On the clear Tuesday morning in 2001 when the twin towers came down, Weber State football coach Jody Sears was an assistant coach at Army.
“We were at West Point. One of the majors came in and we were back in the A room, watching the towers. We watched the second (plane) fly into the building,” Sears recalls.
“One of the majors came up to check on us. He wanted to know what the hell we were doing. Everyone’s a little …‘What’s going on, what’s going on?’ He goes, ‘This is not how we react to disaster. Get back to work. It’s business as usual. They want us to freak out. We ain’t doing that.’ ”
Army’s staff didn’t know if there would be a game played that week.
The major’s response: “Yeah, who cares? It’s business as usual. It’s on the schedule, let’s go.”
It was not business as usual.
Two hijacked planes had slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, another hit the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and one more went down in a field in Pennsylvania, killing close to 3,000 people and changing countless other lives in the 11 years that have followed.
College and professional sports were canceled in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, because of national security concerns, but Sears remembers the lesson the major was emphasizing.
This is not how we react to disaster. Get back to work.
At the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the Corps of Cadets went back to work.
They were preparing not just for football, but for war.
“It’s awe-inspiring to be on that post,” Sears said. “You think about Washington — George Washington, that is — Macarthur, Eisenhower, Patton, the list goes on and on. Just to think you were walking in the same places as those folks, just all the history, it was just absolutely awesome.”
Playing for one of the military academies is a different world from the rest of college football, “until 2 o’clock,” Sears said. “From 2 to 6 (p.m.), it’s just like (here). They come up from the plain and it’s all football. They have strenuous academic responsibilities at the academy, but when we got them in the afternoon it was all football. You’ve got a lot of respect for those kids.”
When the games resumed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Army met Navy in their traditional rivalry game. The nation watched in somber recognition that players competing on the field would soon be cooperating on the front lines of wars.
Sears, who spent three seasons at West Point as a Black Knights assistant coach from 2000-02, was awestruck by the tradition and pageantry of the Army-Navy game.
“It was a tremendous experience, that’s for sure. If you’ve never gone to an Army-Navy game, get there early so you can watch them marching in and do their deal — it’s unbelievable,” he said. “Unbelievable. It’s just awesome. You’re standing there on the sidelines and you might have three-, four-star generals standing behind you. Gosh, that guy’s last name is Franks or something? Pay attention there.”
The Black Knights have struggled in the last decade of a rivalry that began in 1890, losing their last 10 games to the Midshipmen.
In 2001, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a West Point grad famous for his role as commander of the coalition forces during the Desert Storm operation in the Persian Gulf War, addressed the cadets in the locker room before the Army-Navy game.
It was a moment that remains seared into Sears’ memory.
“That and President (George W.) Bush coming in just before kickoff,” Sears said. “He was (only a few feet away). I’m standing there like, that’s the leader of the free world right there. Pretty awesome. And here I am, from yuk-yuk Pullman, Wash., country boy, ‘Hey, where’s the ropin’ at?’ ”
Stormin’ Norman inspired the troops with his pregame pep talk — and the assistant football coach from Pullman, Wash.
The Black Knights defeated the Midshipmen 26-17 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Army’s last victory over Navy to date.
“(Schwarzkopf) came in and he told them, ‘Boys, you guys are about ready to go to war and I’m going to tell you something, I’ve been to four of them. There are no excuses for not being victorious. Failure and defeat is not an option. You will win today.’ He wasn’t there chuckin’ it up with the boys, now,” Sears said. “I’m wide-eyed, I’m about pass out and say, ‘Gimme my Swiss Army knife, I’m ready to take the hill, General, where do I go? Where do I sign up?’ ”