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Football Coaches Recall September 11 Events

Pete DellaPorta of St. Joseph Prep carries in the flag at Saturday's Patriot Classic. (credit: Jim Stout)

Pete DellaPorta of St. Joseph Prep carries in the flag at Saturday’s Patriot Classic. (credit: Jim Stout)

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By: Joseph Santoliquito | Maxpreps.com

The ominous black dust plume sat there locked in the sky, almost as if framed for posterity. The sight of jet fighters flying by, their thrusting roar following closely behind, was constant.

Beneath this protective skycap was the crunching pads of a high school football team practicing, a small flicker of normalcy amid the eerie tableau of one of the nation’s greatest tragedies in the background — the dirty haze and wafting acrid smell emanating from across the Hudson River where the World Trade Center once stood.

St. Joseph’s Prep (Philadelphia) coach Gabe Infante will never forget the scene. Nor can he forget the face that will always be in front of him, a former college roommate who lost his life that indelible day: Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

Infante was one of many high school football coaches throughout the nation preparing his team to play a game that weekend that suddenly lost significance.

This weekend, some high school teams will commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9-11 with special jerseys and patches, and a collection of teams will be playing at the Naval Academy in the Patriot Classic, featuring a jet fly-by. The juniors and seniors playing this weekend were young children when 9-11 happened, 6- and 7-year-olds pulling on their parents’ shirt sleeves, wondering why mommy and daddy were looking teary-eyed at the events unfolding on TV.

To Infante, Xavier (New York City) coach Chris Stevens, Our Lady of Good Counsel (Olney, Md.) coach Bob Milloy, Wallington (N.J.) coach Barry Blauvelt and St. Peter’s Prep (Jersey City, N.J.) coach Rich Hansen, what happened that fateful day will live with them forever. And the message to their players this weekend will be to never forget those loved ones who were lost that sad day.

Then an assistant coach at Memorial (West New York, N.J.), Infante was working as a regulatory attorney for a water company when his wife called him that Tuesday morning, sounding worried. They were the proud parents of an 11-day-old daughter at the time, and after Infante’s wife told him about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan, he wasn’t about to leave the new mother and their newborn home alone. Infante explained the situation to his boss, who was reluctant to let him go. But as time quickly passed, that attitude soon changed, as it did for everyone living in the New York City metropolitan area.

Infante, just like thousands of others who knew people that worked in and around the World Trade Center, began making calls to check on family and friends. One call that went unanswered was to Todd Isaac, his roommate at Holy Cross who was working in the financial industry.

Infante, of Cuban origin, and Isaac, an African-American known as “Shaky” to his friends, had very similar backgrounds. They both lost parents at a young age and knew the value of a brown bag of groceries. Isaac was like an older brother to Infante, so when Isaac’s mother was scrambling, looking for her son, Infante helped.

“You hope for days something will turn up. The closure part was the hardest thing because there was no confirmation,” Infante said. “That hit hard, real hard, losing Todd. That whole week was surreal. We were at practice if not the next day, the following day. There wasn’t a whole lapse of time. I remember standing next to one of my players when the jets flew over. First you saw them, then you heard them.

“It’s human nature to try and make sense of things. In football, we’re used to getting knocked off our feet and getting right back up again. That trickles over to the people who coach it and play it. You don’t stay down. You expect those kids to get right back up. That’s the way our football culture is, we constantly talk to our guys about dealing with adversity and pain. I see a parallel between our football culture and the culture of our country — how important it is for people to get back up in a respectful way. You don’t stay down, that’s our culture.”

So this weekend, Infante will tell his players about a college roommate who in a sense raised him. He’ll talk to his players about the five guys in that college house, and how one impacted everyone else so much that one of them named their son after Todd Isaac.

St. Joseph’s Prep is scheduled to play Gonzaga (Washington D.C.) in the Patriot Classic at 4:45 p.m. on Saturday. The Hawks will begin the day with mass, then Infante will talk to them about perspective and the presence of special people in their lives.

