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Philadelphia is very close to New York City; by car, it is just over an hour away. Philly is also close to Washington, D.C., only two hours away. When the events of 9/11 began happening, I felt as though we were part of the war zone. It was one of the most unforgettable days of my life.
But for me, the closeness of it all started two months previously in a once-in-a-lifetime experience on Wall Street.
One of the Philadelphia Eagles' business sponsors, Sovereign Bank, made its leap from the NASDAQ to the NYSE in July of 2001. In order to get as much publicity as possible, they wanted a Philadelphia Eagles player to help them ring the closing bell on Wall Street. When they called to ask if I would like to be the player, I jumped at the chance.
Joining them meant giving up three days of cherished, summertime, pre-training camp time with my family in Utah. Instead of going with me, Michele suggested I take my mom. Mom was working for a company that teaches trading principles, and she followed Wall Street on a daily basis. She tried to defer to Michele, but Michele and I finally convinced her she needed to be the one to make the trip.
We were given first-class airfare to New York City. It was the first time Mom had flown first class, and I was thrilled to share the experience with her. We enjoyed the additional leg room and the extra amenities of first class as we made the journey to visit one of the most important financial institutions in the world.
When we arrived in New York, we went straight to our hotel, which was the Marriott at the World Trade Center. The twin towers were constructed in 1971, the same year that I was born. We had dinner that night in the fabulous Windows on the World Restaurant. It took up the two top floors, 106 and 107 of the North Tower, and was world- famous for both its menu and its view.
While waiting to be seated, we looked out one of the windows, very, very far down to the street below. We talked about how crazy it was that eight years before, some crazed lunatics had tried to blow up the building we were standing in.
As we looked down, we wondered aloud where these buildings would go if they were knocked down? This was a steel giant, scraping the sky-literally a city in the air. There was no room below for a building this big to fall. The notion of the building collapsing was so uncomfortable to imagine that we quickly dropped the topic.
After a fantastic dinner-with views of the summer sun setting over Manhattan, which could only be seen from there or through the window of an airplane-we decided to visit the observation deck of the South Tower. We descended the North Tower, changed elevators, and went back to the top of the South Tower. We walked out onto the observation deck and looked at the glowing lights of the city shining in the night. The enormous size and height of those buildings was breathtaking.
The next morning we were joined by Bob Lang of the Philadelphia Eagles public relations department. Rob Alberino and Rich Gentile were the football highlight gurus of the Eagles Television Network, and they were to film the whole adventure.
Larry Harmer just happened to be in town on business, and he joined us as well. Jay Sidhu, the president and CEO of Sovereign Bank, and Dick Mohn, the chairman, were gracious hosts and seemed genuinely happy to have my mom and me there with them.
Before ringing the bell, we attended a small reception with Dick Grasso, the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange. We were instructed on bell ringing and clapping at the appropriate time. And Dick, who is a big football fan, and I tossed a football back and forth.
After we rang the bell, we took a tour of the wooden trading floor, which was a beehive of commotion. We shook hands with many of the floor traders and found some were Eagles fans, along with Jets fans, and a whole bunch of Giants fans. Some of the floor traders asked me how I was able to handle the stress of playing in the NFL, and I asked them how they were able to handle the stress and madness of working on the trading floor every day. It was cool to get a glimpse of how things operated, and I appreciated how hard they worked, how early they had to leave for work, and how late they got home. It was a reminder that life is not easy. Work is a gift. We should appreciate the jobs that make it possible to take care of our families.
Fast forward two short months. The day off for NFL football players is Tuesday. Most players still go in to their facilities to lift, run, get treatment, and watch a little film. It is a great day that is so needed. The human body was not designed to smash into other human bodies at full velocity. The day of rest and recovery is what allowed us to make it through each week and, ultimately, the season.
September 11, 2001, found me sitting at my kitchen table in Marlton, New Jersey, reading from the Bible. For me, reading the scriptures provides a feeling of peace, security, and a connection with God. I had been taught by my parents from my childhood to read the scriptures every day as a way to maintain that connection and closeness to my Father in Heaven. That has been some of the greatest instruction I have ever been given.
