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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 14, 2001

America's bloodiest day
NFL calls off weekend's games, will decide whether to replay them

Associated Press

NEW YORK — NFL players, unable to focus on football after a national disaster, played a major role in one of the most important decisions ever made by the league.

The NFL postponed the second week of its season on Thursday because of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, in part because commissioner Paul Tagliabue heeded the pleas of players who said they were too shaken to take the field.

"We all as Americans knew there was something way more important than football this week," Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp said after Tagliabue's decision not to play following attacks that killed thousands.

"It's way more important to get this country running back the way we want it to — for everybody to feel safe again. It just isn't safe. You can't pack 72,000 people into Raymond James Stadium and sit there for 3 1/2 hours and say everything's going to be OK."

It's the first time the NFL has ever missed a week for a reason other than a labor dispute.

In 1963, it played games two days after President Kennedy was assassinated, a decision commissioner Pete Rozelle said later was the one he regretted most during his 29 years in office.

Tagliabue, a league attorney before succeeding Rozelle, said Thursday he had often talked about that with his predecessor, but added that this decision was only marginally affected by what happened 38 years ago.

The NFL's action may have influenced others. Within hours, major league baseball, which hasn't played since Monday, postponed games through Sunday. And the remaining Division I-A college football games were also called off following the NFL's announcement.

"It had a very significant impact," said Karl Benson, commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference said of the NFL's decision.

"We haven't been able to the go five minutes without seeing or hearing reports from the World Trade Center. No one has ever had to face this crisis before, not the commissioner of the NFL, the PGA or myself. The longer you can wait to make a decision the better decision you can make."

The NFL decision will seriously disrupt its schedule.

There are two options.

• Teams other than San Diego, which was due to be off this week, will now play a 15-game schedule. The Chargers will play all 16 games.

• The games will be made up on wild-card weekend, Jan. 6, with the playoffs limited to six division winners plus one wild-card team from each conference instead of the usual three.

A decision will be made by early next week at the latest.

How big was the players' role?

Tagliabue consulted with Gene Upshaw, the players union executive director, more than anyone else. The two were on the phone shortly after the first hijacked plane hit New York's World Trade Center last Tuesday and were talking when the second crashed into the other of the Twin Towers.

The commissioner's decision wasn't made until after the player representatives voted in a conference call Wednesday night to call off the games. About 60 percent of the reps voted not to play on the first ballot, then moved to make it unanimous. "As far as I'm concerned, it was unanimous," Upshaw said.

The key were the pleas from the two New York representatives, Michael Strahan of the Giants and Kevin Mawae of the Jets.

"The hair stood up on the back of my neck," Phil Hansen of the Bills said. "Those guys told the way they felt and the way their teammates felt about security, about friends, about neighbors who hadn't returned home yet. It was very vivid."

John Kasay of Carolina said: "The New York teams obviously had a very focused interest, especially the Giants, whose practice facilities overlook where the Twin Towers were.

"That had a profound impact on those guys. So it was helpful and very beneficial for everyone on that call to listen and hear what was going on around the country."

The Giants, Jets and Washington Redskins, wouldn't have played anyway. Tagliabue and his staff decided on Tuesday, soon after the attacks, that it would be far too traumatic for them to play a game.

But he didn't decide to call off the rest of the games until he heard the comments of the many players who feared flying or playing in packed stadiums that could be potential terrorist targets.

"I don't think anybody in New York cares about football now, including us as players. It's not really important. The right decision was made," Strahan said Thursday.

Teammate Jason Sehorn added: "It would have been crazy to play a game on Sunday, knowing they are taking bodies out of that place five miles away," Sehorn said.

There were other factors, too, not the least of which were Tagliabue's own instincts.

"It really came down to the loss of life and the ability of players to absorb what we've all been through," he said. "We felt it was right to take a week to reflect and to help or friends, families and people in the community who need our support."