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Sports Transcending Sports: 9/11 and More

I watched the President’s speech Sunday night.  I watched with a smile as Americans flooded the streets and celebrated the day.  But at the same time I realized that this day served as a reminder, a vivid representation of a time nearly ten years ago, when one September morning the name of Osama bin Laden was thrust into the minds of all Americans.  And I thought about how in the days that followed, sports became bigger than sports and how this happens so often.  

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

“…The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden…” These were words spoken by President Obama Sunday night.  Words that would echo throughout the world and change the landscape of U.S. foreign policy from here on out.  No sooner had these words been spoken than did Philly fans erupt into a ‘U.S.A.’ chant at Sunday night’s Phillies – Mets game.  It was such a terrific moment.  A moment that was so much bigger than the game, because it had so little to do with sport.  With all that has gone on in the country recently, we needed a moment like this.  A genuinely good moment in which Americans could band together and be proud. This had nothing to do with a close divisional baseball game or any team affiliation, this was a moment in which 40,000 Americans joined voices and spoke the words of a nation.  It got me thinking:  so often sports can transcend the game and become so much more than that.

An example that leapt to mind was the death of Dale Earnhardt.  The shocking downfall of NASCAR’s biggest name on the last lap of it’s biggest event was not a mere sports issue.  It became a national issue the reverberations of which were felt across the nation – even by those who had never seen a lap before.

Chris Trotman, Getty Images

Another I thought of is the Army-Navy game.  Let’s be honest, not many of us are really interested in watching two mediocre teams run the option for three hours.  But give the me the tradition of these two schools, the fact that these boys will soon be going off to fight a war and sprinkle in the singing of the teams’ fight song in one of the most patriotically charged events this side of the Fourth of July and I’m hooked.  Those boys standing together and singing with each other after the game is a national moment, not a sports one.

Another example, as we get ready for this week’s Kentucky Derby, is the death of Barbaro.  For those who don’t remember, Barbaro dominated the field in the 2006 ‘Run for the Roses,’ but tragically shattered a leg in the opening steps of the Preakness.  He held on for months following the race, captivating a nation as he fought hard to recover; but the injury proved too much and he was put down. There was an outpouring of emotion for Barbaro.  He was no mere horse, but a star that the nation as whole pulled for.

Two of the three examples I’ve listed above are ones in which tragedy has struck and shocked us all into attention.  All too often this is the case. But at times sports can serve as the relief, the return to normal – if there is such a thing.

Surely, the emotional story of the year was Wes Leonard’s high school basketball team banding together in the wake of his death to go on and win their league championship.  This was no basketball game. But an inspiration, a cathartic moment – a way to try and move past a tragic incident and return to as much normalcy as can exist.

One of the most emotional examples is the first Saints game at the Super Dome following hurricane Katrina.  The emotion in that building is something I’ll never forget and I was only watching on TV.  But even through the TV set, there haven’t been many things more emotional than when the Saints blocked that punt for their first touchdown.  Unbelievable.

Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

However, the most clear and vivid representation of this effect is the role of sports in the days following September 11th.  This is what I found myself thinking about in the moments after the President’s speech.  I remember clearly ESPN announcing that the major professional sports leagues would halt operations following the catastrophe.  I remember Sports Center anchors with nothing to report, looking lost – as we all were.  But I also remember the first NFL Sunday.  I remember the Cowboys’ 100 yard-long American flag – America’s team flying America’s colors in a spectacular way. I remember NFL teams emerging from the tunnel behind the flag, tears streaming down the manliest mans face as the National Anthem was sung.

Then I remember the MLB.  That first Mets game, the first game in NYC following the attacks.  Mets-Braves just ten days after September 11. I remember the emotion of the beginning of the game, the joy of getting back to baseball, Liza Minelli’s stirring rendition of “New York, New York” with firefighters and police officers at her side.  Then that emotional home run, crushed to dead center by Mike Piazza giving the Mets the lead.  How about game three of the World Series when President Bush visited the Bronx to throw out the first pitch and delivered a strike, only to be followed by two late game, come from behind Yankee wins.

There was nothing normal about these events.  That wasn’t just a late season home run that Piazza hit.  It was a dose of therapy he delivered.  He gave a city who’d had it’s very foundation rocked to it’s core their first chance to stand up and cheer – to rock Shea Stadium. President Bush’s first pitch wasn’t just a president throwing a ball, it was a strike at the heart of fear, a kind of confidence building.  These weren’t sporting events, but memorials, therapy sessions and returns to normalcy rolled up into one three-hour event.  The kind of catharsis that only sports could offer.

Isn’t this what sports is best at?  Isn’t this what we look for as fans?  Moments of joy and release, a distraction from life.  These moments are so important. There’s so much pain, so much hurt, so much tragedy reported in the world today.  An evening news report reads like an obituary mixed with “Murphy’s Law.”  So quick, so fleeting can these moments of real joy be that it’s important that they are grasped firmly, held onto with both hands and cherished.  These are the moments that need to be remembered.  Sure, I’ll always remember the terror of 9/11, the horror of the moment.  But I’ll also remember Piazza’s home run.  I’ll remember Yankees-Diamondbacks in the World Series, because it’s what helped me get through those dark times – what helped me and those who were truly and directly effected return to as much of a normal life as we could.

These are the memories that are so important.  Because how bleak, how dark would life seem if we looked back and saw only the sadness, only the hurt?  There is, honestly, so much bliss in the world today.  But every once in a while, every now and then, we need sports to remind us. We need Mike Piazza to step to the plate and remind us all that happiness exists – to give us a reason to cheer again.

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