Ed Malinowski strode out of Bancroft Hall on his way to class when he noticed a member of his company whose cheeks were damp with tears.
“My dad’s in the Pentagon, and there was just a report that a plane crashed into it,” Malinowski’s classmate told him.
“It’s not a big deal,” the Naval Academy football captain thought to himself, envisioning a small recreational aircraft that had simply gone down in the wrong place. When he reached his literature class, however, his professor had an overhead screen tuned to CNN. Malinowski watched live as the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed in an unfathomable storm of smoke and dust.
Fighter jets circled over the academy as the realizations of Sept. 11, 2001, set in. Malinowski and his teammates were no longer just college students and football players. They were members of the armed forces serving a nation at war.
The images from New York, Washington and Pennsylvania stunned athletes and coaches around the Baltimore area as they put games on hold and formed grim vigils around their television screens. Twenty years later, the bewilderment and fear of that day live on in the minds of those who experienced it. They woke up in one world and went to bed in a different one.
“It kind of brought all of us to our knees that day,” recalled Peter Boulware, a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Ravens at the time.
A few would visit ground zero, walking over the rubble of the World Trade Center and glimpsing the anguished faces of those who’d never found their loved ones. Some would go to war in the years that followed. Others would realize that simple acts such as entering a stadium or boarding an airplane no longer felt so innocent.
The games they played would comfort a nation that needed to feel resilient and strong. They remember that feeling as well, a unity of purpose that proved to be fleeting. Every year that we observe the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the events become less vivid for younger generations. This is inevitable but also troubling for those who felt transformed by that harrowing Tuesday.
“We don’t tend to be great students of history,” said Brian Stann, a junior linebacker at Navy in the fall of 2001 who went on to earn a Silver Star for combat valor in Iraq. “This 20th anniversary, the greater a moment we can make it, it helps remind us of the past and hopefully, can help us make better decisions in the present.”
So many of those who competed and coached 20 years ago speak about the day as if it happened last week.
Tim Holley, a U.S. Navy veteran and athletic director at Gilman, watched the towers fall in a conference room overlooking the school’s gymnasium. He remembers the chaos that followed, the efforts to collect students and get them home, the edge in headmaster Jon McGill’s voice. Most of all, he remembers walking across Roland Ave. to find his own daughters, ages 9 and 13, at Roland Park Country School.
“Daddy, why do they hate us so much?” his younger daughter, Tammy, asked with tears in her eyes.
When Holley retold the story a few years ago at a Gilman assembly, he had to pause as the emotion of that moment flooded back over him.
For Mike Locksley, then a 31-year-old assistant football coach at the University of Maryland, the first order of business was helping two players track down family members who worked in or near the fallen towers in New York. That, combined with the proximity of the Pentagon attack, guaranteed the event would not be abstract for the Terps.
“Being so close to the White House and all these national facilities that would be more attractive to attack, it hit home that day,” said Locksley, now Maryland’s head coach. “There’s no doubt.”
At the Naval Academy, midshipmen realized the world was changing before their eyes, but they did not grasp exactly how. They had grown up in an age of limited conflict, when an appointment to the academy invited thoughts of which exotic locales you might want to visit on post-graduation deployments. Wars were historic events between nation-states, not terror strikes from unknowable enemies.
“I had no idea what this was,” Malinowski said.
Stann had just walked out of the campus barber shop when an announcement came over the loudspeaker that all midshipmen were to bunker down with their companies. He felt like he was watching “some terrible Nicholas Cage” movie when he first glimpsed the footage from New York on a classmate’s computer screen.
“From that day forward, the academy was never the same,” he said. “Every morning, [academy Commandant John] Allen would ring the bell at breakfast and tell us, ‘We’re a nation at war.’”
It was a quiet morning at the Ravens’ training facility, with the defending Super Bowl champions taking a day off after their season opener. Kevin Byrne, the team’s longtime public relations chief, remembered watching the news with a colleague, who couldn’t believe the coincidence of two planes crashing on the same day. “No, this is no coincidence,” he recalled saying. “This is war, I think.”
Owner Art Modell had always regretted the NFL’s decision to play games after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so he quickly phoned Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to recommend that the week’s schedule be postponed (it was).
Worry set in as Ravens officials imagined a brightly lit stadium on the East Coast making an easy next target for terrorists.
