I remember the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. A Tuesday. I was dropping off my second-grade daughter, Hannah, at Kyrene de la Colina Elementary School.
I asked the teacher on duty at the front gate how she was doing.
“Shaken, as every American should be today,” Jill Novi replied.
She then filled me in. I rushed home and turned on the television, horrified by the images, shaken by what it all could mean.
* * *
I collected myself and drove the 10 minutes to work at the Arizona Cardinals’ South Tempe training facility at Warner and Hardy. I was employed then by another newspaper as the Cardinals’ beat writer.
Pat Tillman had been in the habit of riding his bike to Cardinals practices from his nearby apartment. I wrote about it because not many NFL players ride a bike to practice. An auto dealer read it, called me and gave me his contact info. He wanted to set Pat up with a car deal. I passed the guy’s info to Pat and soon he was driving a car to work. Sometimes. Sometimes he still rode his bike.
I remember in the middle of the summer, when there was barely a soul at the Cardinals facility, taking my young son and our nanny over to show them around. Guess who was there? Pat then offered to take over the tour. He poked his head in the locker room to make sure it was empty and then in we went with our tour guide.
Tuesday is the players’ day off in the NFL. Few ever were in the facility on Tuesdays – except Pat Tillman.
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, he was unaware of what was happening until he happened to walk into the pressroom. We had it on TV. He sat down with us to watch, incredulous. I remember sitting next to him, watching him get angrier and angrier. He stayed for a couple of hours.
Later, my phone rang. The father of one of our neighbors, a decorated Vietnam veteran, had been on the jet that crashed into the Pentagon.
* * *
On Nov. 7, 2001, fifty-seven days after the 9/11 attacks, I was in New York in my previous professional lifetime, this time covering the University of Arizona basketball team for the newspaper.
The Wildcats were involved in the closing-bell ceremony at the New York Stock Exchange the afternoon before they played at Madison Square Garden.
I knew that the World Trade Center site was nearby, but when I discovered that it was only a few blocks from Wall Street, I had to walk over and see it.
The sun had set and portable floodlights threw a harsh, eerie glare on it. Pieces of girder protruded from the rubble. Smoke still wafted as workers continued to sift through debris. You could smell it all over Lower Manhattan.
I was struck by the irony of the street names where I stood: Liberty and Church.
In those days I did not have a camera or internet on my cellphone. I was going to call my wife back in Phoenix and tell her where I was and what I saw. I tried, but I couldn’t talk.
It was one of those moments you never forget.
* * *
I remember when, come spring, Pat Tillman made his decision. Many people were surprised that he turned down millions in a new NFL contract and joined the U.S. Army with the intention of becoming a Ranger. Some of us weren’t surprised.
I remember the day he came to the facility to clean out his locker and say his good-byes. I hurried out to the parking lot to catch him before he left to shake his hand and tell him how much I respected what he was doing. Typical humble Pat, he tried to dismiss it and as he was getting into his car, the final words he said to me were, “I just hope I come home in one piece.”
I remember two years later on April 22 hearing the news on the car radio. U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman had been killed in Afghanistan.
I don’t remember where I was going but I was still in Ahwatukee. I turned the car around and drove to the end of Chandler Boulevard and just sat there looking at the Estrella Mountains and sobbing.
Many people are made out in death to be more than they ever really were, larger than life.
Not this guy. He was the real deal.
* * *
We fought a war in Iraq, convinced that it played a role in the attacks and had weapons of mass destruction. None were found. Its former leader, Saddam Hussein, is no longer with us.
We fought a 20-year war in Afghanistan, which we were convinced fostered terrorist groups. Osama Bin Laden is no longer with us.
We wanted revenge, and we wanted it swiftly. Were we on target, or misguided? Was it worth the thousands of lives lost or seriously impacted and the billions of dollars spent in our longest war ever, over two decades under four U.S. presidents – two from each major party?
It’s over now. We think. Each of us has to come to our own peace about it all.
* * *
In January, 2019, I was back in New York on a business trip. I returned to The World Trade Center, along with my wife, Patty, and our former neighbor, who now lives in the New York area. It was her father-in-law who’d been on the plane that went into the Pentagon.
Reliving that day with her was still chilling and maddening.
And yet, it was heartening. The National September 11 Memorial Museum is beautifully done, a wonderful remembrance of those lost in the attacks — the first responders, those in the Twin Towers and those on the three aircraft that found their marks as well as the fourth jet that went down in Pennsylvania when brave passengers refused to let the hijackers have their way.
The memorial pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers are spiritual.
If you ever get the chance to visit it, I recommend it. It is powerful.
As I stood on that corner where I first saw it all nearly 18 years earlier, I felt triumphant this time as I looked skyward at the magnificent new tower. I wish they had built two of them.
It actually brought a smile to my face to see the museum, the pools and the new tower as the backdrop of the street sign that still says Liberty.
The terrorists knocked us down that day, but they did not knock out the United States of America.
Remember that today.