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Giants, ex-Giants share 9/11 memories 20 years later

The Giants owner, former players and coaches remember what it was like to be in New York on this day 20 years ago

Arizona Cardinals v New York Giants Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Since this nation was founded under God,

More than 200 years ago,

We’ve been the bastion of freedom,

The light which keeps the free world aglow.

The world changed between the time when the 2001 New York Giants took the field in Week 1 vs. Week 2. On Sept. 10, the Giants fell, 31-20, to the Denver Broncos. The next day is one that we all remember.

Giants owner John Mara told the New York Post that he received the news from then-Giants head coach Jim Fassel early in the morning of Sept. 11. He said that he walked to the top of the old Giants Stadium.

“I could see both towers on fire. It was a pretty stark image that I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” Mara said. “We could always see those towers from our old practice field. Walking out to practice a number of days later and not seeing them was pretty memorable, and pretty frightening, actually. But that sight from the top of the stadium of watching those buildings burning, not realizing at the time they were gonna come down minutes later, that is an image that will stay with me forever.”

Back then, the Giants offices were in Giants Stadium so Mara said that he went to the top of the third deck.

“I had a pretty good view of the buildings and watched them on fire,” Mara said. “Then I went downstairs, put the TV on — by the time I got downstairs, one of the buildings had already come down and the other one followed shortly thereafter.”

Michael Strahan, who was a defensive end on the Giants at the time told the podcast, It Was Said: Sports, that pictures cannot capture the devastation of the moment.

“It was devastating,” Strahan said. “It was overwhelming. It was just an unreal time. And it seems like even being here in New York, and when it was happening and we’re watching it in real time, it was scary, but yet it felt surreal. It felt like you were in an alternate universe. And of course you think in this country nothing like that could happen to us.”

Joe Judge was a sophomore at Mississippi State when the towers fell.

“I remember walking in the house we lived in and I had five roommates standing in the living room staring at the TV,” Judge told Giants.com. “The second tower had just been hit. It was a situation where you just freeze in time and you kind of realize what’s going on...You grow up and you learn the history of Pearl Harbor. You know it’s a very significant event to the world and definitely the country, but you don’t have that emotional attachment to it because it didn’t happen when you’re alive. To you, it’s more of a passage in a history book you read. This happening at that time, I think, woke everybody up.”

We do not covet the possessions of others,

We are blessed with the bounty we share.

We have rushed to help other nations,

Anything... Anytime...Anywhere.

Twelve days after the attacks, the Giants were on the road in Kansas City to play the Chiefs. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who was a backup quarterback for the Giants in 2001 behind Kerry Collins, can vividly recall what it felt like to take the field for the first time. The Giants won by a narrow 13-3 margin that day.

“I held in that game for the first time, and I can remember the pressure of that,” Garrett said. “Needing a field goal late in the game and Morten Andersen was our kicker and just making sure, hey, catch it and get it down. This is damn important. Good thing it all worked out.”

Strahan recalls the relief he felt to be back on a football field again.

“It was a sign of kind of normalcy, but it also gave us a purpose, because we realized that our purpose in sports at that time was to take everyone’s mind off of all the tragedy that had happened and what was going on in a recovery from that tragedy, even if it was for a few hours on a Sunday,” Strahan said. “I think it gave us in sports a lot more purpose.”

Bob Dylan was playing in the background during the pregame, Garrett remembers. And Kansas City, a challenging place to play, welcomed the Giants with open arms as patriotism overshadowed fandom.

“The great takeaway was this fanbase in Kansas City that was always so behind their team was certainly behind the Chiefs, but you also felt their support for our team and for people in our area and that was a great takeaway,” Garrett said. “I think you reflect back on just the national anthem, and I can remember guys were just crying. It was just such an emotional thing and then you had to kind of get your energy right, take a deep breath and go play a football game.”

At the college level, football also resumed. Judge recalls what it was like to play South Carolina on Thursday Night Football on ESPN the following week.