The peace and great feelings that I was enjoying from reading in the Bible were about to be shattered. I received a call from one of the best people on the planet. My father- in- law, Doug Fellows, was on the phone with the news that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. He thought it was a small plane and did not think too much of it. He said that he was watching the report of the accident on TV and that he could see a small fire. He encouraged me to turn on the TV when our conversation was over to see what was going on.
I thought about my recent visit to the World Trade Center and hoped that the damage was as small as possible. As soon as I got upstairs to my bedroom and turned on the TV, I realized that this was a much larger fire than it first appeared to be. After standing at the top of those buildings, I had a better appreciation of their mind-boggling enormity.
Michele and I both watched the coverage for a minute, hoping that the people in those buildings were able to get away from the fire and get down and out of the tower.
I quickly called my mom, who had just become aware of the plane crash, and while watching the coverage, we talked about our recent trip. We recalled the height of the building and listened intently to each new piece of information, wondering about the size of the fire, the chances of people getting down, the possible loss of life, the important papers flying out of the windows, the chaos that must be taking place, the close quarters for rescue personnel, and the dizzying heights at which the fire was taking place.
The more we watched, the more we realized that there must have been a sizeable loss of life. Just as all Americans, we were heartsick over the incident. After a few minutes of conversation, we decided to hang up so that we could pay closer attention to the TV reports.
A short time later, while still watching the telecast, another plane came into view in the background of the live TV feed. It was an eerie sight that seemed out of place. Before I could make sense of why it was there, I noticed it was heading for the towers. In a terrifying instant, it slammed into the other tower with a hellacious fireball. The peace I felt while reading the Bible could not have been more opposite than the desperate feeling of helplessness that I felt watching this horror unfold. It took my breath away. I was crying and angry at the same time. We were under attack. Enemies of freedom had committed an act of war against our country. Terrorists had brought their hatred to life by inflicting death on innocent people. Just as everyone else who was watching, Michele and I could not believe what we were seeing. We decided to drive to our girls' school and pick them up. This was war. We were under siege.
I called my mom again and we shared our feelings of panic and rage. We thought about the people working on the upper floors, above where the planes hit. How could they possibly get out? Would the elevators be working? Would the stairways be intact? Would helicopters be able to land on top and help people out? Would they be able to put the fire out? How would the firefighters get up there fast enough? The memory of looking out the windows of the restaurant came back. I felt true panic for the people that were there because I could feel how high up they were. I could not get that image out of my mind.
My brother Dave called on the other line and we talked about my recent trip to the WTC and the madness that was being played out in front of our eyes. This was Pearl Harbor all over again. This was war. Who was doing this? How did they get the planes? What would the fire do to those buildings?
As Dave and I talked, something happened to one of the towers. It looked like a part of it sloughed off. I told him that part of the building just fell down. We quickly realized that it wasn't a part of the building, but the whole building, that had just collapsed and come crashing down. Then it hit us. That building would have been full of people trying to escape and firefighters and emergency personnel trying to get people out of there. The chaos and terror were impossible to imagine.
The rest of the day was a blur of emotion and confusion. When the Pentagon was hit, the scope of the tragedy expanded even more. New York was not the only area of attack. The bad news would not stop. Another plane went down in Pennsylvania. What else was going to happen? Where else would we be hit? Who was doing this?
I thought there would be a call that night from the Eagles or from the NFL saying that Sunday's games would be postponed. The call never came.
Our team arrived at our facility on Wednesday and went to work as usual. We had all of our regular meetings. We had practice at the usual time. We talked about the terrorist attacks with each other and with our coaches, but we were definitely in the traditional football mode of having blinders on and staying focused on the job at hand. We were getting ready to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that week.
When we took the practice field, the skies were noticeably vacant and quiet. It was unusual not to have a single plane in the sky since our facility is very close to the Philadelphia airport. I remember how distracted we were by one military plane that flew over the city. We all turned our heads to watch it pass over the field. I didn't know how we were going to play a game that week when most of us wanted to head up to New York and tear through the rubble to find our neighbors and countrymen who could have still been trapped.
Football meant nothing on this day.
