Note: Pardon the gravity. We’ll be back this afternoon tonight with funny stuff.

I. Everyone remembers where they were

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was a United States Marine stationed at Twentynine Palms, California. When I woke up, my roommate had the TV on. “They crashed planes into the Twin Towers,” he said. I had just woken up; I couldn’t understand such a notion. But then, nobody understood.

I got in my car and drove the long dirt road down from our house high on a ridge overlooking the Spartan Mojave base where we worked, listening to the musicless radio, numb, disbelieving. When I arrived at the battalion’s scarlet-and-gold cinder block offices, I made my way to the Intel shop — the S-2 officer was the only one in our unit who rated a television set. A crowd of officers and senior NCOs stood around the TV, absorbing the images. Occasionally someone said, “Fuck.”

Then the towers fell. More people said “Fuck.”

Not long after, Major Slaughter, the aptly named Battalion XO, entered the room. He was a tall man with frosty blue eyes and dark hair speckled with silver, and his massive daily consumption of coffee and Ripped Fuel was terrifying and dangerous. For us. Nobody wanted to be near him when the vein in his temple was throbbing, which was always.

He filled the doorway and loomed over us, hands on his hips. He looked around the room with a faraway look, as if he were trying to determine the source of a faint scent, like leaves burning in autumn or a Memorial Day barbecue. He seemed unimpressed with the goings-on in New York and D.C., as if 110-story skyscrapers crashing to earth in avalanches of steel were something as commonplace as a crow on the side of the road. Then he spoke.

“Get back to work,” he said.

II. What the NFL means to America

For a week, the terrorists stopped football. The NFL played no games on the Sunday after the attack, and major league baseball and college football followed suit, cancelling a wide slate of games. Grown men playing sports seemed less appealing when people were buried under rubble on television.

I had to look that up to make sure my memory was correct: I have a hard time believing that anything ever stopped the NFL during its present incarnation as the juggernaut of the American sporting landscape. Just what is it that makes the NFL so popular? Many point to the so-called age of parity, the widespread appeal of fantasy leagues, DirecTV’s NFL Sunday ticket, Tagliabue’s rock-solid leadership, and a host of other worthy factors.

But I think we love the NFL because it resonates with us at a deeper level. To wit:

  • At a time when the United States stands alone as the world’s sole remaining superpower, American football is played almost nowhere else in the world. Americans, like the NFL, remain a violent, unsolved curiosity to foreigners.
  • The NFL has taken huge strides to battle race discrimination, but there’s a lot more anger under the surface than we like to acknowledge, and a long way to go before racism is no longer a problem. Sounds like a country I live in.
  • No other team sport provides the raw violence of the NFL, and no other country has a thirst for violence in its entertainment like America.
  • The only high-profile sports star to serve in the military since 9/11 remains Pat Tillman. Sadly, the narrative arc of the fallout from his death has striking parallels to America’s war on terrorism. Following Tillman’s death in Afghanistan, he was celebrated for dying heroically in a firefight with the enemy. Only later did we learn that the government had lied about its own failure. A sadly American story.
  • The world is full of great countries and great sports leagues. The USA and the NFL are the best of both, and any argument otherwise is being made by a foreigner or a twentysomething know-it-all with more Zinn and Chomsky than life experience.
  • I can’t be sure of the veracity of a metaphor that works too hard to fit the NFL into America’s odd jigsaw, but I want it to be true. We — NFL fans — pour too much of our time, hopes, and thoughts for the League not to have a deeper meaning. NFL fanhood is too emotionally draining to be merely a distraction from life’s slow grind. I like it better when I think it makes me a more qualified American.

    III. A brief conclusion

    I can’t tell you how to properly honor the victims of 9/11, but I’ll tell you how I’m going to do it. I’m going to revisit that day in my memory, think about the frantic calls to I made to everyone I knew in New York. I’m going to remember the tragedy the way it was, before the invasion of Iraq chipped away at our perspective. I’ll probably even spend some time watching other people’s reactions to 9/11. After all, the surreal nightmare of that day was something that stopped a roomful of Marines from working, and it was enough for the NFL to take a week off as the nation mourned.

    Then, when I’ve given the subject a fair remembrance, I’m going to once again heed Major Slaughter’s advice and get back to work. These football jokes aren’t going to write themselves.


    If we can get through Bon Jovi singing “America the Beautiful,” we can get through anything