Vahe Gregorian

On 9/11, Chiefs remember victims, true heroes and how sports played small role ahead

Mitchell Schwartz, a California native, was in seventh grade on his way to school that sickening day in 2001 when news came over the radio that he couldn’t quite understand right away.

Soon enough, he knew.

“That was one of the first moments (as a child) that you realize an event can have such a widespread impact, not just on our country but, really, the whole world,” the Chiefs’ right tackle said on Wednesday, the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Punter Dustin Colquitt was studying on campus at Tennessee amid what started as “a week like this,” getting ready to play a rival, in that case Florida. In the days before widespread Internet connections, he heard murmurs about what had happened and thought, “It doesn’t compute.”

Even when he saw the reality on television, it seemed surreal, like some concoction of a Hollywood horror movie.

He thought Wednesday about the families that went to bed the night before with “everything good” only to have their worst nightmares realized hours later.

“And it keeps on going, because you can’t replace the family members,” Colquitt said. “You can honor them, but you can’t replace them.”

In between New York City and Washington, D.C., then-Philadelphia coach Andy Reid took a phone call from Green Bay coach Mike Sherman, who, rather typically of the insular nature of the NFL, wasn’t even aware of what had happened as Reid was locking in on it.

Eighteen years later now, the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa., the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, remain seared in our consciousness … as they should.

Like Schwartz, Colquitt and Reid, most anybody old enough to remember it knows where they were and the sheer shock and the valor of the first responders. Too many know the infinite torment of losing loved ones that day.

“We always keep that close to our heart(s) and our mind(s) at this time,” Reid said in his opening remarks on Wednesday as his Chiefs prepared to play Sunday at Oakland.

If ever there was a reason to pause and grieve and reflect and commemorate the loss, as they did again on Wednesday morning near Ground Zero and as maybe you took a moment to do, too, it was that week in the world of games:

“The Week That Sports Stood Still,” as the Sports Illustrated cover story put it. Major League Baseball didn’t resume play until the next week. The NFL postponed its games of the next weekend, with college football following suit.

“I think people who talk about a return to normalcy are confusing that with a rush to normalcy,” broadcaster Bob Costas told me at the time. “We should get back to normal, as soon as possible, but this weekend wasn’t that time.”

But Costas said something else then that was equally true.

“In general, when something of this enormity occurs, it tends to blur the differences between us and emphasize what we have in common,” he said.

Part of that was sports, which in some small way was part of returning to normal. Or at least moving towards a new normal.

We all probably have our own specific memories of those first tentative steps.

In Kansas City, the Chiefs resumed play on Sept. 23 against the New York Giants, who had the rare, if not unprecedented, distinction of being cheered at Arrowhead Stadium.

The day also included a 15-minute pre-game patriotic pageant featuring about 100 military personnel carrying American flags and a hushed crowd of nearly 80,000 watching a video recognizing the New York firefighters and police who had died.

For me, I’ll always be moved by the galvanizing power of the 2001 New York City Marathon, which my wife, Cindy, ran that November near where my parents and one of my brothers lived.

And I can still hear the clatter of hovering Black Hawk helicopters as President George W. Bush walked to the center of Rice-Eccles Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Bush stood with International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogue and Salt Lake Olympic Committee Chairman Mitt Romney as eight Olympians and members of New York City police and fire departments carried out the tattered flag found in the World Trade Center rubble.

I’ll always think this day of a college football teammate, Mike Miller, who died there and think of another teammate, Gary Vura, who was on the 26th floor and survived.

And I’ll always remember visiting the 9/11 Memorial with Star colleagues during the 2015 World Series.

For Schwartz, it’s stirring memories of the Yankees and Mets resuming play as part of moving out of the “same cycle of just thinking about (the attacks) over and over.”

Colquitt thought about sports as what he called “a great bridge” for camaraderie and “a common place where you can come together and just get lost in a healthy distraction for a while.”

We still make too much of sports, of course, still too often lack perspective and are too apt to apply the term “heroic” to mere athletic accomplishments that aren’t remotely on the scale of true heroism. The unity of the aftermath, alas, also proved fleeting.

Just the same, we saw then as much as ever how sports stretches us across aisles and other divides in ways few other things can.

Including after a day to never forget, one that Colquitt, the father of five, has made a point to speak with some of his elder children about.

“You tell them it’s like me going to work — and then you guys never seeing me again,” he said. “That hits them hard. … But I think it’s important they (understand) the human factor, so they appreciate every day they do get here.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.