The 2001 NFL season started like any other, a full slate of games were played in Week 1, including a Bengals’ home game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots. The Bengals broke a 10-10 halftime tie to emerge victorious on the strength of 147 yards rushing from Corey Dillon and Brandon Bennett, as well as Neil Rackers hitting all three of his field goal attempts. That was Sunday, September 9.
Two days later the world changed.
Anybody who is old enough to remember the events likely has images from that day which will forever be ingrained in their memory. The airplanes striking the buildings, FDNY members covered in gray ash and dust, President George Bush reading to school children, the Pentagon with its pierced side, these are just some of the images brought to mind when thinking back on that September day 15 years ago.
By the end of the day, the World Trade Center buildings were reduced to a pile of pulverized rubble, the Pentagon had been struck, and there was a large hole in the Pennsylvania countryside.
Like many Americans, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue found comfort in turning to God (church attendance jumped about 25 percent following 9/11) . He went to mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with Ed Tighe (of the NFL Management Council) after the buildings were brought down. At the time, Tighe’s wife was unaccounted for, and ultimately she died in the collapse of the towers. Diane Lipari was 42 when she passed away; she worked on the 92nd floor of the south tower. The next day, the NFL commissioner, and the league began weighing their options.
The decision had been made to not play the games which were scheduled for Week 2 (September 16~17). NFL football was not a priority at the moment for NFL fans or players, not to mention the American public. Many other sports cancelled sporting events scheduled immediately after the events of 9/11. Major League Baseball moved games back, resulting in a November World Series, and college football cancelled all games scheduled for that week.
The NFL had various options with how to shuffle their schedule following the cancellation of the Week 2 games.
- Eliminate the Wild Card round of the playoffs, and move the Week 2 games into the Wild Card weekend. This option trimmed the number of teams who could make the playoffs and was not ideal.
- Move the Week 2 games back a few days (Monday and Tuesday), so not to affect the rest of the league schedule. This option was also not ideal.
- Play a 15 game season. This did not work for several reasons. One reason is that it would have resulted in an uneven number of home and away games for each team. Also, the Chargers had a Week 2 bye, and would have an extra game played compared to the rest of the league. Remember in 2001 the Browns had been reintroduced into the NFL, so there were 31 teams, and bye weeks were more of a mess to work with.
- Move the Week 2 games into the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, and push the playoffs, and Super Bowl, back one week.
Ultimately the NFL decided on the final option, of playing no games during Week 2, with those games moved into the Wild Card weekend, and all of the playoffs pushed back one week. That way, every team got their 16 games with an equal number of home and away games, and the playoffs would continue as normal.
Moving the Super Bowl back one week came with a difficulty – the Superdome in New Orleans (where the Super Bowl was to be played) was already booked for the weekend following the original Super Bowl date. The National Automobile Dealers Association had reserved the Superdome for 30,000 auto dealers who were planning to converge on New Orleans. The NFL approached the NADA and offered $2.25 million to switch dates, but the NADA attempted to take advantage of the situation and demanded $25 million. Faced with an unrealistic demand, the NFL began preparations to move the Super Bowl to the New York area, with a plan to return to New Orleans at a future date. The potential loss of the economic boost from the Super Bowl prompted civic leaders in New Orleans to pressure the NADA to make a deal. Ultimately the auto dealers swapped dates with the NFL for $5 million. Not only was the Super Bowl date changed, but the logo for Super Bowl XXXVI was changed from one reflecting its host city, to a patriotic design.
Once the Super Bowl had been moved, and the scheduling was resolved, football resumed on the weekend of September 22~23. The national anthem was sung by Jon Bon Jovi from a Manhattan firehouse which lost many emergency personnel in the demolished towers. That rendition of the song was aired in every NFL stadium that Sunday. The stadiums were filled with red, white, and blue clad fans who were standing for the anthem, waving flags, and crying during the tribute.
The NFL had implemented new security measures, which are still in place today. Fans were told to arrive early since lines would be filtering into the stadiums much slower than normal. Once inside the stadium, at every game, ushers passed around fireman boots through the crowds to collect money to sponsor funds for the victims’ families. In a scene reminiscent of War Bond drives from World War II, kids and adults alike generously filled the boots with cash and coins.
Commemorative patches were worn on every NFL uniform to remember those who died on 9/11, while patches commemorating the firefighters were worn by members of the Giants and Jets.
When the Bengals returned to football, they faced the Ravens at home in a Week 2 matchup (which had originally been Week 3). The Bengals defeated the playoff bound Ravens thanks to six Raven’s turnovers on their way to a 2-0 start.
But must like the nation’s sense of peace and security, the Bengals’ success that season wasn’t sustained. The Bengals struggled to put together any semblance of a strong season, winning only two of their next 12 games. The Bengals’ season mercifully ended in January against the Titans in what was originally scheduled as a Week 2 game and had become a later than normal Week 17 matchup. Trailing 21-20, Jon Kitna connected on a 39 yard pass to Darnay Scott to cross into Titans’ territory, and 19 yards from back-to-back Titans’ penalties moved the Bengals into field goal range, with Neil Rackers hitting the 34-yard game winner with 20 seconds remaining.
On September 11, 2001, current Bengals’ linebacker Vincent Rey was in school as a 14-year-old when the towers were struck only miles away. In what is now his seventh season with the Bengals, it will be his first game played in New York. Like the rest of the Bengals and Jets, Rey will be wearing a memorial sticker, plus an array of FDNY, NYPD, and PAPD hats during the game.
Another Bengal affected by the events of 9/11 was former quarterback Boomer Esiason. A native of Long Island, Esiason’s best friend Timothy O’Brien was killed in the north tower, while working for investment group Cantor Fitzgerald, which had a partnership with the Boomer Esiason Foundation. Esiason’s foundation has been working to find a cure for cystic fibrosis, which affects his son Gunnar Esiason.
Esiason has been one of the more vocal critics of Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem, which may be influenced by how the events of 9/11 affected him personally.
Only two members of the Bengals’ current roster were old enough to be in college when the events of 9/11 took place - both Mike Nugent and Karlos Dansby were freshmen at The Ohio State and Auburn respectively. The youngest member of the Bengals’ roster, Tyler Boyd, was only six-years-old.
Now, on the 15th anniversary of the world-changing events which took place on September 11, 2001, the Bengals travel to the New York area to face the Jets for the opening weekend of the 2016 season. It’s sure to be a meaningful and impactful day as we look back on the tragic events that took place so close by to MetLife Stadium.