COLUMN: Remember where you were Sept. 15?

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By John Herndon

Of course you remember where you were on Sept. 11, 2001.

You’ll never forget. You can’t erase the memories of seeing planes fly into the World Trade Center. Nor can anyone expunge the memory of seeing the most visible symbols of American economic might buckle, tilt slightly, then seeing all 110 stories come tumbling down.

Nearly 3,000 lives were snuffed out that day.

No one, not even the sports world, was immune. Rick Pitino lost his brother-in-law. Former Cincinnati Bengal Boomer Esiason saw the offices to his cystic fibrosis foundation obliterated and, he said at the time, about 150 of its biggest supporters murdered.

Almost immediately, the NFL and Major League Baseball halted play. Soon after, the NCAA canceled games for a week.

Osama bin Laden and his cadre of madmen had won. Or so they thought.

When the news broke Sunday that Navy Seals had killed bin Laden I could not help but think back to what began to transpire when the sun rose on Sept. 12, 2001.

America fought back.

And three days later, I was fighting back, too, when I attended a football game.

Anderson County played Western Hills at Hollie Warford Stadium that Saturday night. Neither team had won a game up to that point.
Yet, that week, we simultaneously saw just how trivial and how important sports really are to us.

Athletic practices were canceled on Tuesday, Sept. 11, but resumed the following day. “We tried to keep a regular routine as best we could,” Jimmy Joe Jackson recalled Monday. Jackson was midway through his seven-year tenure as Anderson’s coach at the time.

He’d dealt with wins and losses, tragedies and euphoria, but never anything like the shock of seeing the country attacked and watching it play out on television. Some of the kids were almost old enough to serve in the military. Some had family serving overseas. Players and fans alike were left to wonder if we really were headed for a catastrophic war.

“The football game was secondary to what was going on in our nation,” Jackson recalled. “We felt it was important to our team, school and community to play the game.”

But in its own way, high school football was a springboard to the fight back.

Games scheduled for Friday were pushed back a day because President Bush was going to address the nation. That Saturday night, I watched as the crowd kept coming in. By the time a pair of winless teams kicked off, the bleachers at Anderson’s Hollie Warford Stadium were overflowing.

“The emotions of the fans and players were evident that day,” Jackson recalled.

The flag flew at half-staff, but both teams had flag decals on their helmets. There was a moment of silence, but it turned to cheers.
Anderson County looked like a well-oiled machine that night, scoring 28 points in the third quarter. The Bearcats went on to a 50-6 win.
It would turn out to be the only victory for the 2001 season, although a forfeit from Lexington Catholic would later be added to the win total. In the grand scheme of things, that really did not matter. A people who were battered and shocked on Tuesday began that return to the American way on Saturday night.

The debate at the time was whether something as trivial as a game should have been played. Some felt it was disrespectful. Others, like me, saw the value of the diversion and getting back to normalcy.
But there was another side that we did not see until George Bush walked to the Yankee Stadium pitching mound and threw the first pitch at a World Series game six weeks later. It’s simply that sports are part of us and always will be.

Four days after Sept. 11, a smiling Jimmy Joe Jackson was happy about the Bearcats’ win but was ecstatic over the victory that taking one’s place on the line of scrimmage really meant.

Jackson said, “Osama bin Laden is not going to stop us from playing football.”

Sure enough, he didn’t.