Six years later and I still remember every detail of the morning of 9/11 like it happened just yesterday. I can remember every deep breath I took, every word I said, how angry I was, how I cried for my friend Gene Bazemore who wouldn’t know for two full days if his son was dead or alive. I can’t imagine that there is a more empty feeling in this world than not knowing if someone you love deeply is dead or alive.
Gene kept dialing his son’s cell and home phones and he kept getting that same busy signal, the same one that tens of thousands of people got that day, all of them trying to find out if one of their loved ones had survived.
September 11, 2001. This is one of those days you never forget and couldn’t forget even if you tried. For weeks after the attack on America by terrorists on 9/11, I would wake up and my first thought was all this has been nothing more than a bad, bad dream. The only problem was as soon as I turned on the news I realized that it wasn’t a dream. The world had changed and not for the better.
It’s like the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I don’t think anyone who’s old enough to remember will ever forget where he was and what he was doing when we got the news that President Kennedy had been killed in Dallas, Texas. I was in the seventh grade at Westwood Junior High in Gainesville, playing football in Coach Fuzzy Fratella’s phys ed class, when they called us in from the playing field, told us to shower quickly and go to our home rooms. As we wondered what was going on, David Bricker burst into the shower. He was crying and babbling that President Kennedy was dead. That was 44 years ago. My world changed that day, and it wasn’t for the better.
I will never forget a single detail about the afternoon of November 22, 1963. Some things just stay with me forever.
When I woke up the morning of September 11, 2001, my first thought was football. The Florida-Tennessee football game was scheduled for Saturday and I remember thinking how much I love SEC football, where the rivalries are so strong that it makes you feel so good to hate this much.
Florida-Tennessee 2001 wasn’t just a game that every Gator had circled on the calendar; this was THE game that was going to propel us to the top. The entire Gator nation was on edge. We had that 1996 feeling all over again. You know the one — like we were invincible, like no team on the planet could beat our Gators, especially the dratted and despised Vols. We were going to kick Vol butts until their noses bled uncontrollably. We were going to march to Atlanta, win the SEC, and then dispose of whatever unworthy opponent they matched us with in the Rose Bowl for the BCS national championship.
An hour after waking up so full of football life, football was the last thing on my mind. Do you remember what you were doing when you heard the first report that a plane had struck one of the two World Trade Center towers? Were you watching, awestruck and wondering how it was a pilot could fly this far off course when the second plane came into view? Do you remember the announcer on television saying this was not pilot error, this was an attack!? Do you remember the sick feeling in your stomach when the second plane crashed into the second tower and exploded?
I remember watching the towers burn and then came the reports that yet a third plane had struck the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Shortly thereafter, we were told a fourth plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania and that this plane was somehow related to the other three planes.
For hours I sat in my chair, glued to the television, unable to move, hardly able to talk as I watched the fires rage. I listened to people telling of their narrow escape and nearly every story was accompanied by a shriek of concern for a friend or a loved one that was on another floor. There were stories of incredible heroism by firemen and policemen doing their best to rescue people from the tall buildings that would collapse by day’s end. We learned that on a hijacked flight that was aimed at the White House, several brave passengers rushed the cockpit and overpowered the hijackers, forcing the plane to crash in a field in rural Pennsylvania.
For every tragedy that day, it seemed there was at least one hero. On a day that I saw the worst of humanity taking senseless lives, I saw the best of humanity risking their own lives to save the lives of people they didn’t know.
Even today, every time I see a fireman or a policeman, I get chill bumps on my arms. Gainesville isn’t New York City and it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever have a terrorist attack in this town, but even though we may not ever have a tragedy of that magnitude doesn’t mean the law enforcement officers and firemen of this city aren’t every bit as brave and willing to sacrifice their lives for the safety of others.
One of the things I remember so vividly is that I kept checking my watch throughout the day. Every time I checked I think only one or two minutes had passed. Two minutes seemed like 20 that day because everything seemed in slow motion. Nothing seemed real. When I dream, this is the way I dream, like everything is moving at half-speed.
Late in the morning I called my friend Gene Bazemore in Orlando to see if he had heard from his son, Gene Jr., who worked in the financial district in New York. Gene told me his son had a meeting scheduled in the twin towers that morning. He had been trying over and over again to reach him but he couldn’t get a call to go through, just an incessant busy signal. He cried. I cried. Our hearts were pumping out prayers as fast and as hard as we could. Please God. Let Gene Jr. be alive.
I know that’s the same prayer tens of thousands were praying that day. Two days later Gene’s prayers were answered. He got a call from his son who had stopped by to visit a friend on the way to the twin towers. Because the cell service and land lines were interrupted all over Manhattan, it took two full days to get a message through to a dad whose life was changed forever.
When Gene told me that his son had called a couple of days later, I cried again. Some of them were happy tears. Some of the tears were guilty tears. Guilty because our prayers were answered yet for so many others, there would be no answered prayers, just hearts and dreams that were crushed. Six years later, those same hearts are crushed and those dreams will never come true.
The Florida-Tennessee game got canceled that week just as every sporting event in the country was canceled. Mercifully so. There was no stomach for football even if was Tennessee week in Gainesville. A day before we were salivating over Tennessee coming to town. A day after our world had changed forever and it wasn’t for the better.
In September the Vols weren’t looking all that good and the Gators were looking like world beaters. In September, Gators were thinking Rose Bowl. In December, when the rescheduled game was played, Tennessee beat the Gators in The Swamp in Steve Spurrier’s last game as the Florida head coach. There was no SEC championship. There was no national championship, all of which pales in comparison to what happened back on 9/11. This was football, not life and death. What happened in New York and in Washington and in a field in rural Pennsylvania was real life and real death, far greater and far more important than any football game will ever be.
Had there been no 9/11 tragedy, I believe Florida would have beaten Tennessee soundly and I think most agree the Gators might have won it all, just like they did in 1996. Considering what happened in New York, does it really matter? What could have been cannot possibly compare to the reality of how our world changed on that day.
Six years later, it’s Florida-Tennessee week again, and as always the stakes are high. The winner is in the SEC East driver’s seat and winning the SEC East is always step one in the quest for a national championship. It is an important football game and I hope the Gators win it and win it big, but if they don’t win, the world will still go on. I love football, but ever since September 11, 2001, it hasn’t seemed nearly as important.
I have spent a lot of time since that day wondering why? Why did this happen? Who are these people that blow themselves and innocent people up with airplanes, car bombs or dynamite strapped to their chests? Why do they keep on doing it? Six years after 9/11, I’m still trying to comprehend all my many whys.