Elfin: The Day The Ball Stopped Spinning
It’s fitting that Art Modell’s funeral takes place today in Baltimore. Eleven years ago today as we mourned the loss of nearly 3,000 fellow Americans in that morning’s terrorist attacks, owner Modell’s Ravens were on top of the world as the defending Super Bowl champions.
It was a Tuesday, the players’ day off around the NFL so team facilities were quiet other than coaches watching tape as they prepared for the upcoming weekend’s games. However, New York rookie receiver Santana Moss headed to work to get treatment on his injured knee. Moss recalled that as he drove on Long Island during that morning rush hour, his view of the city skyline seemed to be shrouded in fog.
“When I got there, the trainers weren’t giving anybody treatment, they were all watching the TV,” remembered Moss, who was traded to Washington in 2005. “They said, ‘Did you see the plane hit the tower?’ And then the second one hit. It was my first time (living) away from home and I couldn’t believe what was going on. A man who worked at (my) condo passed. It was a story like that every day if you were living in New York. There were (memorial) flowers everywhere. You felt so bad for people and you didn’t know what was going to happen next. That will always be a memory for me of how I started off in the NFL.”
Moss’ future teammates who were Redskins in 2011 will never forget the next few practices at Redskins Park because of the eerie silence from above. With air traffic grounded, there was none of the usual noise from the planes coming or going to nearby Dulles Airport.
As the NFL writer for The Washington Times, I was in Baltimore on Sept. 12 to talk to the Ravens. Easily the biggest topic was whether commissioner Paul Tagliabue would postpone that weekend’s games or follow predecessor Pete Rozelle, who always regretted not stopping the season after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination 38 years earlier.
On Sept. 13, Tagliabue announced that the NFL wouldn’t resume play until Sept. 23, a day I wound up in Foxboro, Ma., the closest locale with a game since the Redskins, Ravens, Eagles et al were all on the road. That was the game in which Jets linebacker Mo Lewis sidelined Drew Bledsoe with a blow to the chest, forcing Patriots coach Bill Belichick (career record then 42-57) to play unknown Tom Brady at quarterback.
The Patriots lost 10-3 on that emotional afternoon, but NFL history had changed. Brady and Belichick are 141-40 since, including three Super Bowl victories and five AFC titles, and both are bound for Canton.
Eleven years later, the Ravens are still looking to get back to the big dance as are the Redskins, who had been crushed 30-3 in San Diego in new coach Marty Schottenheimer’s debut that had come 10 years after their last championship season. Mike Shanahan, three years removed from his second Super Bowl triumph in Denver, had opened with a thumping of the New York Giants. Shanahan’s current star, Robert Griffin III, was an 11-year-old with dreams as big as his native Texas.
Speaking of dreams, baseball returning to Washington was still a dream on 9/11/01 as it had been for nearly 30 years. Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was a freshman at Virginia. Fireballer Stephen Strasburg was in middle school. Center fielder Bryce Harper was looking forward to his upcoming ninth birthday.
The Caps were about to start their first season after the ballyhooed trade for superstar Jaromir Jagr. The Wizards were about to do the same with out-of-retirement focal point Michael Jordan.
Neither Maryland nor George Mason had yet to reach the Final Four and Georgetown was 16 years removed from its last such appearance. While Navy endured a winless football season, Virginia struggled through a 5-7 fall, and Virginia Tech went 8-4 in its first post-Michael Vick campaign, Maryland had its best season in decades under coach Ralph Friedgen, losing only to Florida State and then in the Orange Bowl to Florida and coach Steve Spurrier, who would replace Schottenheimer with the Redskins 12 days later.
As that coaching change reminds us, the sports world keeps spinning as it will again tonight with a full slate of baseball games with postseason implications, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t stop to remember the tragedy that changed this nation 11 years ago today.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin