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The games stopped -- then resumed, with patriotic fervor
By Eddie Pells, Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden liked "Let's Roll" so much, he made it his team's slogan for 2002.
The gesture, Bowden figured, was the perfect tribute to Todd Beamer, who uttered those words from a phone aboard hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11.
Beamer and his companions on the flight are generally believed to have confronted the terrorists and saved hundreds of lives by not allowing that airplane to reach its intended destination, most likely in Washington.
However heartfelt, Bowden's action has sparked anger in several circles, and again raised the question of whether America spends too much time, emotion and money on the games it plays.
In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks, the answer appeared obvious. Stadiums and arenas fell silent. Sports, the diversion Americans take so seriously, really did seem trivial compared to the tragedies that befell the nation and the challenges that lay ahead.
But the games resumed, offering comfort for many. Baseball and football wrapped themselves in the flag, and fans went to the ballparks and watched on TV. The idea was to show that no terrorists could change their way of life, and the mere act of watching a game became, in some eyes, almost a patriotic endeavor.
"The idea that nobody would want to watch a football game again -- one can see why people were making those predictions on Sept. 12," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. "But you could also see that, looking down the road a bit, there was no way that would come true."
Security was tightened. President Bush threw out the first pitch at the World Series at Yankee Stadium, and tears flowed throughout the crowd. It was an emotional -- and healing -- moment.
With readings of the Declaration of Independence, and playing in a stadium surrounded by military trucks and soldiers, the Super Bowl took on the strange feel of a Fourth of July parade set at a border crossing.
Nearly a year after the attacks, the security checks remain -- "They may be the lasting legacy of Sept. 11 when it comes to sports," Thompson says -- but so much else in the sporting world has reverted back to normal.
That's why the uproar over Bowden's decision is somewhat surprising. He surely didn't expect it.
Critics felt using "Let's Roll" as a rallying cry for a football game did a disservice to those who gave their lives so bravely.
"There is sacrifice, and then there is sacrifice," columnist David Whitley of the Orlando Sentinel wrote. "To equate the perspiration of spring practice to the sweat Beamer and Co. must have had when they rushed the cockpit is an insult to their heroism."
George Vecsey, a columnist for The New York Times, added that it was a "blatant misuse of a hero's words."
"Bowden said he adapted Beamer's words in homage to the heroes on Flight 93," Vecsey wrote. "But by putting the words on T-shirts and using them as the rallying cry, Bowden is over the line. He huffed that his critics might have a patriotism problem, which gets to the core of the issue."
Others, however, say doubting Bowden's sincerity was the real travesty.
None other than the head of the Todd Beamer Foundation, Douglas MacMillan, applauded Bowden's gesture. From there, the debate raged on -- to be hashed over on talk radio, the Internet and in sports columns.
In some ways, Thompson sees the debate itself as a sign of American strength.
"To think all this passion over sports would have gone away after 9-11 is silly," Thompson said. "You can't change a culture's personality overnight, and that's probably a good thing."
The return to normal doesn't discount the effects the attacks had, both on Sept. 11 and beyond.
Players for the New York Giants and Jets were among the slowest to heal from the emotional scars. They practiced in sight of the wreckage of the World Trade Center, and several led the way in convincing the NFL to cancel games the weekend after the attacks.
"We've come a long way since that day," said Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde, whose father was a construction worker on the twin towers. "People are more aware of their surroundings and we've healed a lot. But we remember what we've lost, and the freedom we thought we had."
American gymnasts were among the first to travel overseas to compete in the wake of Sept. 11. At first, they were scared.
"But when we got over there, it fired our whole team up to be representing the United States," Sean Townsend said of the trip to Belgium.
Back on home turf, almost every game doubled as an opportunity to show American pride. A red, white and blue ribbon was painted onto the ice for New York Rangers hockey games. NBA teams opened the season by standing in a circle, some holding hands, while the national anthem was played.
The Olympics in Salt Lake City were as much American celebration as international competition. U.S. athletes won an unprecedented 34 medals, and many said Sept. 11 was their inspiration.
"We met people from the New York Fire Department and the police department," freestyle skier Shannon Bahrke said after winning America's first medal at the games. "I think that gave me a little extra fire."
The U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York has taken on a much different tenor in 2002, the first trip back to Flushing Meadow since the attacks.
Last year's U.S. Open concluded a mere 36 hours before the attacks began. A 35-minute tribute to the heroes of Sept. 11 preceded the first match this year on the stadium court.
This year, Sept. 11 falls on a Wednesday, and baseball is the only major sporting event on the schedule. The tentative labor agreement reached Friday ensured that the games will be played that day.
"America needs this. Especially with Sept. 11 coming up," said fan Tony Pencek, a fan sitting in a bar across the street from Wrigley Field. "You need to get people's minds off of it. And for something good to happen is great."
Still, everyone in the sporting world will also pause to reflect.
The terrorist attacks had a profound effect on Jacksonville Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin, who has long had a reputation as one of the most unforgiving, unbending men in sports.
Coughlin's son, Tim, worked in the World Trade Center, and when Coughlin heard of the attacks, he began frantically trying to reach his son on the phone.
Tim Coughlin made it out OK, and his father says he hasn't been quite the same since.
"I've been told all my life to try to live in the moment and enjoy the
moment, and I've never been any good at it," said Coughlin, who celebrated
July 4 in front of the Capitol in Washington. "I'm trying to come to grips
with more of that. And to realize that, yeah, you're blessed, but there
really are no guarantees."