They played on 9/11

Numb.

That’s all I had.

Which was nothing.

That’s what numb is.

Nothing.

You feel nothing.

And that’s all I felt.

I wanted to be angry. Outwardly angry. I wanted to break things.

But it was too soon for that.

So I was just numb.

I’m the sports guy. Always have been. Likely always will be.

On that day, though, seven years ago, I was a newsman.

And, thankfully, still a sportswriter. I was both.

Mom had to call me to tell me about the first plane. This was back when I’d get home from work after 1 a.m. My wife was working nights. Our schedules worked such that we’d go to bed around 3 a.m. Wake up around noon.

So Mom had to call me.

And so I was up. Up, then showered, dressed and ready for work.

Because I knew that this was a day unlike any other. That, in our small newsroom in Forest City, N.C., I’d be needed to do something. To fill in somewhere. To interview. To write. To design. To proofread. To do it all again and again until we were done.

That’s the thing about this business. When even hell on earth happens, you don’t have time to let it sink in. You have to work.

And luckily, that day, that horrible day, I worked.

And so I was numb. It was the only way to deal with such terror. Such horror. Such a breach of freedom. You can’t rip off expletives when you interview someone for their reaction. Not the most professional thing to do.

And so you bottle it up and leave it for later. You have to. It’s the only way. Otherwise you never tear yourself from the TV. And work doesn’t get done that way. And there was work to be done.

For the sports guy, though, there seemed to be little to do. The panic of the day around this country is lost on us now. But even in a far corner of the North Carolina foothills, fear settled in like a morning spring fog.

The games were cancelled. Soccer. Tennis. Cross country. Football practice. Name it, it was postponed. Nobody felt like moving, let alone traveling to play some silly high school game.

Not on this day.

Except for one game.

East Rutherford High School. Volleyball.

They played on.

Thank God.

I covered that game. It was the only game going. But on this day, all of a sudden, the fact they were playing at all was more of a story than the match itself. Why make the trip? Why play?

Why bother?

I thought about skipping it. The coach would call. Give me the details.

But I had to know why they played. Had to know how they played.

The match never seemed to end. On and on it went. This was no straight-set win. No way. It wasn’t exactly brilliant volleyball, it was just competitive. Three sets. Four sets. Five sets. Back and forth. Point. Counterpoint. Point.

Et cetera.

As I sat there and watched, I found that I didn’t want the match to end. I wanted them to play forever, and maybe they did, too. I knew that as soon as it was over, I had to fully immerse myself back into reality.

And I knew, the more real it became, the more I would feel. The more I would have to finally face head on. And I wasn’t ready for that.

To this day, I can’t watch TV specials about Sept. 11. I still can’t take it. I’m not ready yet to relive those moments, and I was one of the lucky ones. The closest I ever got was in front of a television.

And so I remember that one volleyball game. Nothing about it, just the fact they played.

And why they played.

“Because we felt like we should,” East Rutherford coach Tonia Ballard said to me that day, her voice burned in my mind forever. “Because we can.”

No truer statement of our country’s freedoms may have ever been spoken.

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Filed under Designated Hitter, Sports, Sports columns, The Sanford Herald

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