SI Vault
Gary Smith
September 24, 2001
To gauge sports' grip on US in a time of tragedy, the author took his son to a high school football game.
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September 24, 2001

The Boys On The Bus

To gauge sports' grip on US in a time of tragedy, the author took his son to a high school football game.

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In whispers I asked the boy seated in front of me on the bus if our police escort was unusual, related to the tragedy and the day of prayer. No, he murmured, it happened every time the Green Wave hit the road. I started there with Noah, on the edges of what I wanted to learn. "What do you think," I asked, "of 86 kids getting a police escort to play a high school game?"

His eyes squinched. "They don't even do this for big league players," he said. "Must be nothing to do here."

I gazed around the bus, wondering which boys really wanted to play and which had just been swept along. The pros had shut down. The colleges had fallen silent. Why not the high school kids?

I laid that question in the lap of a legend, the Summerville coach, who had won more football games than any other coach in history. I wanted Noah to hear the opinion of John McKissick, a 74-year-old grandfather who had stayed for 50 years at one school, where he'd won 483 games, 10 state titles and 25 conference championships. A man who'd gone shoeless growing up in a two-bedroom shack after his daddy went bankrupt during the Depression, and then found his calling in a town that once postponed Halloween because it fell on a game night, and molded the lives of 1,700 of its kids because he never cut a player. A man who would've dropped from the sky as a paratrooper in the 82d Airborne during the invasion of Japan had two atomic bombs not dropped from the sky first.

Never in those five decades in Summerville had McKissick gone a week in autumn without coaching a football game, not even when a heart attack killed his father the day before a game. But hadn't he wondered, when even some of the townspeople started calling in and saying the game should be postponed, whether it was time, finally, to let people sit still, to think and to feel?

"No," he said. "I don't think these kids should be home watching TV. I think they've seen enough. To be honest, I don't think they'd be home watching it anyway if we didn't play. Look, everybody has mourned. We've had moments of silence, prayers, talked about it in school. I called the team together the day it happened and said, 'Keep the people who died in your prayers, but we can't let it interfere with our schoolwork and our goals here on the football field. We've got to not dwell on it. We've got to keep moving on.' "

He noticed the bump on Noah's football where our dog's teeth had broken the skin and let the bladder push through, and he got him a replacement. "Kid on our team's daddy worked at the Pentagon," McKissick said. "Name's Ryan Snipes."

Noah was silent, unreadable. I went looking for Ryan, a sophomore tight end with big hands and heartful eyes. On the morning of the attacks Ryan had watched a classmate—a girl whose father had called her that morning on his way to a meeting in one of the World Trade Center towers—faint when she saw the towers implode. That shook him, hard. Suddenly flashing before him were pictures of the Pentagon in flames, the building where his dad, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, had meetings nearly every day. Everything inside Ryan, level by level, collapsed. He bolted for the classroom door, and then fell to tears in front of everyone in the school lobby the moment he saw his sister and mom. For the next three hours, every 30 seconds, they called five phone numbers: nothing.

"There aren't words for the emptiness I felt inside," Ryan said. "Finally around two o'clock my sister called again, and I heard her say, 'Dad', and I knew he was alive. I cried again. He'd gotten a call on his way to the Pentagon to turn back, just after the planes hit the World Trade Center."

Ryan's sister and mother persuaded him to swallow his embarrassment over the tears and to return to school that day for practice, and to play this week to celebrate life, to show the terrorists that Americans can't be cowed. However, the girl who'd fainted didn't return to school on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, her empty seat filling the classroom with dread, and the locker room was quieter than it had ever been, and Ryan's sports heroes kept saying no, no way they'd play ball at a time like this.

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