It was a beginning. But where would we go from there with our games and our new reality?
A RESTAURANT IN Tempe, not far from Sun Devil Stadium and the campus of Arizona State University. Across the table from me sit a senior linebacker named Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin, a baseball player at the same school. Ten years post-9/11, Pat Tillman is the most famous casualty of the wars that followed the terrorist attacks. He was taken in the seventh round of the '98 NFL draft by the Cardinals and played four seasons before turning his back on football, and football money, to enlist in the Army. Kevin, who had played for a year in the Indians' system, also enlisted and was assigned to the same Ranger unit. Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.
Wherever it is that 9/11 intersects with sports, Tillman is standing there in a uniform. Which one you picture him wearing says much about your view of this entire paradigm.
Hours of footage and millions of keystrokes have been expended deciphering Tillman's reasons for joining the military, which he never discussed publicly. The Tillman who spoke that day and the next in 1997 understood that sports are not larger than life, just a part of life. He had no use for honors. He had just been named Pac-10 defensive player of the year, but dismissed it. "It doesn't do me any good to be proud," he said. He loved the purity of a big shoulder hit and the intellectual triumph of reading an opponent's body to know where he might go (and then to get there first). He loved to win and to get better and to move on to the next thing. If Tillman had not enlisted in the Army after 9/11, it would have been fascinating to see what nonmilitary motivation he would have drawn from the attacks. And this, for many, is the seminal legacy of 9/11 and sports: It has given some people a purpose to their competition, and a deeper meaning to their own personal games.
Someone like Christa Horrocks. Her father, Michael, once the quarterback at West Chester (Pa.) State and later a Marine, was the first officer on United Flight 175, the second plane flown into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He was one of 65 people killed aboard that flight, including five hijackers and eight other crew members. Michael left behind a wife and two children in the Philadelphia suburb of Glen Mills, Pa. One of them was a nine-year-old named Christa.
Since she was seven she had loved to run. Her mom tried to get her to ride a bike, but she ran instead. And on some days her dad would run alongside and then outkick Christa at the end, reminding her that somebody wins the race and everybody else loses. "He was very competitive," says Christa, "which is where I think I got my edge."
After her father was killed, Christa, her mother and younger brother didn't go home for a week, instead staying with an aunt and uncle. When she did return home, the pain of her dad's absence was so powerful that she would simply go outside and run. And find him there. "It was my way to be a part of him," Christa says. "In my mind, [the attacks] made running more important, because I felt like I was doing something for my dad." Such a little girl, and she would run for as long as 90 minutes. Slowly, something she did to escape the pain of losing her father was transformed into a goal to chase.
She became a sprinter at Penncrest High, specializing in the 200 and 400 meters. She runs upright, with her chest a little too high, and that's just the way her father ran too. When Christa was a freshman, her aunt Jennifer watched her run and was so reminded of Michael that she began to cry. Now Christa is a sophomore on partial scholarship, running for the track team at the College of Charleston—and never alone. "I feel because he's gone," Christa says of her father, "it's the only way I can give glory to him. It's the only connection I can have. I want to make him proud, still, and he really is with me."
Or someone like Jason Read, who had done two unusual and admirable things long before 9/11. First, in 1994 at the age of 16, he became the youngest emergency medical technician in New Jersey, working out of the station in his hometown of Ringoes. Then, at a little under 6 feet and barely 160 pounds, he became one of the best heavyweight rowers in the country, excelling at Temple and on U.S. national teams in a sport in which his boatmates commonly were eight inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. It was a measure of not just his freakish aerobic system but a deep reserve of toughness and will in a punishing sport.