Do you remember where you were and what you were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001?
I remember like it was yesterday, the same way I have never forgotten where I was and what I was doing November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. I had gone out earlier, walked a couple of miles and was eating breakfast when the news broke that the first plane had slammed into the World Trade Center. Watching smoke pour out of the side of the building, I wondered how could a passenger jet veer that far off course to hit a New York City skyscraper. That’s when I saw the second plane. It was only a matter of seconds before it crashed into the second tower but as I watched my mouth went dry and my stomach was in knots. In this era of instant media access we watched the first salvos of the most well planned attack on our country since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941. I can only imagine the horror if America had been able to watch that sneak attack that launched the United States headlong into World War II.
Shock is probably a poor description but it remains the word that best describes the paralysis of the next several hours as the news began to trickle in that the attacks on the Twin Towers were part of a sophisticated, well orchestrated plan by Muslim terrorists that also included an attack on the Pentagon. A fourth plane was to planned to hit the Capitol building. We learned later that the reason it crashed in a Pennsylvania field is because brave Americans attacked the terrorists who hijacked the plane.
As I watched the unfolding drama, I can’t remember leaving my seat except for a couple of phone calls. One call I do remember answering was from my good friend Gene Bazemore in Orlando. I will never forget the fear in his voice. His son’s office was some 80 floors up in one of the towers and it was impossible to get a cell phone call through to New York. It would be days before Gene learned that his son had been spared only because he stopped for coffee with a friend. Because the entire communication system was shut down in New York and the surrounding area, it would be another three or four days before Gene was able to make contact with his son. For those few days, every time the phone rang Gene halfway expected to hear confirmation of his worst fears. When he called to tell me that by some miracle his son had been spared, we both cried long and hard. The tears were bittersweet because we both knew that so many others were desperately hoping for phone calls that would never come.
I think back to that day and the weeks that followed 9/11 in much the same way I looked at the Kennedy assassination. Kennedy inspired Americans to dream big dreams and made us believe that anything – even a trip to the moon – was possible. When he was shot a piece of that dream died in all of our hearts. When the Twin Towers went down, another piece of the American dream died and will never be the same again. That feeling that two oceans protected us from our worst fears went away and now we live with the constant threat of terrorism.
If you are a Gator, then you probably believe that another dream died on September 11, 2001. That was Tuesday of Florida-Tennessee week and national title fever gripped Gainesville on Sunday and Monday after the Gators had annihilated Louisiana-Monroe in their prep game for the Tennessee Vols. Although both the Gators and Vols were 2-0, no one really gave Tennessee much of a chance to win in Gainesville in the heat and humidity of a Saturday afternoon at The Swamp. Back in those days before hard times fell on the Vols, Florida-Tennessee was the single most anticipated game in the country in September because it decided the SEC East championship and gave the winner a fighting chance to be in the national championship hunt at the end of the season. Steve Spurrier had a loaded Florida team with the brilliant passing of Rex Grossman to Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, the hard running of Earnest Graham and a nasty defense headed by Vol-killer Alex Brown. This was Spurrier’s best team since the 1996 national title.
All college and pro football games were postponed in the aftermath of the Twin Towers unlike 1963. Following the Kennedy assassination, football went on as usual, but that was a different time. There weren’t hundreds of television channels and 24-hours of news to rivet us to our TV sets. So much coverage gave us new perspectives about terror and the people who carried out such dastardly acts against innocent people and it made us fearful. There is no question that cancelling the college and pro football schedules was the right thing to do but it did throw a wrench into the Florida football works.
At 3:30 in the afternoon in mid-September the Vols would have probably done what they always did in September in Gainesville, which was wilt. When the game was rescheduled for a December night, Florida lost that advantage and by the time the Gators and Vols squared off, Graham was out with a knee injury that Spurrier and a lot of other people remain convinced was caused by Darnell Dockett of FSU. The Gators lost two games that year and both were the ones they played without Earnest Graham. Tennessee, on the other hand, got stronger as the season moved along and was playing lights out in December.
Florida lost the game in December, 34-32, and with the loss went the dream of a national championship. I’ve talked to a number of players and coaches from that 2001 Florida team and I’ve yet to talk to one who believed that Tennessee could won the game against the Gators with a healthy Earnest Graham in September.
Postponing the game was the right thing to do, but to this day I wonder how Florida football might have been different if not for 9/11. The players and coaches I’ve talked to still believe that if not for 9/11, the Gators would have played and beaten Tennessee soundly in September, would have beaten LSU in the SEC Championship Game and would have faced off with Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.
And what if the Gators had won a national title? Would Steve Spurrier have gone on to the NFL? Maybe he would have departed for the Washington Redskins if the Gators had won it all, but my gut says he would have stayed and if he had stayed Gaffney, Caldwell and Lito Shepard probably would have stayed, too. But, if Spurrier had gone would the lure of coaching the defending national champions been too much of a temptation for Bobby Stoops to pass up? Do you think Florida football would have been different if Spurrier or Stoops had been the head coach from 2002-04 instead of Ron Zook? Do you think Ron Zook would have been handed the keys to the Florida football program had the Gators won a national title? Think ahead another three years. Would Urban Meyer have ever been the head coach at Florida? And if Spurrier had stayed on through 2006, would Tim Tebow have signed with the Gators?
What happened to the Gators that week pales in comparison to the horror of what happened in New York, Washington and a field in Pennsylvania, but lives everywhere were altered forever September 11, 2001 including those of a Florida football team that might have achieved greatness.
Where were you and what were you doing when the second plane hit Tower II in New York?
Somehow, any song but Lee Geenwood’s “God Bless the USA” seems inappropriate on this day. This is Greenwood singing it at Yankee Stadium before Game 4 of the World Series just a few weeks after 9/11.