Why Sports Matter

On the morning of September 11, 2001, unspeakable terror and evil was done to our nation. 2,977 innocent people lost their lives that day. There are no words to describe the horrors experienced by so many that morning.

In the days, weeks and months following September 11th, the United States of America found a new sense of unity and togetherness. Americans from near and far offered love and support to complete strangers as the nation tried to heal. Sports seemed to be the least of everyone’s worries at this time, but as the years have passed people have reflected on how sports played a small role in the healing process.

Former ESPN college football analyst and coach Bill Curry told a story on ESPN’s ‘Mike and Mike’ regarding an encounter he had with an Alabama native on the 13th of September that year. Curry was set to cover the Southern Mississippi vs Alabama game in Birmingham that following weekend. Not knowing whether or not this game would actually happen, Curry and his colleague began the drive down to Birmingham, as ESPN would not allow any travel via airplane. Set to receive a call at any minute regarding the decision on the game, Curry stopped at a gas station in Attalla, Alabama. When Curry received the call, he broke the news to the man working the front desk who had inquired about the game; they in fact would not play the scheduled game. Then came the shocking moment that Curry says he’ll never forget, the man turned to Curry and said “Let me tell you something Coach, in Attalla, Alabama Friday night, we’re gonna play football, because it means a lot to us.” On the ensuing car ride, Curry had a bit of an epiphany wondering why football means so much in small towns like Attalla;

“It means a lot in America. Because on Friday nights, the community huddles, and people sit together who never sit together the rest of the week. And when somebody’s son scores a touchdown, the most unlikely hugs occur. Those children that have been raised to hate each other by the sick folks in our culture get in the locker room, they get in the huddle and they learn to love each other. And that love and respect, regardless of the color of one’s skin, regardless of religion, regardless of national origin, they last the rest of your life. Football is the only sport in which every player needs every teammate on every play just to survive. Well, the United States of America is structured similarly, and we seem to have forgotten that fact. So football is a little more profound than a lot of people understand, and that’s what people need to hear, I think, about our business.”

Football matters. Football matters in Attalla, Alabama, and football matters in America.

In search of a return to normalcy for our national pastime, the MLB made its return to New York on September 21st when the New York Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium, just 14 miles from ground zero. That night, as the Mets and Braves joined together to shake hands on the field following a moment of silence, there was not a dry eye in the building. This was especially true for the Gies family. Ronnie Gies, a huge Mets fan and FDNY firefighter was killed in North Tower of the World Trade Center just ten days prior, but his wife Carol, and their three sons opted to honor his memory by attending the Mets game that first night back. In ESPN’s ‘Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11’ Tommy Gies remembers, “It was a different baseball game, it was a different feeling. There was gonna be a different atmosphere.” Mets manager Bobby Valentine echoes this sentiment, saying “It wasn’t like a baseball game. Until, of course, it became a baseball game.” A back-and-forth battle ensued, and going into the bottom of the 8th inning, the Mets trailed 2-1 with the heart of their lineup due up. After Edgardo Alfonzo worked a walk against Braves reliever Steve Karsay, Mike Piazza stepped up to the plate in front of the New York faithful, and delivered one of the more powerful moments in baseball history. Piazza sent a 94 mph fastball over the center field wall, putting the Mets in front and giving New Yorkers, and Americans, something to cheer about for the first time in a long while. Carol Gies remembers turning to look at her sons, “There’s no words to explain, as a heartbroken mother, to watch your children finally be able to smile.”That home-run mattered. That home-run mattered to the Gies family, and that home-run mattered to the millions of others nationwide who needed inspiration and a reason to smile.

Less than two months later, New York’s very own Yankees found themselves in the World Series for the fourth straight year, but this time it was different. President George W. Bush received an invitation to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 1 in Arizona; “I rejected that out of hand,” tells Bush in an interview for ESPN’s ’30 For 30′ series, “if you’re going to throw out a pitch in a World Series with the Yankees, at this point in history, there’s only one place to go”. That place was Yankee Stadium. And so, after the first two games in Arizona, attention turned to New York City, a city still in the beginning stages of recovery. President Bush, a former MLB owner, knew how crucial baseball could be to the recovery of the nation. With the nation on edge and still in fear of further attacks, Bush knew he needed to do this; “I don’t think you can lead a nation if you’re worried about your own safety, I don’t think you can send a signal to people, “let’s get on with our lives,”if the president is concerned about his own life.” That night, in front of a sellout crowd and in front of a national audience, amid countless terror threats, the President of the United States proudly and fearlessly walked out to the mound, stood atop it and raised his right arm, with his thumb up. Bush delivered a perfect strike. Rather than being concerned about his own life, The President found the best possible way to let everyone know that it was safe and okay to continue on with their lives. That pitch mattered. That pitch mattered to the President of the United States, it mattered to New Yorkers, but most of all, that pitch mattered to Americans everywhere who had continued to live in fear and needed a sign of hope.

These types of moments mattered to small towns nationwide, they mattered to victims’ families, they mattered to the President of the United States but most of all, they mattered to America.

Sports matter.

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