After 14 hours of meetings ended just before 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 12, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue strode purposefully out of the league's offices at 280 Park Avenue and into the cool Manhattan night—and the smell of smoke. Tagliabue coughed occasionally as he walked, his lungs collecting particulates from a barely visible low cloud, wafting like the London fog four miles uptown from ground zero. He noticed that his exposed skin was starting to collect particles. Although he may have had the weight of the suddenly inconsequential sports world on his shoulders, with the clock ticking while he decided whether to play Sunday's and Monday's games, Tagliabue had another matter to tend to first: the birthday dinner of his wife, Chan, at the midtown apartment of their son, Drew, a celebration that had started without him a couple of hours earlier.
After dinner Chan and Paul walked the 23 blocks uptown to their East Side apartment. He coughed some more. His eyes burned. He surveyed the surreal scene—streets nearly empty, air painfully thick, a palpable uncertainty hanging over the future of New York and the country—and said to himself, We're not playing football this weekend.
That decision, unanimously supported by his kitchen cabinet of three owners and Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, the next morning, gave a waffling sports world its sense of direction. America would pray, not play. In the wake of Tagliabue's announcement, Major League Baseball postponed games through the weekend, the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference postponed all weekend sports events, the NHL ordered that no preseason games be played until Monday, NASCAR and the Indy Racing League postponed their Sunday races, the LPGA canceled its tournament, and Major League Soccer canceled its remaining six games of the regular season.
Last Saturday afternoon, with a nip in the Manhattan air and perfect football weather up and down the East Coast, Tagliabue sat in the same conference room in which he had discussed his options with league executives and owners days earlier, and he talked about his walk home on Wednesday night. "We got to 59th and Fifth Avenue," he recalled. "It was so bad, so eerie. I saw two young cops on the corner. I went up to them and said, 'You guys are doing an incredible job.' I shook their hands."
Tagliabue paused. His bottom lip quivered, just as President Bush's had on Thursday when he choked up while talking about whipping terrorism. It wasn't the first time last week that the iron commissioner, a man who often seems so dismissive and cold in the public eye, fought to keep his emotions in check. During a 90-minute interview with SI, he explained how he came to his decision.
When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, Tagliabue was in his 17th-floor office on a conference call with the United Way. When the Pentagon was hit a short time later, the parties abruptly ended the call. Upshaw phoned Tagliabue from Washington to see if everyone in New York was safe and assure him that the NFLPA staff was O.K. "At some point—not now—we need to start thinking about the games," Tagliabue told Upshaw.
First, however, there was the matter of tending to the league's staff of more than 400, spread over five floors. Who knew what might happen next? At 11:10 a.m., Tagliabue appointed floor captains, fire wardens and an individual to oversee a place-to-stay system in the event that commuting employees were stuck in Manhattan overnight or longer.
Like so many other businesses, the NFL also had to address the possibility that staffers might have family members who were injured, dead or lost in the rubble. The league would have two reported missing: Thomas Collins, whose wife, Julia, works in NFL Properties, and Diane Lipari, whose husband, Ed Tighe, is an NFL Management Council lawyer. Julia was in Denver on business. Ed had bolted from his office and gone to the disaster site. While he was explaining to a police officer why he had to get through a barricade, the south tower—in which Lipari worked, on the 92nd floor—collapsed. Tighe returned to his office and began sobbing uncontrollably. "Pray for a miracle, Ed," Tagliabue told him, and he, too, began to cry. When the commissioner learned that a rosary was to be said every half hour around the corner at St. Patrick's Cathedral, he told employees that attending the prayer service would be the best thing they could do for Tighe. Many staffers, including Tagliabue, attended a 5:30 mass with Tighe.
In the middle of the tumult Tagliabue took 10 minutes to sketch out what he considered the league's alternatives for the coming weekend. Although he had his aides check into the possibility of moving the New York Giants' game against the Green Bay Packers from Giants Stadium to Lambeau Field, he never intended that the Giants or the New York Jets play so soon after the disaster. His options: 1) cancel Week 2 games and play a 15-game regular season; 2) postpone the games, throw out the wild-card round of the playoffs on Jan. 5 and 6, and reschedule the Week 2 games for those days; 3) give the Jets, Giants, Washington Redskins and possibly Pittsburgh Steelers the week off, but play the other 11 or 12 games on Monday or Tuesday; 4) schedule the 11 or 12 games at a time on Sunday so as not to interfere with a possible national religious service; 5) start those games at the same time on Sunday, 2 p.m. EDT, giving the U.S. what might be viewed as a three-hour break from the tragedy. However, the networks could not guarantee that they would televise any games. Tagliabue would discuss these options in a conference call with a select group of owners the following day.