "Taps" was played to honor the victims of 9/11

With a uniformed color guard presenting the American flag, members of the FDNY, NYPD and Port Authority Police Department's bagpipe corps played as a 100-yard-long version of "Old Glory" stretched across the field, drawing loud cheers from Jets' and Cowboys' fans alike.

Bagpipes and drums played as a giant American flag spread across the field

As country music stars Lady Antebellum sang the "Star-Spangled Banner," some fans stood quietly, while others clutched the small American flags that were handed out at the entrance gates. Whether they were directly affected or not...all 78,702 people in attendance used the moment to think about those who were victims of 9/11, or of those who immediately responded to help. Tears were visible in some eyes.

An American flag spans the field during the "Star-Spangled Banner"

When the National Anthem was completed, loud chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" filled the air. It didn't matter that some fans were wearing green-and-white, while others wore silver-and-navy blue -- for those brief moments, everyone focused solely on red, white and blue.

With the emotional pre-game over, it was now time to focus on football.

Donning a FDNY football jersey, "Fireman Ed" pumps up the crowd

Utilizing a no-huddle and hurry-up offense, the Cowboys struck first. Quarterback Tony Romo led Dallas on a 9-play, 74-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant. Less-than five minutes into the game, the Cowboys had raced to a 7-0 lead.

Dallas celebrates its first touchdown of the season

The Jets, on the other hand, had trouble getting into an offensive rhythm. Their first four drives came up fruitless -- with three of them failing to even result in a 1st down. Jets' fans, filled with high expectations for the 2011 season, started booing to vent their frustration.

After a Dallas field goal made it 10-0 in the latter stages of the 1st half, the Jets finally got something going. Aided by a 32-yard pass to running back LaDainian Tomlinson, New York got on the board with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Mark Sanchez to tight end Dustin Keller. Heading into the halftime break, the Cowboys led, 10-7.

Dustin Keller gets the Jets on the board with this TD catch

The NFL used the intermission to honor 9/11 victims once again...using a powerful visual display. As "Five For Fighting" lead singer John Ondrasik sang "Superman (It's Not Easy)" -- which became an anthem of sorts after the terror attacks -- members of Tuesday's Children took the field in a dimly-lit stadium.

Each person held a flashlight, and lined up in two squares -- simulating the footprints of the fallen World Trade Center. In the center of the squares were large spotlights, shining skyward -- just like the "Tribute in Light" in lower Manhattan. As the crowd realized what was happening, many applauded and started taking pictures...while scattered chants of "U.S.A.!" started popping up throughout MetLife Stadium.

Family members of 9/11 victims are part of the World Trade Center "footprints"

As the Jets and Cowboys returned to the field for the 3rd quarter, the 1st half trends continued. After a three-and-out by the Jets, Dallas drove 73 yards in 8 plays...culminating in a 36-yard touchdown pass to put the Cowboys ahead, 17-7.

The scoring play served as a summary for the game to that point. As Romo threw a bomb toward the end zone, wide receiver Miles Austin and Jets' cornerback Antonio Cromartie caught the ball at the same time...then wrestled for possession in the end zone. Austin came out with the ball...and after a short replay review, the TD was confirmed. Dallas simply appeared to want the game more.

Miles Austin outwrestled Antonio Cromartie for the ball, extending the Cowboys' lead

Midway through the 3rd quarter, the Jets regained a little momentum...driving 69 yards before getting an easy field goal from Nick Folk. New York remained within striking distance, trailing 17-10.

That Jets' momentum completely disappeared on the final play of the quarter. A Sanchez pass over the middle was intercepted by Cowboys' linebacker Sean Lee, who rumbled all the way down to the 1-yard-line. Two offensive plays later, running back Felix Jones scored, giving Dallas a seemingly-comfortable 24-10 lead with just under 15 minutes remaining in the game.

A Felix Jones TD run gave Dallas its largest lead of the game

Things looked bleak for the home team, as Jets' fans throughout MetLife Stadium started to slump in their seats.

With their backs against the wall, the Jets showed their resiliency. On the ensuing possession, Sanchez led his team 84 yards downfield within three minutes...finishing things off with a 26-yard TD pass to Plaxico Burress. The Jets now faced a 24-17 deficit...and with 12 minutes remaining, the outcome remained very much in doubt.

