Former Jets reflect on impact of 9/11 attacks
NEW YORK — The image on the television screen is still vividly etched in Vinny Testaverde's mind.
The former New York Jets quarterback was in the trainer's room on Sept. 11, 2001, and had trouble making sense of the gaping, smoke-spewing hole in one of the Twin Towers. As a guy who grew up on Long Island, Testaverde had seen the mighty and massive towers of the World Trade Center punctuate the New York City skyline all his life.
"We all thought it was a terrible accident, maybe a plane got out of control," Testaverde recalled Tuesday.
But then punter Tom Tupa yelled over to him: "There's another plane coming at the building!"
They were words Testaverde will never forget.
"That's when you kind of started to realize," he said, "that it was something more serious that was taking place."
Herman Edwards, the Jets' coach at the time, was in his office at the team's facility at Hofstra University. He had gotten there early in the morning, as he always did, and was watching film when he realized something wasn't right.
Even though it was his first season with the Jets, he had already noticed that he could see the flight patterns from nearby airports outside his office window. The skies had been silent for at least an hour that morning.
"It was puzzling to me, so I turned the television on," Edwards said. "I saw the Trade Center and all of the sudden you see smoke coming out of them and I saw the second plane run into it."
That was the beginning of a series of life-changing events for members of the Jets — and the entire country.
"It was one of those moments where you know exactly what you were doing and at exactly what time," former center Kevin Mawae said. "It was a pretty surreal moment."
As the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches, several Jets players, coaches and executives have found themselves reflecting on what happened that day and during the weeks that followed.
"I can't believe it happened," former wide receiver Wayne Chrebet said. "We went through that time together and we kind of helped each other through it."
Chrebet grew up in nearby Garfield, N.J., and later found out that the husband of one of his wife's best friends was killed that day when one of the towers collapsed.
"To see what she went through was tough," Chrebet said. "I know a lot of people went through that, but to have someone so close made it harder."
Testaverde is from Elmont, N.Y., and he knew friends of friends and people from his family's church who died. Later that week, he found out that a former high school teammate was among the victims.
"Being a New York guy and growing up on Long Island and having what I would say is just maybe a little bit closer connection than most of my teammates that were there at the time with me," Testaverde said, "it just hit home a little bit more with me."
When the team gathered for work again the day after the attacks, Edwards recognized that his players' minds weren't on football.
"Within 45 minutes of the practice, you knew it wasn't going the right way, so we basically canceled practice and brought the players back in and told them that we had some options," Edwards said. "There was really no way that this team, emotionally, was going to be able to play. And, I felt that way as a coach, too. I just felt it was too fast, too soon and we needed to reflect."
That's why Testaverde got in front of his teammates and told them that if the NFL decided that the games would go on that Sunday, he would not be joining the Jets on their flight to Oakland to play the Raiders.
"I think I recall the NFL commissioner saying that we should just go about our lives in a normal process," Testaverde said. "For me, the normal process when you lose loved ones is you take time to grieve and take time away from some of the things you do on a daily basis and you pay tribute to those people that lost their lives. To me, that meant not playing football that week."
Testaverde had discussed his decision with Edwards and then-general manager Terry Bradway, and Edwards gave the team the option of voting to play or not. So they took a secret ballot vote that morning.
"It was unanimous that we wouldn't play," Mawae said. "It was a decision that we felt was right. A lot of guys lived in the Garden City and Long Island area and a lot of those guys had neighbors that were affected or were killed."
Bradway told owner Woody Johnson of the players' decision and that they would forfeit the game if it was still going to be played. He then contacted then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's office and let them know where the team stood. The NFL later postponed every game scheduled for that week.
About four days after the attacks, Testaverde went to the World Trade Center site and slowly made it past the armed guards and blockades, a grim setting he compared to "a war zone."
"I just walked around and talked with the rescue workers and to see the sadness in their hearts and their voices — I'm getting chills just talking about it — it was a sad time," Testaverde said. "It's still obviously a very sad, very emotional thing that a lot of people have gone through."
The rest of the team went to the site a week after the attacks and visited the firehouses, went to the World Trade Center site, spoke to police officers and went into Salvation Army tents to speak to some of the widows and children of people who lost loved ones.
Later that week — 12 days after the attacks — the Jets turned their minds back to football and beat the New England Patriots 10-3 in Foxborough, Mass.
"I know that Herm was the right guy dealing with that football team, in terms of their mental approach because it was very difficult for us to have any focus early on, especially the first week after and even the second week after," Bradway said. "It was an unbelievable time and I was very proud of how our players responded from the beginning and all the way through. ... We did feel a responsibility and a loyalty to the people of New York."
That echoes what current coach Rex Ryan said Monday about feeling pressure to beat the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the attacks. It will be a moment of reflection for both the players and coaches who were with the team at the time, and those who represent the organization now.
"This tragic event never leaves me," Edwards said. "For the rest of my life, I'll always remember it. It's the 10th year and we're going to have a celebration of where we've come from and the things we've learned from it, but there are some people that never came back. I think that's important. We need to always be solemn on that day."