Anyone who goes back in time 20 years today in their minds remembers exactly where they were at that moment. The attacks of September 11, 2001 — 9/11 — are etched in the collective world memory. Two planes crashed into the Twin Towers in central New York City. The third plane flew into the west side of the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. The target of that last plane was the White House or the Capitol, but passengers took control. The world was shocked and America’s inviolability on its own soil was seriously hurt for the first time since Pearl Harbor. Just days before 9/11, the NFL competition began. How did the League deal with the terror attacks 20 years ago?
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was central to the NFL’s handling of the attacks. On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a rest day for NFL teams, he switched with then-executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), Gene Upshaw. Tagliabue cared about the NFL owners and set up a small working group to make decisions. That working group included Wellington Mara (owner of the Giants), Robert Kraft (Patriots), Jerry Jones (Cowboys) and Lamar Hunt (Chiefs). Upshaw cared about the players and made sure they and their families were safe.
An Impossible dilemma
That first night, the NFL faced an inevitable yet awkward question: Are we going to play Week 2? In 1963 decided the predecessor Tagliabue, Pete Rozelle, about 48 hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy just play the insistence of the press secretary of the president. The decision to play or not to play after 9/11 was not made immediately. As a result, NFL teams saw Wednesday as a regular training day.
Born New Yorker and New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde said in an interview that day, “Why are we here at all?”. Later that day, he told general manager Terry Bradway: “I am unable to play. If we’re going to play, I can’t play.” The Giants thought about giving up the game; the same sounds were heard at the Jets.
In the league, however, there was no unanimity about playing or not playing the games in week 2. For some owners and coaches, it felt like bowing to terrorists not to play. For others, the fear of flying and awareness of the thousands of deaths in New York City alone reigned. There was also the practical problem of the schedule. When were the week 2 matches supposed to be played? What will happen to the Super Bowl? Is another date needed? Another location?
The NFL make a decision
In the discussion that followed between Tagliabue and the working group with owners, the murder of JFK was mentioned. Pearl Harbor was also cited — the MLB played on then — and it was cited that the NBA and NFL continued to play during the war. In the end the question was: do we listen to terrorists when we don’t play or do we want time to heal wounds? Mara said, “Paul (Tagliabue), we don’t know how many thousands of people have been killed here. There are thousands of body bags ordered, we can not play “. The then governor of New York — George Pataki — also chimed in. He felt that now was the time to heal wounds, not play.
On Thursday — two days after the attacks — the statement came out that the NFL would not play Week 2. No decisions had yet been made about making up for duels, the course of the playoffs or the Super Bowl. The NFL went black, just like the rest of the country.
The context of the competition
In week 3, the NFL got underway again, as did discussions about the game schedule. At the same time, the League wanted to create a sense of togetherness. That turned out to be a performance by Jon Bon Jovi who — flanked by firefighters — sang “America the Beautiful” in front of one of the hardest hit barracks in Manhattan. This recording was then shown in every stadium.
The plans for the continuation of the competition were largely in the hands of Jim Steeg. He was the league executive in charge of the Super Bowl. He made a multi-option plan and the NFL declared that he would complete all 16 rounds. However, that did have an impact on the postseason. The wildcard round had to be scrapped, a midweek round had to take place or the Super Bowl had to be postponed.
Difficulties around a new Super Bowl date
The latter was quite problematic, as the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) had its annual conference in New Orleans the week after the Super Bowl. All the hotels were full and NADA was adamant. As a result, the NFL began looking for other cities, but the Louisiana government urged NADA and Tagliabue to find a solution.
Jim Steeg later stated that the NADA logistics man hated the NFL and its annual Super Bowl. The NADA planned their conference 10 years ahead and every time the NFL moved the Super Bowl, they lost participants. In the end, it cost the NFL $8.5 million to get the date from NADA. With that, the Super Bowl was moved to February 3, 2002.
However, it didn’t stop there, because there were hardly any buses available due to the winter games in Salt Lake City. Wedding halls had to be canceled, because who gets married during a Super Bowl weekend? There was a wrestling tournament for the state of Louisiana and for them the hotel costs became astronomical; said demanded compensation from the NFL. A similar demand came from a group of women who had a card tournament in Vegas and had to say goodbye to their reservation. Finally, there were airlines such as Delta and American that did not want to refund money for already booked tickets. After pressure from senators, they changed their policy.
Safety and the logo
Finding a date was just a start. Due to stricter measures, the entire safety protocol had to be revised, as well as the festivities surrounding the game and a suitable Super Bowl logo was needed. The latter was the easiest. Normally everyone has an opinion, but this time incorporating the American flag was enough.
In terms of security, almost everything had to change. The Super Bowl was designated a “National Special Security Event” leaving the federal government in charge of security. They had to switch from paper tickets to laminated tickets. Barricades had to be placed around the building and cameras were needed everywhere. The building was hermetically sealed six weeks prior to the game. All the air shafts were then examined and fitted with cameras so that no one could place anything in them. Around the stadium were trucks full of water that people had to spray off during an anthrax attack. Nothing was left to chance.
The pre-game and halftime shows
In addition to the logo and security, the pregame and halftime shows were also modified. The Bee Gees would initially do the pregame show and Janet Jackson was booked for halftime. The pregame show was a combination of multiple performers singing appropriate songs like “Let Freedom Ring” and “America the Beautiful”. However, it was Paul McCartney’s “Freedom” performance on the pregame show that became memorable.
The decision to replace Janet Jackson came after several NFL executives attended a U2 performance at Madison Square Garden. It was one of the first major events in New York City after the attacks. During the concert, the names of all victims were displayed on a large screen and Bono wore a jacket lined with the American flag. In addition to U2 ‘s legendary halftime show, Mariah Carey was also roped in for the national anthem; something that never worked before.
Super Bowl XXXVI
It turned out afterwards that this memorable Super Bowl was not sold out. A number of teams returned their assigned cards to the League, but the NFL subsequently did not sell them on the open market. The fear was that this would create unrest among fans who already had a ticket. Logically, after 9/11, there was a lot of fear about flying and being together in large buildings. Successfully and without incident the Winter Games in Salt Lake City and the Super Bowl in New Orleans were essential in the recovery of the country, according to Jim Steeg ; and so it happened.
In Super Bowl 36, the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots faced each other. It was the Patriots who caused the surprise with a young quarterback after a field goal of 48 yards by Adam Vinatieri. It was Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl win. Patriots owner Robert Kraft – while holding up the Lombardi trophy – concluded a unique and emotional season with the caption “We are all Patriots”.