In working on last week’s article on remembering 9/11 with former Creston Community High School social studies teachers Randy Hughes and John Rose, I also recalled what a unique period that was to be involved in covering sports for the newspaper.
At such a difficult time in this country, sports meant nothing. But, also everything, in terms of escaping from the horror of those 102 minutes and the grieving of Americans for the 2,977 lives lost.
That’s how former Panther football coach Dick Bergstrom remembers it. By day, students were often getting updates on the national response to the terrorist attack that used three commercial airliners filled with enough fuel to get across the country. A fourth was thwarted by the heroic acts of passengers on board that caused a crash short of its intended target in the nation’s capital.
When school got out, it was time for those involved in activities to attend their practices and get away from the heavy stuff for awhile. Creston was preparing for that week’s football game to be played against Winterset. As has been mentioned in several previous articles, the players saw Air Force One flying overhead as President Bush was traveling from Offut Air Force Base in Omaha to the White House to address the nation on television later that evening.
The Panthers defeated Winterset that Friday, 28-7. This week, Bergstrom said he remembers the players focusing well on football in practice.
“Not that we didn’t have empathy for everything that happened,” Bergstrom said, “but having some normalcy in their routine was a way to get their mind on something else. As I recall, some teams in Des Moines did not play that week and had to make up those games.”
It was a special year for the Panthers, going 9-0 in the regular season in 2001 before a 16-3 upset victory by Boone at Panther Field to open the playoffs. Watching them compete at a high level all season was a great diversion from the heavy news of the day.
Images of people leaping to their death on the pavement below from 105 as they chose to free themselves from whatever hell they were in, became seared in our memories. We needed an escape from the evil actions of 19 hijackers, including four pilots, who caused that desperation.
Colleges and the NFL took that weekend off. Kyle McCann of Creston was Iowa’s quarterback in his final season with the Hawkeyes. As he looks back at it now as an attorney in his 40s, the perspective is different than as a college student-athlete locked in on his duties.
“When you’re playing Division I football, your whole world revolves around football and the structure and routine each game week provides,” McCann said. “That was obviously disrupted with that week’s game being moved to the end of the season, but given the magnitude of the tragedy, that seemed insignificant to me then and even more insignificant in retrospect.”
The nation seemed to come together in the aftermath of the tragedy, much in the way team chemistry evolves in athletics.
“The thing I remember most is how much the country felt united during that time,” McCann said. “It felt like every sports team I’ve ever played on — the country was connected and it didn’t matter whether someone was rich or poor, black or white, urban or rural, Democrat or Republican. We were all teammates. Americans.”
The Iowa-Iowa State game was rescheduled to Nov. 24 and I covered that 17-14 Cyclone victory in Jack Trice Stadium.
McCann later directed the Hawkeyes to an Alamo Bowl victory, 19-16 over Texas Tech. It was Kirk Ferentz’s first bowl game win, and I appreciated the opportunity the News Advertiser gave me to cover that game, accompanied by Roger Lanning, then our advertising director.
Today’s college players were either infants or not born yet. The high school players have to rely on historical material to learn about it. But, to truly understand what we went through that day, as they say, “You had to be there.”
It was, in a sense, our generation’s Pearl Harbor event. We were under attack, except this time we weren’t quite sure by whom. We wondered what the next target might be, and when?
As McCann said, in our worst moments, sometimes people are at their best. There was so much selfless behavior taking place right in front of our eyes on our television screens. So many acts of gallantry to help our fellow man. More than 17,000 lives were saved in the World Trade Center towers that day, many by dedicated firefighters and police officers who sacrificed their lives.
Since then, we’ve lost the equivalent of 218 September 11th attacks in the past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of that 2001 unity, we’re fighting amongst ourselves about wearing masks, about getting vaccines, etc. In some respects, we’re closer to the Civil War period than those weeks in September 2001 when we rallied together.
We all lost something on that sunny Tuesday 20 years ago. But, we also learned how to rise to the occasion and overcome.
A lesson for today, perhaps.
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