“As much as we loved football and as much as we were focused on the season, it brought things into perspective,” Boulware remembered.
At the same time, they wanted to help the nation rebound. In early October, Modell’s son, David, led a contingent including Boulware, Ray Lewis and Tony Siragusa to visit ground zero. They prayed beside the mountains of debris, met first responders and stared dumbfounded at the posters of those still missing.
“The smells, the desperation of people still trying to help, that’s something that will never go away,” Boulware said 20 years later.
High school games went forward first. Holley coached Gilman’s junior varsity football team at Loch Raven High School just two days after the attacks. He recalled the surreal experience of shouting “34 trap” one second and turning to his cellphone the next to discuss the school’s plans for observing a national day of mourning on Friday.
“The kids’ reactions were mixed,” he said. “It was a funny thing, but I think because we were in Baltimore and not in D.C. or New York, we still had a little bit of that vibe of ‘This is happening to other people, not to us.’ There was a lot of empathy and a lot of anger, but in Baltimore, things kind of went back to normal fairly quickly.”
There was no sense of normalcy at the Naval Academy, where armed Marine guards kept visitors from entering gates barricaded with sandbags.
Only two people sat in bleachers that would normally have been full as the women’s soccer team warmed up for its Sept. 17 game against George Washington. This would be Navy’s first contest in any sport since the attacks.
“One of the reasons we pushed to play a game was to create a show of support and of moving on, to create a sense of the American identity and of trying to bring it back,” said Carin Gabarra, who coached the team then and still coaches it today.
As players stood at attention for the national anthem, their sense of service took on a different weight. “It was very touching,” Gabarra recalled.
The football team returned to play with a home game against Boston College, 11 days after the attacks. Every entrance to Navy-Marine Corps Stadium was tightly policed. Guards in camouflage patrolled the roof with M16 rifles.
“We were shook,” Stann said. “Very quickly, the magnitude of an upcoming football game gets marginalized.”
At the same time, players drew strength from their routines.
“The good thing about sports is it’s always kind of an escape from real life,” Malinowski said. “Yeah, we would talk about it, but there was also focus on our next opponent. [The attackers] win if we don’t. Their whole idea was to disrupt our way of life.”
“I remember liking that there was a game day,” Stann said.
These experiences seared into the brains of those who lived them, but events have marched on. The athletes of today are living through a different era-defining crisis in the form of COVID-19.
“For our kids, it’s almost like they just read 9/11 as a history story,” Boulware said. “So you’re trying to get a younger generation to realize what the country went through and what we should learn from it. Democrat or Republican, Baltimore Raven or Pittsburgh Steeler, it really didn’t matter. After that, we were just Americans, fighting for the same cause. Unfortunately now, you look at the country, we are divided.”
Locksley spoke to his Maryland players about the Sept. 11 attacks on Monday, hoping to convey the significance of facing Howard on the 20th anniversary.
“I thought it was important to talk about what we went through,” he said. “Especially playing ball here, where we’re so close to the most powerful city in the world. Most of them were only 2 or 3 years old, so they learned about it through history books.”
The aftershocks were personal for Navy athletes who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and mourned a procession of classmates — J.P. Blecksmith, Ronald Winchester, Travis Manion, Brendan Looney — killed in combat.
“Me and my classmates, we started to get those phone calls, those really difficult phone calls,” said Stann, who earned the Silver Star as a Marine and went on to fight as a professional mixed martial artist. “Those change you forever.”
He’ll be thinking of his fallen friends in the stands at Navy’s game against Air Force on the 20th anniversary of the attacks. But he knows the feelings are less vivid for current midshipmen, who were small children when the terrorists struck.
“That power, it’s not there the same as it was,” he said.
Malinowski served three tours in Iraq as a Marine. As he prepared for an attack in the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, he felt like he was back in the locker room before a game at Navy. The smells, the managing of nervous tension translated from sports to real life.
He lives outside Pittsburgh now and coaches high school football. When he talks to students about the Sept. 11 attacks, he knows the images don’t come to life for them the way they do for him. He laments the fraying of national unity, which he felt so powerfully in the aftermath.
“The silver lining of the whole thing is that it brought the country together with common purpose,” he said. “It was like, ‘That thing with the stars and stripes, that’s for all of us.’ Where did that go? Why did it go?”