On Monday night, Sept. 10, 12 hours before the terrorist attacks, the Florida Gators were already thinking of war. They had just finished an intense, 90-minute practice in preparation for their upcoming battle against SEC rival Tennessee, and at that point no enemy seemed more sinister and no task more important than whipping the Volunteers, who were scheduled to visit the Swamp in five days.
On Tuesday morning, however, as the Gators learned of the horrific events in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Somerset County, Pa., they quickly realized how trivial their rivalry with Tennessee was. Nonetheless, no major sport was more divided over whether to cancel last week's games than college football, and no major conference took more time than the SEC when it came to asserting its own unimportance. While the ACC, Big East and Pac-10 announced last Wednesday that they were postponing all league games, SEC officials said that they were following the suggestion of the Bush Administration in deciding to go ahead with the conference's schedule.
Even after the Big 10 and the Big 12 started pulling out on Thursday morning and the SEC reversed field that afternoon, SEC commissioner Roy Kramer still seemed skeptical of the move, telling The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, "We can't sit in our living rooms watching television 24 hours a day." A day earlier, on a sports radio show broadcast from Birmingham, he'd scoffed at Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville for voting, in a survey of conference coaches, against playing at LSU on Saturday night. "He might have voted against going to Baton Rouge whether we had this [terrorist] event or not," Kramer said.
Amid this chaos, Florida players struggled to cope, and perhaps none was more unnerved than sophomore wideout Carlos Perez, who was hurrying to a speech class that morning when he saw classmates walking toward him. "Class canceled," one said with a shrug. Puzzled, Perez returned to his dorm room, flipped on the television and couldn't believe his eyes. "I started to panic," he said last Friday. And with good reason: His 28-year-old brother, Danny, works as a consultant in a building across the street from the World Trade Center. Carlos tried in vain to get through to family members in Hoboken, N.J., by telephone. Then his own phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line said, "I'm fine. I'm off work today, and I'm safe." It was Danny, and he was standing on the Hoboken waterfront, staring across the Hudson.
Even Florida players fortunate enough not to have family or friends linked to the tragedies were gripped by the need to hear the voices of loved ones. "My first thought was that we'd gone to war," said junior cornerback Lito Sheppard, who was in the locker room getting dressed for a weightlifting session when he saw the news on TV. "All I wanted to do was talk to Mya [his four-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in Jacksonville], but she was in preschool."
Nearly an hour later, as reports aired about the plane crash near Pittsburgh, Sheppard and seven teammates headed to an on-campus press conference that had been scheduled for weeks. The players were to have been queried about Tennessee's ground game and defensive schemes. Instead they were asked to make sense of a national tragedy that several of them knew very little about. "It seems like all hell is breaking loose," said junior tackle Mike Pearson.
By midday, with classes canceled and most players staring at TV sets in their apartments or dorm rooms, the status of Saturday's game wasn't on the players' minds. Students posted signs around campus that read COURAGE, while one Gainesville citizen waved a tablecloth-sized American flag as he roller-skated near campus. As sunset approached and students gathered for impromptu services at churches, the Gators trudged quietly to the practice field. "The thought of playing football was sickening at that point," says junior tight end Aaron Walker. Before drills began, the players knelt on the field and bowed their heads for a prayer led by senior fullback Rob Roberts. Count your blessings, he said solemnly, and pray for the victims and their families.
The players' performance in practice was awful—"not much pep in our step" is how Sheppard described it—but even Steve Spurrier, one of the most demanding coaches in America, didn't have the heart to holler about it. "When I saw the attack on TV, I had a hard time going back to football," he'd said earlier that day. "We could all tell that it affected him a great deal," said tight ends coach Buddy Teevens, who had two acquaintances on one of the ill-fated planes. "That's the human side to Spurrier that most people don't see."
After practice the coaches went home, where game tape was put aside in favor of continuing news coverage, and the players gathered in small groups. Pearson, Walker and their roommates called to check on former Florida quarterback Jesse Palmer, a rookie with the New York Giants. "We never got through to him, but we found out that he was O.K.," says Walker.
The next morning a majority of SEC officials agreed that going ahead with the nine football games involving conference teams would be an opportunity to, as Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley put it, "celebrate the strength of our country." Upon learning that they would wear American-flag decals on their helmets and that $1 million in proceeds from the SEC games would be donated to victims' families, some Gators began to get excited about taking up the cause. As stories of heroism reached campus, Sheppard and teammates talked about wishing they could have been in a position to help the airline passengers in their struggle to overcome the terrorists. That evening, after a more inspired practice, some players gathered to watch Robin Hood—to get a breather from the news.