“I always want my players to know about Todd and the significance of people like Todd in their lives, and be grateful for those people,” Infante said. “We’ll play that day for the people that are important in our lives. I’d like to remember Todd on that day. I’ll always remember him.”

***

Milloy didn’t have a first-period class that day, so he drove into school a little later than usual. The news came to him through a radio grill in his car about a plane colliding into the World Trade Center. Little else was known, but when the second plane hit, Milloy and the school reacted. An hour later, Good Counsel’s president addressed the students at an assembly and sent them all home.

Everything was canceled that day and weekend. Everything except one, that is. Good Counsel’s football game against rival Georgetown Prep was pushed back from Friday, Sept. 14, to Sunday, Sept. 16.

A huge crowd turned out for the game. Both teams met before and after the game at midfield, and the memory of a Georgetown Prep player’s aunt, who was a flight attendant on the hijacked plane that hit the Pentagon, was honored.

“We played our game, and it was good, I think, because they had to get their minds off the tragedy,” recalled Milloy, whose current team is ranked No. 15 nationally by MaxPreps after a 24-17 overtime victory over Manatee last weekend. “We had to keep going. I thought it was a good thing that we played that game. We lost, but that didn’t matter. We had some critics, but not very many. A few naysayers. We felt good and the other team felt good, and the following weekend, everyone resumed their schedule and their lives. I’m happy we did it. It was a good and healthy thing getting back to being a United States citizen. Most of our kids know their kids. We learned together how to move on and get back to being Americans.”

Milloy’s Falcons will close out the Patriot Classic with an evening game on Saturday at 7:45 p.m. against Gilman, ranked No. 13 by MaxPreps. Good Counsel will wear white jerseys with a remembrance patch that will bear insignias of the Pentagon, Flight 93 and the World Trade Center. A special jet fly-by will take place before the game in memory of 9-11.

“These kids were young when it happened, but the coaches and faculty all remember where we were when that happened. These kids were 6, 7 years old and not old enough to understand, but our message to the kids is the significance of 9-11,” Milloy said. “It’s a day and period in our country’s history we can’t forget.”

Blauvelt was just beginning his coaching career in 2001 as a third-year assistant under coach Pat Tirico at Lodi (N.J.), right across from the Meadowlands. Blauvelt was in the gym when Tirico ran in and told him to get a TV from the cafeteria. They had heard a plane, possibly a small plane, smacked into one of the Twin Towers.

“We turned on the TV, and were there to see the second plane hit,” Blauvelt recalled. “The biggest priority is we tried not to panic the kids. We had a few kids that had parents there, but they got out, fortunately. I’ll never forget the jets flying overhead, and we canceled practice that day.”

The next day, the Rams did practice.

“We continued to practice, we explained to the kids that we had get on with our lives, that we had to fight through this and keep going,” Blauvelt said. “We had a home game that weekend and hung the flag. Both teams met at midfield and we put things in perspective that were a lot more important than football. But for three hours, we decided to let them be kids and enjoy themselves. I was a young guy at the time, but I remember we didn’t miss any games. I know some schools postponed games that weekend, but our attitude was about getting back into a routine.”

This weekend, Blauvelt’s Wallington Panthers will open their season against St. Mary (Rutherford, N.J.) in Rutherford, N.J. Special blue jerseys were ordered that feature “Wallington,” with “USA” emblazed below, between the number and the town. A local volunteer fire company will unfurl a 60-foot by 20-foot flag to present before the game and local military officials have been invited to come out. The general theme will be “remembering those people who sacrifice for us.”

Blauvelt pointed out that this generation of players is taught about 9-11. As a football coach, he talks to his players about the sacrifices made by Pat Tillman, the former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinal who gave up an NFL career to join the Army Rangers and lost his life in combat in Afghanistan. He brings in former teammates who served in the military to talk to his players.

“We’re all brothers that day,” Blauvelt said. “We’re a melting pot. I have Muslim kids, Spanish kids, black kids, white kids, I have Jewish guys on our staff, a lot of different cultures and backgrounds, but we’re all Americans. There is a sense of family that’s built over the last 10 years since 9-11. It’s brought the country closer.”

