We've all got our own 9/11 stories. I'm sharing mine, with a BYU football perspective.
None of us will ever forget Sept. 11, 2001, a day that reminded us how fragile life can be. A day that put life, and sports, into perspective.
On Sept. 8, 2001, the Cougars traveled to Berkeley, Calif., and thrashed the California Golden Bears, 44-16, to improve to 3-0. On the strength of that victory, BYU burst into the national rankings, at No. 24, and it seemed that first-year coach Gary Crowton, who had replaced the legendary LaVell Edwards months earlier, could do no wrong. BYU was averaging 55 points a game and quarterback Brandon Doman and running back Luke Staley were toying with opposing defenses.
While at the time almost everyone figured Crowton would lead the Cougars for 29 years, like LaVell did, it was the man coaching on the opposite sideline that day that would actually play a much bigger role in BYU's future than Crowton.
That would be Tom Holmoe, a former Cougar defensive back whose days as Cal's head coach were numbered. That loss to BYU, ironically, pretty much sealed his fate in Berkeley. By the end of the season, Holmoe's coaching career was over.
Who could have guessed that just three years later, Crowton would be gone and that Holmoe would be on the verge of being hired as BYU's athletic director? Who could have guessed that, 10 years later, Holmoe would lead the program into independence?
Then again, it was Crowton who hired Bronco Mendenhall as BYU's defensive coordinator — and, of course, Mendenhall replaced Crowton as the Cougars' head coach. And Holmoe was instrumental in the decision to hire Mendenhall.
Anyway, following that Sept. 8 win over Cal, BYU was looking forward to a showdown on Sept. 15 at No. 16 Mississippi State. A victory in Starkville would be huge for the program.
"We know that's going to be a slobberknocker," BYU center Jason Scukanec said.
But three days later, on the morning of Sept. 11, everything changed.
In those days, when I woke up, I'd help fix the kids' breakfast, then turn on cartoons for them to watch. But on that particular morning, something told me to turn on the news instead. The indelible image that filled my television screen was that of smoke billowing out of the twin towers. I remember hearing that this was part of a well-planned, well-coordinated plot by terrorists. We would soon learn more about those hijacked planes. The twin towers fell, and the Pentagon was engulfed in flames. We began to hear stories about true heroes — not ones that score touchdowns — risking their lives to save others, in New York City and Washington, D.C., and also on a plane that crashed in a remote part of Pennsylvania.
Thousands of lives were lost. It was a surreal day, filled with shock and sadness.
Suddenly, sports didn't seem that important anymore.
And yet, my job as a Deseret News sports writer required me to go to BYU's football practice that afternoon. I didn't feel like leaving my family, which included five boys under the age of five years old — including twin boys born less than a month earlier, on Aug. 12.
I got into my car and made the drive to Provo, listening to the news on the radio. Airports were being shut down. There were reports of the possibility of athletic events being postponed, including the BYU-Mississippi State game.
I've covered hundreds of practices at BYU over the years. On that day, practice started with the coaches and players on the practice field, kneeling in prayer. It was the first, and only, time I've seen that.
After practice, Crowton addressed the situation with reporters. "It's a hard day," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "You feel fortunate for what you have. The players are aware of what's going on. They fought through it pretty well."
That day, I remember asking Doman, who is now BYU's offensive coordinator, about how practice went amid the unusual and difficult circumstances. "It was weird," he said. "But when you put on your helmet, you forget about other things."
I wanted to forget those other things, too.
As it turned out, both professional and collegiate games throughout the country were postponed that weekend. BYU moved its game with Mississippi State to Dec. 1, and pushed back its regularly scheduled game at Hawaii from Dec. 1 to Dec. 8.
Of course, our lives were consumed by news reports about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. I remember the stories of people who were missing, of the many acts of bravery, of the task of cleaning up ground zero, and of our country's resolve in bringing the perpetrators to justice. When our month-old twin boys would cry in the middle of the night for their feedings, my wife and I, bleary-eyed and exhausted, would wake up and turn on the news. Not only did it keep us from falling asleep during the feedings, it also kept us well-informed.
After the Cal game, the Cougars didn't play again until three weeks later, on Sept. 29, at UNLV. BYU trailed the Rebels by three points with 1:41 remaining when Doman converted a dramatic fourth-and-4 play at the Cougars' own 37-yard line, then capped a 91-yard drive with a 21-yard scramble into the end zone with 1:12 remaining. BYU won, 35-31.
Judging by the way the Cougars celebrated that night after the game, sports seemed very important still. We needed sports. After weeks of fretting about terror warnings, a potential war in Afghanistan, and dealing with the anguish over the senseless deaths of innocent Americans, I realized that the games still mattered. Were they the most important thing in life? No. But could they help us heal, help us appreciate our freedoms? Yes. Could they restore a sense of normalcy, and motivate us to endure and overcome overwhelming adversity? Yes. To see such unbridled joy on a football field, after weeks of sadness and grief, was inspiring. And reassuring.
And to think it happened at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, where BYU would, later that decade, play in five consecutive Las Vegas Bowls.
After the UNLV game, you got the feeling that 2001 could be a magical season for the Cougars. BYU won eight more games — including a close win over New Mexico and its defensive coordinator, Bronco Mendenhall, thanks to another late, fourth-quarter comeback engineered by Doman — to post a 12-0 mark and break into the top 10 rankings. The Cougars were hoping for a BCS berth.
But in a dramatic 41-38 triumph at Mississippi State — in a game originally scheduled for Sept. 15 — Staley suffered a broken foot on the game-winning drive. Later that week, BYU was unceremoniously released from BCS consideration. And without Staley, who would go on to win the Doak Walker Award, emblematic of the nation's top running back, the Cougars dropped their final two games, at Hawaii, and to Louisville in the Liberty Bowl.
To this day, some wonder what might have happened had BYU played Mississippi State, when it was ranked No. 16, in mid-September. Instead, in December, the struggling Bulldogs had a losing record. The biggest knock against the Cougars that season was their weak strength of schedule, and beating a ranked Southeastern Conference team certainly would have helped. Who knows? Perhaps BYU would have been the first team to bust the BCS (as it turned out, that feat was accomplished by the Cougars' arch-rival, Utah, three years later). Instead, BYU was relegated to the Liberty Bowl. And yet, given all that had happened to our country in the fall of 2001, there was something noble about being involved in a football game with "Liberty" in its title.
It's hard to believe it's been 10 years. The memories of 9/11, the weeks that followed, and the 2001 season, are still vivid and fresh. So much has happened. So much has changed.
That's my 9/11 story, with a BYU football perspective.