We showed up to work on Thursday and things were somewhat different. As players, we'd had a little time to let this attack settle in. We were all following the events on TV as closely as we could. There were people in our neighborhoods, members of church congregations, and even spouses of people who worked in the Eagles facility who worked in Manhattan. We were very close to where all four planes had gone down.
Terrorist attacks in other countries that had filled our nightly news programs were now a living reality in our home, the United States of America. Our home had been attacked. Our citizens had been killed.
When we showed up for work on Thursday, as a team, we felt we needed to do something to support the rescue effort that was being made and the state of mourning that had settled in. The schedule was still regular, with no changes. That was not acceptable.
We decided to hold a players-only meeting. Troy Vincent, one of our team leaders and player representatives in the players union, took charge of the meeting. Troy was one of the best defensive backs in the NFL. After a standout career at Wisconsin and being an early-round draft pick, he became one of the fiercest DBs in the league. He grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and told me that he learned how to fight with his fists very early. He played the position of cornerback with the confidence and skill of a heavyweight boxer. He was a rock on the field and in the locker room. Just to show you what others think of Troy, he has been voted NFL Man of the Year and also selected as president of the NFL Players Association.
When he addressed the players-only team meeting, Troy wanted to know how we felt about playing the game that coming Sunday. Many of us had major reservations about playing while the country was still scrambling to find loved ones. By not playing, players would lose part of their salaries, but Troy and some other team leaders offered to put together a fund for any rookie who felt he could not make the financial sacrifice to boycott the game. Donovan McNabb and Brian Dawkins were two of the guys who spearheaded the effort. That is leadership. Troy said he thought not playing the game would be a symbol of something that was morally right.
Wow! Where did that kind of leadership, on and off the field, come from? The Philadelphia Eagles were blessed with this tough person and player from Trenton. I don't know how Troy ever learned everything that he knows, but I do know that he is a great leader, a great teammate, and a great friend.
That day, football was only a sport. It was still only a luxury. It was not a necessity.
We took a team vote and it was unanimous that the Philadelphia Eagles would not play on Sunday. We voted to boycott the game in favor of paying respect to the nation. When we walked out of that meeting, we were one.
Do you remember the feeling we shared as a country during that time? We came together as Americans. We were united. I wish it could always be that way.
Troy phoned Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the Players Association, to inform him of our decision. Gene said that he understood and agreed with us, and that he would call the League office to work with them. Troy let Gene know that there was nothing to work out. We had made our decision, and it was the right decision. Troy told him, "Our decision is final."
We got the word from the League office that Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was going to make an announcement, and our whole team gathered in the cafeteria to watch the live broadcast on ESPN.
In addressing the press, the commissioner spoke with inspiring confidence and strength. There was no trace of hesitancy in his voice. Most people are not artists, but they can recognize the beauty and masterpiece of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. The inspiring leadership of the commissioner of the NFL could similarly be recognized by anyone who heard him speak. Here is part of what he said:
We in the National Football League have decided that our priorities for this weekend are to pause, grieve, and reflect. It is a time to tend to families and neighbors and all those wounded by these horrific acts of terrorism. We understand those individuals in sports who want to play this weekend. We also can empathize with those who want to take the weekend off and resume their personal lives and professional careers next week. We strongly believe that the latter course of action is the right decision for the NFL. On Sunday, September 23, the NFL, its players, and coaches will return stronger than ever and resume our playing schedule. A decision on whether to reschedule this weekend's games or play a 15-game regular season schedule is under consideration and will be announced as soon as possible.
The commissioner's dynamic presence and his straightforward announcement left no room for equivocation. He stood before the cameras with strength and a toughness that inspired the American people and me and my teammates. The previous commissioner, Pete Rozelle, had gone on record as saying he had one major regret during his tenure and that was not canceling the games following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Commissioner Tagliabue had heard Pete Rozelle repeatedly refer to that regret, and it helped him make the tough decision to reschedule the games, which turned out to be the right decision.
Excerpted from SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GREATNESS by CHAD LEWIS Copyright © 2009 by Chad Wayne Lewis. Excerpted by permission.
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