How a South Carolina football game helped start healing after 9/11
Twenty years ago, our world changed.
The terrorist attacks on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, changed America and Americans in so many ways. In the immediate aftermath, there was sadness, anger, fear, confusion, and many other emotions pulling at all of us simultaneously.
When President George W. Bush expressed the importance of returning to a sense of normalcy, sports had to find its way, and a South Carolina football game at Mississippi State on September 20 was front and center as the first game between a pair of NCAA Division IA schools to be played after 9/11.
“I talked to the players about how important it was for college football to be back and for everyone to continue to move on,” said former South Carolina head coach Lou Holtz (1999-2004). “This was the first step in that, and how blessed we were to play that first game. It would be something that not only they would remember, but many other people would remember for years to come. You have to embrace the situation and realize how special it was.”
“Yes, we were going to play a football game, but it was an opportunity for our team and their team to take about three hours and hopefully provide fans with some type of release from all of the anguish and the gamut of emotions that they had experienced over that nine-day period,” recalled Kerry Tharp, who was South Carolina’s Sports Information Director at the time and is currently president of Darlington Raceway.
“It felt right to be playing; 100 percent!” said Patrick McFarland, who was the Gamecock Club’s Assistant Director in 2001 and is currently the Director of Parking. “There was a lot to get over. I remember how surreal it felt the first time after 9/11 that I saw a plane in the air. It felt right. It can be an overused phrase, but if you don’t continue to live, then the terrorists win. So, I think it was appropriate to do what we do as Americans.”
Coach Lou Holtz and the South Carolina Gamecocks were off to a 2-0 start prior to 9/11. When the entire sports world postponed its games the first weekend after 9/11, the university presidents, athletics directors, and television networks, picked up their schedule the following week, beginning with the 18th-ranked Gamecocks playing in a Thursday night nationally televised matchup at 17th-ranked Mississippi State.
“(SEC Commissioner) Roy Kramer called and says, ‘we need you to play the football game on Thursday with South Carolina,” said former Mississippi State Athletics Director Larry Templeton. “He says, ‘the White House wants us to play football.’ I told him we could pull it off on this end if South Carolina could get here. We had no problem convincing our state to pull it off.”
“I think we, as a community, were listening to President Bush, when he basically said that we need to find a way to get back to normal in a reasonable time-frame,” said Charles Bloom, who was the SEC Associate Commissioner in 2001 and is currently the Executive Associate A.D. at South Carolina. “The 9/11 coverage was constant, so this was a diversion for a lot of people. You had game management issues to deal with. You had travel concerns. After you worked through all those issues, you felt like this would be a game that could help bring the country back together. Sports can do that.”
“We kind of got excited because we got to play on TV and be one of the first games back, but then we thought about having to fly to Starkville,” said former Gamecock defensive lineman Langston Moore (1999-02). “At the time, a lot of us were like, I don’t know about this. Getting on the plane was sort of a sense of eeriness at first. This was the Pearl Harbor of our lifetime.”
Just getting the two teams together was significant as nothing was typical or normal when it came to packing up a football team and hitting the road in the days after 9/11. There were other concerns as South Carolina did have some trouble getting to Mississippi when the charter flight initially had some mechanical issues, forcing the Gamecocks to travel on the day of the game instead of the usual trip the day before.
“Commissioner Kramer called me and told me not to worry, and that South Carolina would be there even if they had to take a bus or walk!” Templeton said.
“I went ahead before the team, myself and our football operations guy,” Tharp said. “We flew ahead to Columbus, Mississippi. I remember flying into the Atlanta airport from Columbia and it was almost like nobody was there. I had never seen it so sparse.
“I don’t think they (the student-athletes) were scared. I think they were very focused. It was somber because of what had happened. Coach Holtz kind of set the tone for the team. He is a very patriotic person, who loves his country, and I think he instilled a lot of that into the team. So, they kind of took their cue from him as far as the significance of the events of 9/11. You could just sense that this team was thinking about what had happened, and that they were thinking about the opportunity and responsibility that they had when they walked on that field. The eyes and ears of the sports world were going to be focused on them.”
“You prepare for it as best you can, but your mind is on so many other things,” Holtz said. “We had one or two players that lost relatives in that. We knew that there would be a lot of fanfare. It was important to get back.”
