Remembering 9/11: Why sports meant nothing and everything in the face of unspeakable tragedy

In Sporting News’ first draft of history, in the issue after Sept. 11, 2001, the view from New York was heart-wrenching. SN ad salesman Rich Bodmer, a former Navy fire and rescue worker who as a volunteer at Ground Zero was an eyewitness, told our columnist Dave Kindred: “It was more frightening than I can describe. What you saw on TV doesn’t begin to tell the story.”

What we saw on TV, watching in our newsroom in St. Louis that Tuesday morning two decades ago, was … choose your word.

In the days that followed 9/11, we — like most in sports media — pondered our place in a nation so stunned, so stirred, so saddened.

We briefly considered not publishing at all. Then, when it appeared games would be played over the weekend, we thought about producing our usual magazine.

“But that,” SN editor John Rawlings wrote at the time, “did not feel right.”

So we settled on something we were used to and comfortable with: Putting the sports world into a one-week context.

One thing, though: This was no ordinary week. Our writers and correspondents were scattered across the country, some thankfully safe at home reaching out to sources, others out on assignment, reporting from a sports world suddenly off its axis.

It was my job, as executive editor, to gather all the dispatches we could muster from all of our resources at hand — and to choose the words, to begin to tell the story.

I was petrified.

Twenty years later, our cover story, under the headline ‘Our Darkest Week,’ conjures hard memories, and yet I hope it conveys with a time stamp what we wanted sports fans rocked by a national tragedy to know was important.

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We understood — and understand — that our games are a diversion. Yet they are integral to our lives, a way to be distracted from unexpected challenges, even, maybe especially, the unspeakable ones.

If you were, say, 5 in 2001, you might not have understood what 9/11 was, but maybe a parent pulled you a little closer to watch a ballgame in the ensuing weeks and it felt normal. If you were older, maybe a parent, you knew things were irrevocably changed.

“My daughter is going to grow up in a different world than I did,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said at the time.

So maybe you went out to see your son play football, just to get lost in the game.

Later, in New York, a pulsing Braves-Mets game, punctuated by Mike Piazza’s home run, breathed a good kind of emotion back into our lives. As our MLB columnist Ken Rosenthal wrote: “At a time when baseball never was less important, it took on a greater meaning than ever before.”

I recently asked a former major-leaguer what it feels like to win a World Series, when the confetti guns and fireworks are going off. His answer: “Just take every one of your favorite holidays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, along with, like, snow days when you’re a kid, and wrap them all together. It’s like that.”

Sadly, the yang to that yin is the darkest days you might imagine, rolled into one unimaginable Tuesday 20 years ago. Nothing can erase 9/11, nor should it. It is etched on our hearts. Yet a sense of perseverance persists.

We pick ourselves up and move forward, preparing for the future while acknowledging this awful week. That’s what I wrote 20 years ago.

And the story of 9/11, even two decades on, continues to be written. The Yankees and Mets play on the 20th anniversary. The sports world will pause this weekend to remember. Some 1,100 souls lost in the collapse of the Twin Towers remain unaccounted for; amazingly, two were identified this week, thanks to advances in DNA testing.

This is not a story with a horrific beginning and feel-good ending, or an ending of any sort, for that matter. It can’t be.

“I hope in the coming weeks people can get back to somewhat of a normal life, doing normal things,” Twins closer Todd Jones wrote 20 years ago in his weekly column for Sporting News.

“But if you want to be kind to the human sitting next to you, that’s cool, too.”

Senior editorial consultant Bob Hille worked for more than two decades at Sporting News, including as executive editor in September 2001.

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