The head coach of the New York Jets said he would forfeit, quit, get fired, whatever -- but he sure as hell wouldn't coach that game. Couldn't do it. Not yet. Derek Jeter felt uncomfortable, irrelevant, and an entire country could relate -- because what did baseball really mean as the World Trade Center and the people inside burned?
Nobody felt much like studying a pitcher's tendencies or a defense's blitz packages because, really, how could they?
Ten years ago this weekend, terrorists hijacked and flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Sept. 11, 2001 was the first attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, and America's worst day in at least a generation, a scene so horrifying that news networks restrained from broadcasting the most gruesome images.
Nearly 3,000 people died that morning, some of them jumping out of windows a thousand feet in the air because it beat being burned alive. The people who saw it still have nightmares of planes crashing into buildings. On that day, sports never felt so meaningless.
Soon after, they never felt so important.
Herm Edwards was the coach of the Jets that day, but he is quick to tell you he is always an American first. So when he tried to run a practice the day of the attacks, he told his team it was OK if they couldn't focus, because he couldn't focus either.
After 45 minutes, they quit and left to pray with their families. Edwards' drive home went past a parking lot for commuters, filled with cars that had to be towed away. The owners weren't coming back.
"We needed to go home and hug our kids a little more," Edwards says now. "We needed to reflect on our lives. Every day is not given to you. We all needed to take a deep breath, and understand this was an attack."
A few days later, the quarterback of that team, Vinny Testaverde, walked past soldiers carrying weapons to thank and hug the rescue workers at ground zero. Kerry Collins was the quarterback of the Giants back then, and he gave more than a quarter-million dollars of his own money to the effort.
Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams went to ground zero, and didn't know what he could possibly do. He found one sobbing woman and told her, "I don't know what to say, but you look like you need a hug."
No slice of American life went untouched. The sports connections were everywhere. The Giants' charter that landed after a Monday night loss in Denver gated next to United Flight 93, the one that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
The youngest firefighter to die in the rescue effort was Michael Cammarata, who had played in the Little League World Series. Shea Stadium became a staging area for the ground-zero recovery effort. Giants executive John Mara went to four funerals that week.
Among the dead was a man working on the 84th floor of 2 World Trade Center, a husband and a father of a 10-month-old girl. His dad was the Giants' radio color man, who worked the team's first game back, because that's what people did.
It was telling that when the networks showed those heartbreaking images of family members holding pictures of the missing and presumed dead, so many of their brothers and daughters were wearing Yankees hats or Giants sweatshirts or Mets T-shirts.
These games were a part of people's lives, good or bad, and so they would be a part of the rest of our lives, too. Soon enough, the famous athletes who visited ground zero in those impossible first few days began to understand that. Jeter says he went from feeling out of place to helpful, from silly sideshow to integral part of the recovery, understanding what he represented.
If this was the worst of our modern world, it brought out the best of our sports.
Chiefs fans at Arrowhead Stadium cheered the Giants, the first time anyone in Kansas City could remember applause for the visiting team.
Pirates fans gave a standing ovation when the Mets took the field wearing caps that honored New York police and firefighters and first responders. The Yankees, Mets, Giants and Jets each won their first games back.
Liza Minnelli sang "New York, New York" during the seventh-inning stretch of the first game at Shea Stadium. President George W. Bush wore a bulletproof vest and threw a strike before the first game back at Yankee Stadium, and maybe that's when a nation began to feel it was OK to cheer again.
"There was no need to be scared," Jeter has said of Bush's appearance. "That's what I got out of it."
Our games became rallying points, even if nobody was sure there wouldn't be another attack. Athletes drove past bomb-sniffing dogs to get to work and fans went through metal detectors, but the games came back because we needed something to cheer, something to watch, something positive to take our minds away from something so tragic.
If our sports obsession has always bordered on too much, that's exactly why the games became so meaningful to an entire country feeling the same pain.
It was said by many that America would be back to normal when it became OK to hate the Yankees again.
This isn't the first sports column about our awful anniversary, of course. More will come tomorrow, many of them searching for what's different about our games and how we digest them 10 years after they stopped out of respect.
Truth is, nothing has changed all that much.
Sports leagues still operate based on money. Athletes still want the biggest contracts, owners the biggest profits. Fans still feel left out. Grown men still obsess over fantasy football and paint their faces and plan their lives around their favorite team's schedule. Little boys and girls still dream about being part of it all.
You know, they don't sing "God Bless America" at as many stadiums anymore. The athletes don't wear patches anymore or talk about playing for some bigger cause. Maybe that's OK.
Ten years ago, the Chiefs played the Giants on the NFL's first day of games after the attacks. They declared it New York City Day in Kansas City, with a 15-minute pregame pageant and about 100 military personnel carrying flags. The NFL commissioner was in town, watching in silence with everyone else during a video honoring the police and firefighters who died.
Fathers held their children a little tighter, fans sang a little louder, and muscular athletes cried openly during the national anthem.
A movement stirred in Kansas City that week urging fans at Arrowhead to sing the anthem true, no screaming CHIEFS! at the end. When the moment came there was an audible "Chiefs" from some, but mostly drowned out by thousands more who yelled BRAVE!
Life moved on, but people did not forget.
Maybe that can happen again Sunday.