It was a beautiful Tuesday morning throughout the east coast of the United States. The weather was a perfect combination of late-summer/early autumn. Businesses were still in the process of opening their doors for the day. Men and women from all walks of life went about their daily routines. Schools were back in session, and morning classes were in full swing. It all seemed so innocent. It all seemed so ordinary.
The date was September 11, 2001, and the clock was about to strike 8:46 am.
In the blink of an eye, our world changed forever.
Few moments have polarized history as did the tragic events of that fateful day, twenty years ago. It is one of the moments in which most everyone can instantly recall their precise location when they heard the news. Words could never, and will never, adequately express the feelings of loss, sorrow and pain that so many Americans felt, and continue to feel to this day. The attacks claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent victims, injured more than 6,000 others, and left a nation devastated in its wake.
However, in the midst of sorrow, America became more determined than ever to demonstrate the resiliency it had always known since its inception. In short, we did not forget, but we moved forward. No cowardly act of terror would be enough to break the American spirit.
One Sunday in September
Despite its lack of significance in the grand scheme of things, professional sports played an integral role in helping Americans heal after the events of September 11. Major League Baseball and the National Football League were at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their regular seasons. Baseball was marching towards the playoffs. Football had just begun. Each sport left an indelible mark on America’s return to strength in 2001, The diversion, that was professional sports, helped to kickstart the process towards healing.
After the postponement of the NFL’s 2001 Week 2 schedule, play resumed on September 23, 2001. Professional football had returned just 12 days after the September 11 attacks. Throughout each of the 15 sites that hosted games that week, there were tremendous displays of patriotism, both on the field and in the stands.
In Foxboro, Massachusetts, the New England Patriots hosted the New York Jets.
In what would normally be a contentious meeting between two bitter rivals, the theme was one of unity and solidarity. It was a tone set before the opening kickoff. This time, it was not the actions of the players, the coaches or the owners that captured the mood of this special Sunday in September. Rather, it was the faith and perseverance of a family from Staten Island, New York, by the name of Andruzzi.
‘Doing Their Job’
The third of four brothers, Joe Andruzzi was no stranger to hearing cheers on a regular basis. He was an offensive lineman for the New England Patriots and played football in front of raucous crowds each autumn and winter weekend. Despite seeing himself as just a regular guy, he was the ‘high-profile’ one in the family. However, on this day, he would have the honor of sharing the stage with his three brothers. This time, they were the heroes…and Joe could not have been more proud.In 2001, Joe’s brothers Jimmy, Billy and Marc Andruzzi were all New York City firefighters. The uncertainty and conditions his siblings were facing gripped the Patriots’ lineman with fear and panic. He knew that each of them had been among the first responders, and feared for their safety, and even their lives. Thankfully, after six hours, the Andruzzi family was able to confirm that all three brothers were safe. They had defied the odds, amidst the chaos in Manhattan. After finally reuniting with his brothers and family, it became clear to Joe what mattered most in times of tragedy. At that moment, the feelings of distress and concern morphed into an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude.
Twelve days later, Jimmy, Billy, and Marc stood strong at the 50-yard line inside Foxboro Stadium. Surrounded by over 60,000 supporters, the Andruzzi brothers (as were all heroes and victims alike) were honored during the team’s pregame ceremonies. In the minutes leading up to the kickoff, Joe joined his brothers by running onto the playing field. Proudly holding an American flag in each hand, Andruzzi waved the Red, White, and Blue proudly, reminding all in attendance (as well as those watching at home) that our Flag would never fall. It was a moment that represented resilience, honor, and unity — the same values by which the Andruzzi family had always lived.
Tears were in nearly every eye as the Andruzzi brothers embraced at midfield. At that moment, it was not about the game, nor was it about winning. It was not even about patriotism. It was as basic as appreciating the love that exists among family members. The Andruzzis do not consider themselves heroes. They would be the first to say they were just ‘doing their jobs.’ The truth is that they did perform heroic actions on September 11 in helping to save lives. On September 23, they performed another; perhaps providing their greatest lesson. They taught us to never take those that you love for granted.
With the solemn anniversary approaching, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked to reflect on that fateful day and its impact on the franchise during his media conference on Friday morning. Even twenty years removed, the sorrow and gravity felt by all around the world who continue to mourn this tragedy could be heard in Belichick’s voice and echoed in his statement:
“It's a lot of mixed feelings, as we all have. We were game planning that day on Tuesday [Sept.11, 2001], and then everything just obviously changed quickly. Just a lot of different emotions and thoughts and questions that eventually were answered. Initially there was a lot of speculation and just trying to figure out what happened, why it happened and so forth. But on the football team, certainly Joe's [Andruzzi’s] ties to New York, the New York City fire department. Having been with the Giants in New York and spent time in that area, I had some personal connections to the event as well. As a country, it brought a certain feeling of nationality and patriotism to us that I think we all felt during that season, and then in a lot of different ways turned into a very magical season for our football team.”
“We are all Patriots”
Much has been written about the Patriots improbable run to the Super Bowl that year. The story of a then-untested backup quarterback named Tom Brady (replacing injured starter Drew Bledsoe) and leading his team to their first ever Super Bowl Championship has become a near-mythic folktale in New England. As confetti fell from the ceiling of the Louisiana Superdome, Patriots owner Robert Kraft realized the victory was for a group much larger than his players and coaching staff. As he accepted the Lombardi trophy on the team’s behalf, he reminded everyone of the very values which so many brave men and women (both in our armed forces, as well as our first responders) bravely defend each and every day.
“Spirituality, faith, and democracy are the cornerstones of our country,” Kraft proclaimed. “We are all Patriots. And tonight, the Patriots are World Champions.”
However, that message of resiliency and hope is best defined by the actions that took place on September 23. It wasn’t about Super Bowl titles, yet. In fact, most Patriots fans had not even dreamed of the journey they were about to take with their favorite football team. Instead, fans and players cheered, in unison, as a sea of American flags flowed through Foxboro Stadium. The loudspeakers played “America the Beautiful and “God Bless America.”
Still, the most patriotic element on display that day may well have been the red, white and blue banners on display in every end zone, which read “United We Stand.” There is no greater American sentiment than unity. It is unfortunate that tragic events have to remind us all of that very fact. The loving bond of a family like the Andruzzis still provides a poignant reminder of that American resiliency and faith we so desperately needed.
On that Sunday in September, we were ALL Patriots.