SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 9, 2011

Matt Williams column: Ten years ago, football helped us heal

Matt Williams

Three days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sports and life came together in a way that defined my generation.

This wasn't just a football game.

This was a community event.

Time stopped on 9/11. Major League Baseball cancelled its games for the first time since World War II and there was no National Football League that weekend.

High school football games were some of the first major events held after 9/11. I was a junior at Peabody High in 2001, and the feeling of stepping on the field against Salem on Sept. 14 is one that I'll never forget.

Folks sometimes look at me like I have several heads when I say this, but we had football practice on 9/11. Ed Nizwantowski, our head coach, told my mom some years later that he felt it was best to stick to a routine in the face of the tragedy.

It made more sense to be on the football field than home glued to the television, frightened and dwelling on the horrific news.

Anyone who was in school that day remembers hearing from a teacher or a principal making an announcement about the attacks. I didn't have a class with a television all day, so I was largely in the dark about the details and how serious it was.

It wasn't until I got in the car with my dad after practice that the gravity of what happened hit me. There was no music on the radio; every station had been taken over by news. That was the first sign that everything had changed.

Truly, what I remember about practice that day were coach Niz's poignant words. He spoke eloquently about what it was like when he was in high school, when President John F. Kennedy was shot.

His feelings on that national day of mourning were much the same as ours now on what was a new day of infamy. The Niz that spoke to us that day was the man people who only knew him from the newspapers or the sidelines never understood — a true educator.

A few days later, we put American flag stickers on our helmets. Those stickers, in that moment, meant as much to us as any small Tanner Bull given for making a big hit or scoring a touchdown.

Soon, the world began to turn again. It started with high school football.

Those Friday night lights gave communities around the North Shore — and across America — the chance to come together and heal. The energy from the 2,500 fans at Coley Lee Field that night was immense.

In fact, that game was the first night that Lee Field was actually called Lee Field. Appropriately, Peabody High dedicated its stadium to a fallen hero, Sgt. George "Coley" Lee, a 1962 graduate who died 14 years after serving with honor in Vietnam.

The ceremony had been planned for the 2001 season opener months in advance, so we Tanners were expecting an evening filled with patriotism long before Sept. 11 changed our world forever.

A few days earlier, on Sept. 10, Terry Lee, Coley's brother and one of our coaches, got word that we would have a flyover before Friday night's game. A C-5, one of the largest planes in the military's arsenal, would shake the stadium.

The next day, hijacked airplanes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. America was at war, and there would be no flyover.

What I remember, as an impressionable teenager, was that Terry Lee never sulked.

He wasn't upset that his brother lost his flyover or jealous that the dedication was taking a backseat to world events. Terry, a Marine veteran himself, was proud of America's resilience; proud that this football game could be a small part of a celebration of the USA.

Peabody won that night, 14-0, but the score didn't seem to matter. The giant American flag on the field before the game and the unveiling of the No. 56 Lee jersey above our locker room — that was what mattered.

The regular people lining the streets with candles in a vigil as we drove home — that was what mattered.

It's said that football is an emotional game, and this certainly was an emotional time for every American. It meant a lot in Peabody, and I'm sure that first game after the attacks meant a lot in communities nationwide.

Sporting events gave people a chance to come together and to believe in something; they were perfect public displays of pride which sent the message that America was not mortally wounded.

I'm proud to have been a part of one of those events.

Two words that Terry Lee felt best described his brother are inscribed on a stone at the field — Courage and Humility.

Ten years ago, we were humbled.

The courage we've shown since is what has gotten us through.

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Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor at The Salem News. You can contact him at MWilliams@salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.