***

Stevens took a year off from coaching Xavier High School, but he was still teaching at the school when 9-11 occurred. The school had a front row seat to the world on 9-11, situated equidistant between the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center. Stevens was teaching when the incident occurred.

“The school handled it very well,” he remembered. “We shut off all Internet and TV access to reduce the hysteria. We made phones available to the kids who had parents who worked down there, and I remember the day being pretty nice. I had the windows open in my class. But the towers came down, we heard a neighbor scream, ‘Oh my God!’ We shut the windows and made sure we got transportation updates.”

Xavier’s idea was to provide a safe haven for its students, and that it did. Teachers offered to stay at the school overnight for students who couldn’t get home. As the day wound down, Stevens and a few other Xavier teachers went up to the roof of the school to check out what happened.

“It was devastating, we didn’t realize the severity of it because we shut everything off. We didn’t want to panic anyone,” Stevens said. “We closed the school for a few days and we slowly brought everyone back. We only had five freshmen absent, I remember.”

Xavier lost 11 alumni, many parents, its freshmen football coach and two former players, Matt Burke and Sean Lugano. At the time Burke was killed, his father, Jay, was Xavier’s assistant headmaster and an assistant football coach. Brian Burke, Jay’s grandson and Matt’s nephew, is a sophomore on Xavier’s junior varsity football team.

“The team practiced in the gym that week,” Stevens said. “But I remember it was important that we kept playing. We wanted to continue with our lives and the everyday things we do. That was the message.”

Stevens is back in charge again at Xavier.

“We’ll have a mass in remembrance of those who died, and we have scholarships in the names of Matt Burke and Sean Lugano, but our focus is moving forward and concentrating on the team we’re about to play,” Stevens said. “What happened that day is always on our minds, and it’s important to know we live in a country that allows us to play football.

“We remember every year, so the 10th year is not any more special than any other year of 9-11. It’s always going to be with us. The key message is that we can’t allow terrorists to change our hearts and minds. The whole idea of continuing the football season in 2001 was about commemorating the people we lost and we’re going to continue to be Americans, and to honor those who died. They wouldn’t want to let anyone change our way of life.”

The St. Peter’s Prep campus is blocks away from the Hudson River waterfront. Hansen can’t forget the number of people coming from that area on 9-11. He was watching game film in his office when someone burst in breathless Tuesday morning.

“I remember going outside and seeing hundreds of people running from the water, and the school went into lockdown,” Hansen recalled. “The first plane hit, and no one really knew what was happening. We stood out there when we saw the second plane hit right there live, and suddenly a lot of things didn’t matter. The last thing on my mind was playing Clifford Scott.”

Hansen and the St. Peter’s Prep staff went into lockdown mode, making sure the students were safe. There was a convergence of police and military, triage boats were set up and St. Peter’s Prep’s staff was holding meetings.

“It was as chaotic as you can image,” Hansen said. “It was terrible. Over the weeks, we found out all the alumni we lost, the family of players and staff, and it’s going to be 10 years this weekend and that hurt hasn’t healed. It hasn’t ended. It impacted everyone in every way possible.”

The Marauders did eventually play Clifford Scott, on Monday, Sept. 17. The national anthem never carried greater meaning than it did before that game. Every player on each team, each official and both coaching staffs hung their heads, tears falling freely. No one had any experience in dealing with such a tragedy, and the two schools sought their refuge from their surroundings in football. It proved to be the perfect temporary tonic. But the pronounced affect of what happened on 9-11 still lingers. It’s a stain that will never fade.

“The sentiment was to carry on and try to return to things as much as possible,” Hansen said. “We had to get back to our lives and our sanity. We’re playing at Rutgers on Friday night, we’ll go to mass that morning, we’ll have a moment of silence before the game in memory of those who died, but it will be a difficult weekend. Every American feels what happened that day. But here, so close to it, we feel it the hardest. We see every day what happened.”

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