“I remember the stadium being full, having the big American flag on the field, and people singing the national anthem,” Judge said. “You remember everyone staying together with it. There was definitely a lot of emotion with it. There was a lot of support throughout the country for the first responders and everything going on. To me, that’s something that shaped my beliefs and the way I see things, in terms of my images of first responders, the military and the impact they have.”

War is just not our nature.

We won’t start, but we will end the fight.

If we are involved,

We shall be resolved,

To protect what we know is right.

Garrett said that he will never forget the picture.

It’s after the game and former Giants head coach Jim Fassel brought everyone together.

“He just brought everybody in and said, ‘Just kind of get in the locker room,’ and we all kind of just got in this picture and they snapped this picture,” Garrett said. “We felt a real burden and a responsibility to have success for this area and for the people who were going through such challenging times and I thought that moment captured it where we all kind of came together. It’s still one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever had in football. I have it in my office. I have it at my house. So many distinct memories of that time. Twenty years later, I mean, they’re vivid. They’re vivid and you can still feel them.”

The 2001 Giants after a win over the Chiefs.
Jerry Pinkus, New York Giants

Fassel died unexpectedly in June at age 71. Former Giants players and coaches honored him at the Upper Montclair Country Club on Aug. 30 for The Jim Fassel Foundation Memorial Celebrity Golf Tournament. Garrett reflected on the poise and grace with which Fassel led the team through an unprecedented time.

“I think everybody – whether it’s President Bush or the leaders in our country, the community leaders, just citizens – how do you respond to that? One of the things when you reflect back on that time, what was amazing is I think we were at our best in our response and how everyone came together. It wasn’t about being liberal or conservative, it was about being an American and it was about being a human being. I thought we did a great job in this area and all across our country rallying around the cause.”

Garrett said that he and Kerry Collins recently reflected on the ways in which the country came together in the months following the attacks.

“I can remember we were living in the city at the time, and I can remember we were going to go donate blood, and literally they said, ‘We’ve had so many people want to donate blood, we do not need any more blood,’” Garret said. “To us, that was always like this amazing thing, how everybody rallied around the cause after such a tragedy. It was such a sad, emotional time. In many ways, I think we felt fortunate as members of this team to be able to try to help the community in some ways.”

We’ve been challenged by a cowardly foe,

Who strikes and then hides from our view.

With one voice, we say there’s no choice today,

There is only one thing to do.

Garrett, Judge and the rest of the Giants coaches will wear 9/11 lapel pins at Sunday’s home opener against the Broncos to commemorate the 20th anniversary. Special NYPD, FDNY and Port Authority Police Department hats will be worn in partnership with NYC & Co. and New Era at the game to honor the lost first responders.

“To be on the field with the first responders and people who were in those towers, I think it’s going to be an emotional feel for everybody on both teams, I would imagine,” Judge said. “To be in there with the skyline of New York overlooking the stadium and to have someone singing the anthem, you remember the date and you celebrate how everyone came together 20 years ago.”

Moving forward often requires looking back. It has been 20 years since the towers fell and everyone, especially New Yorkers, has their own unique story and memories from the day the world changed. Football, a game at its core, provided a reason to hope.

Strahan specifically remembers the significance of Jack Buck’s poem - the one that the famed announcer read on Sept. 17 as the St. Louis Cardinals prepared to take on the Milwaukee Brewers in baseball’s return to the diamond.

​“To hear what Jack Buck said and what he put in just such the perfect terms and in the perfect way of how we were feeling as a country at that time, to where it made you feel proud, it made you feel together,” Strahan said. “It made you feel very American. It made you feel strong, but yet it was put in a way in which it was okay to cry. It was okay to heal.”

Everyone is saying the same thing,

And praying that we end these senseless moments we are living.

As our fathers did before, we shall win this unwanted war.

As our children will enjoy the future we’ll be giving.