Plaxico Burress' 1st TD as a Jet cut the 4th quarter deficit in half

Dallas appeared ready to put the game out of reach...driving 78 yards to the Jets' 2-yard-line. Then on 3rd down, Romo faced pressure in the backfield and started scampering toward the goal line. Desperately trying for a score, Romo dove forward...and fumbled the football as he was hit! The Jets recovered, and those wearing green-and-white in the stands were euphoric.

Jets' fans were thrilled after Tony Romo's red zone turnover

Despite the opportunity, New York couldn't take advantage...driving to midfield before Sanchez fumbled on a Dallas sack attempt. With just over 6 minutes left, the Cowboys maintained a 7-point lead...and now had the ball.

Over the next three plays, the Jets rendered the Cowboys' offense useless. It was time for Dallas to punt, and try to pin New York deep in its own end.

Mat McBriar, a 7-year veteran with the Cowboys, stood at his own 26-yard-line, waiting for the snap. As McBriar received the ball and strode forward to boot it away, Joe McKnight broke through the line for the Jets. He dove forward...and blocked the punt! Isaiah Trufant -- a journeyman cornerback who was promoted to the active roster just 48-hours before the game -- picked up the loose ball, and raced into the end zone for the game-tying touchdown.

Joe McKnight dives to block Mat McBriar's punt, causing the game-tying score

As the dramatic play went down, the sold-out crowd lost their minds. Jets' fans were cheering, high-fiving, screaming and hugging...while Cowboys' fans simply stood in stunned disbelief.

It was now 24-24. A raucous MetLife Stadium celebrated the sudden turn of events, but many Jets' fans remained nervous. Exactly 5 minutes remained...plenty of time for the Cowboys to compile a game-winning drive.

A classic finish in the making

Both teams traded possessions without scoring. With 0:59 left, the game remained tied, and Dallas had the ball at their own 41-yard-line.

On a day that was so emotionally trying for New York City, destiny seemingly decided to shine upon the Jets. After receiving the shotgun snap, Romo scanned the field, and threw the ball to Dez Bryant along the sideline...but it was intercepted by star cornerback Darrelle Revis! He scooted down the sideline, eventually being pushed out-of-bounds at the Dallas 34-yard-line.

Tony Romo's last-minute drive ended abruptly with an interception

Just like that, the Jets' potential fortune had turned. Instead of playing for overtime, New York now had a great chance to win in regulation.

The Jets' offense could only muster 2 yards, however, leaving kicker Nick Folk with a 50-yard field goal attempt to give his team the lead. As the former Cowboy lined up his kick, you had to wonder what was going through his mind -- was it pressure? Revenge against his old team? Motivation?

The snap and placement were perfect. Folk swung his right leg and put everything he had into the kick. The ball sailed toward the uprights. Fans in the stands watched and waited...then lifted their arms in approval as it went between the yellow goalposts!

Former Cowboy Nick Folk boots the long, game-winning field goal for the Jets

Folk's long field goal gave the Jets an improbable 27-24 lead -- their first of the entire game. There were only 0:27 left...and after an unsuccessful desperation drive by the Cowboys, the Jets emerged victorious.

When the clock reached 0:00, I stopped my own celebration in Section 327 and looked around MetLife Stadium. Smiles, cheers and the waving of American flags dominated the landscape -- exactly 10 years after one of the lowest days in our nation's history.

Some Jets' fans held their American flags high as the game concluded

For many people, the pain of 9/11 will never completely go away. Those who were devastated by the loss of family members or friends on that fateful day 10 years ago will always be affected. So what significance can a professional football game really have?

The truthful answer -- one can never know. We all respond differently to different situations and events. Perhaps it serves as another step in America's healing process...or maybe it barely registers a blip of importance in one's life.

At the Meadowlands, the game did matter. One of the most beautiful things about sports is how they can bring fans together from different backgrounds, races or religions...and have them all root for a common goal. People celebrate -- and sulk -- together.

Ten years after 9/11, we still remember

As I drove home from the stadium that night, I received one more reminder of the day's significance. Passing over the Newark Bay Extension bridge, I looked to my left...and there was the Manhattan skyline, featuring the under-construction One World Trade Center -- decked out in red, white and blue. Next to it was the "Tribute in Light," shining into the clouds above the city.

While that game may never change the overall meaning of 9/11 for those Jets' fans in attendance, perhaps it softened the blow...even if only for a brief moment.

Another step in the healing process for some

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