Column: How sports can help us heal

New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan took some heat last week for saying he so badly wanted to win Sunday night’s game against the Cowboys because of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. “I feel more pressure on this game for whatever reason than any game I’ve ever coached, seems like,” he had told members of the New York media.

TV and radio pundits responded by saying a football game and the senseless deaths of so many innocent people shouldn’t be mentioned — even thought about — together in the same sentence. After all, this was just a regular-season game, and Sept. 11 happened 10 years ago.

But I’ll say this: The Jets’ Sunday night come-from-behind victory really gave me and countless other Jets fans — I’m sure even some of those who lost loved ones in 9/11 – something to smile about on a day filled with sadness.

I spent the Sept. 11 anniversary at home, editing stories and photos on memorial events from across our coverage area. During a four- or five-hour chunk of that time, I watched CBS coverage of the heart-wrenching remembrances of those killed in the terror attacks as all the 9/11 victims’ names were read from two podiums at ground zero.

There were victims’ brothers and sisters, saying how backyard barbecues have never been the same in 10 years. There were the surviving mothers, vowing to join their sons or daughters one day in heaven. There were the wives, giving their lost husbands updates on their children’s lives, and trying their hardest to be strong. And then there were the kids, including teenagers and 20-somethings, most of whom struggled through tears as they spoke, while still calling their lost parent Mommy or Daddy; these are relationships frozen in time. Some of the children who spoke never even met their fathers.

But later, there was sport, that great diversion.

The Jets victory Sunday night reminded a lot of us of retired Mets catcher Mike Piazza’s Sept. 21, 2001, go-ahead home run against the Atlanta Braves. That was the first professional sports game played in New York after the terror attacks. Up until that moment, many didn’t even know if attending a game was even the right thing to do. But when Piazza hit that huge homer to left-center field, we cheered, surprising even ourselves. And it was a frenzied, cathartic cheer, both at Shea Stadium and in homes across the region.

It was prolonged, because we wanted to hold onto that unfamiliar feeling of feeling good.

In the days that followed, we were slowly able to laugh again. You want to communicate to your children the shock, anger, fear and anguish adults felt after Sept. 11? Tell them to imagine almost two weeks devoid of humor — pretty much like all of this past Sunday. That was, of course, until a combination of a goal line fumble, a blocked punt, an interception and a long field goal led to one of the most memorable come-from-behind Jets victories anyone could ever remember.

On the day spent mostly with a lump in my throat, I now grabbed a plush football and did my best John Elway impression in the living room. I dropped back and pump-faked a few times before letting the ball fly and sending my 5-month-old puppy slipping and sliding down the hardwood hallway after it.

I had lost myself.

And isn’t that what sports is all about, for the fans and athletes?

So thank you, Rex and the Jets, for taking Sunday night’s game so darn seriously. And for helping us, well, forget — if only for a moment.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.