Where workdays were once filled with busy commuters and the hum of productivity, the United States halted with pain and uncertainty. Where weekday evenings would be occupied with the beginning of the football season and the MLB pennant race, viewers found it hard to escape the endless review of death and destruction at an unprecedented scale in the United States. Life became bound by shock and grief from the worst attacks in the country’s history.
Normalcy was a difficult concept to come by after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The healing process, which still continues 13 years later, needed a jump-start given the enormity and senselessness of the loss of life. The cities most directly impacted, in particular, desperately needed a cause for hope. For many, it was found on the playing fields.
“The only two things that got my mind off [the attacks] for any period of time in the fall of 2001 were baseball and my son’s football games,” said former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in the HBO documentary ‘Nine Innings from Ground Zero.’
If only for a few hours – perhaps, for some, only for a few minutes – the return of professional sports after a hiatus following the attacks represented some semblance of normalcy. Not only were professional sports an opportunity to escape the reality of life after September 11, but also a common rallying point and an opportunity for joy in an otherwise painful point in the country’s history. In the first baseball game played in New York after the attacks, between the Mets and the Atlanta Braves, a game-winning home run by the Mets’ catcher Mike Piazza powerfully broke through an atmosphere of fear and forced at least a few moments of joy back into the equation of life and a spirit of hope into the New York community.
Sports also very personally touched those most wounded by the events of September 11. In New York City, members of the Yankees, Mets, Jets, Giants, and other sports figures visited firehouses and police stations to thank public servants for their work and to console them, along with grieving families, as best they knew how. We recently learned, in one particular example, that after 10-year-old Brielle Saracini wrote to New York Yankees Captain Derek Jeter as she tried to cope with losing her father in the attacks, the star shortstop invited Saracini to a Yankees game and, over the years since 2001, has maintained a relationship with Brielle. Today, he continues to support her as she battles Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I just wanted to call and say, keep your head up, stay positive and everything will work out just great,” Jeter recently told Saracini in response to her latest fight.
As I thought about it, I realized this was, in a way, the same message sent by Jeter, the Yankees, the Mets, and professional sports across the country when play resumed in the weeks after the 2001 attacks. Whether through visits to firehouses and police stations, support of families affected by the attacks, or just through play itself, organized sports and professional athletes re-introduced normalcy into American life. Through the spirit of play and respectful competition, sports re-ignited a collective hope in the future. By giving Americans something to cheer for and ideals to aspire to, athletes and organized sports did, indeed, help the country keep its head up.
As one of our core pillars in the Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development, we recognize that “play lightens us up, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul. True play promotes freedom, creativity and joy.” Play also reminds us of, and promotes, both physical and spiritual freedom. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, we could easily rally around our value of freedom but had a difficult time rising from the sadness of loss; sports helped us do that. Play helped the country recover and, in all its forms, promotes creativity, expression, and joy.
This is the great – and unbreakable – power of play. The joy that can come from play is not just powerful, but all-consuming in the moments it is spontaneously produced. In New York and around the country, home runs and stolen bases were the unexpected moments that could temporarily focus Americans’ minds to a bliss, however fleeting, they had not experienced in days or weeks.
“The last thing I thought I would feel after September 11 was joy,” said Greg Manning, whose wife, Laura, survived the World Trade Center attacks but was burned over 80% of her body. “But there were the Yankees… it was an outlet for every ounce of happiness you could muster.”
Though all were not as personally impacted as Greg and Laura, baseball and sports at large continued to produce moments of escape from the harsh realities of the previous days. The joy offered by sports – from beautiful plays to spontaneous celebrations – lifted spirits and pointed American minds to hope.
“There was something about baseball, which is the American sport…that had a wonderful impact on the morale of the people of the city,” said Rudy Giuliani. “It’s exactly what they needed to get their eyes up off the ground, looking into the future.”
featured image via flickr