Templeton noted that there were several big challenges to host the game, but thanks in part to efforts from then Mississippi Governor Ronald Musgrove, there was great support from the Mississippi Highway Patrol, Columbus Air Force Base, and the FBI in coordinating safety protocols.
“They asked us to not bring the cowbells to the game, because the early planning had them using metal detectors at every gate,” Templeton said. “I was just concerned whether we could really get a crowd. I thought the Mississippi State people would respond, but I had no way of knowing. We did fill the stadium up. We had the upper deck on the east side under construction, so we couldn’t use it. They later determined they would use National Guard and some State Troopers at every gate.”
“From that time forward, fans have had to accept all the safety precautions we now have in place,” Bloom said. “Whether it’s magnetometers, or parking around the stadium, or bomb sweeps around the stadium before a game; all that is common-place now. When you travel now, you have to take off your shoes and your belts and empty your pockets. That’s all common-place now.”
Normally, a top-25 SEC match-up brings a lot of intensity from the competitors and fans, but this game was different.
“I do remember that there was a lot of emotion,” Tharp said. “Both teams came together before the ball game in a show of unity and unfurled an American flag. I had never seen one that size. I think it covered a big part of the football field with both teams holding on to it. They were interlocking arms during the national anthem. It was just a display of unity and patriotism like I had never seen before at a sporting event.
“I remember being on that field when the flag was unfurled, and it was something you won’t forget. There were actually ball players out there who had to wipe tears from their eyes. It’s not very often that you are brought to tears before a football game. It was a very boisterous crowd, but people had American flags and were chanting ‘U-S-A, U-S-A.’ There were two teams competing hard against each other, but it was almost like that this game had brought them together. Instead of two separate fan bases, it was like one fan base.”
“It was a somber mood,” Holtz said. “To unveil that flag was really something special. Then the game starts, and you’re trying to get focused on the game. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do. I think it was important for us to get back to our way of life. The pregame activities were really tremendous. It was a sold-out stadium.”
“During the game, one of the most memorable things was coming out of the locker room, and they had planned for us to hold the flag,” Moore said. “We were excited. That was great. There was a guy in the upper deck, and after the moment of silence, he yelled, ‘Bin Laden, go to hell!’ Whomever that was, he had perfect timing.”
“That’s all you saw, people displaying patriotism,” McFarland said. “Walking around Mississippi State’s campus before the game, it was just an eerie feeling. It wasn’t the same type of tailgate. When both teams walked out with that American flag, I think everyone there had chill bumps.”
ESPN promoted the game heavily and play-by-plan broadcaster Mark Jones’ touching introduction was permitted to be played live on the video board at Davis Wade Stadium.
“His remarks were so emotional and so spot on,” Templeton said. “It was the only time in my life where I didn’t worry about the outcome of the game. I was just so relieved that we pulled it off and that we brought America back. We were not just going to let the terrorists affect us. It was a great evening for our state, the schools, and our country.”
As for the game, South Carolina won a thriller, 16-14. In one sense, it was important for South Carolina because it was an SEC win on the road, but on a broader scale, the game represented more.
“The important thing is that you move on with your life,” Holtz said. “You control the things you can. It’s unfortunate, but you have to look forward and not look back. You change the things you can change and know what you can and can’t change. It was a situation where you just have to make the best of it. It’s not ideal, but it’s something you remember the rest of your life. Part of life is being able to adjust to all the difficulties you’re going to face during the course of your lifetime.”
“Before the game, I was really nervous,” Templeton said. “It was in my house. I knew we had a lot of support. It needed to be perfect, and it turned out to be perfect. I think it helped to bring American back.”
“It put things into context and how fragile things are,” Moore said. “It reminded me how blessed we are to go out there and play freely. It put a lot of things in context and made me appreciative of the people who sacrifice so people like me can go out and play football. It made me think, I’m not a kid anymore. It was sobering for sure.”
“Obviously they were happy to win the ball game, but it was more of a sense of relief,” Tharp said. “It was a collective sigh. I don’t think you saw as much outward celebration. They realized all that had taken place, and they were part of something historic because it was the first major sporting even after 9/11.
“I remember going back on the charter plane, and it was still pretty quiet even though we had won a big road game. We were glad to be a part of this and to help bring sports back and maybe get people’s minds off of what had happened on that day. Yet, we knew that this (9/11) was going to take a long, long time to heal from.”
Things were a long way from normal, but it was a start.