Miami Dolphins recall how they were affected by the events of 9/11

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - At the time, Tony Sparano was working as a tight ends coach for Marty Schottenheimer and the Washington Redskins, engaged in discussions about the game plan for the upcoming matchup with Arizona.

A secretary entered one of the few rooms in America that the news had not reached, the news about the attacks in New York and outside Washington, D.C.

No one needed to take her word for it. The Redskins train in Northern Virginia.

"We walked outside the door and we see the smoke coming from the Pentagon," Sparano said.

That massive structure wasn't just a landmark to him. That was the place where friends and neighbors worked. That makes Sparano among the many Americans who don't need an anniversary to remember Sept. 11, 2001.

"I think about it all the time," said Sparano, the Dolphins' coach.

On the first Sunday of the 2011 season, the NFL will make sure its fans are thinking about it before kickoff, with special ceremonies at stadiums across the country to commemorate the 10-year anniversary.

At MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, every fan will receive an American flag, Lady Antebellum will sing the national anthem, children of first responders will serve as honorary team captains, bagpipers representing the fire and police departments will perform Amazing Grace and Robert De Niro will narrate a piece dedicated to family members of 9/11 victims.

In Washington, former Secretary of State Colin Powell will serve as the Redskins' honorary captain.

Then, on Monday night, the Dolphins will host their own tribute, which will include the Army's Golden Knights parachuting into Sun Life Stadium at halftime. They will carry a Dolphins flag, an American flag and the flags of New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the states where terrorists crashed passenger jets on 9/11.

A decade ago, the NFL skipped one weekend and then resumed its games to help give fans an escape from reality. Now, it is recognizing the significance of that period.

The football? That mostly got forgotten, although the events surrounding it remain memorable to many playing at the time.

"It obviously was a surreal week for a lot of people," said Jason Taylor, a Dolphin then and now.

That it was.

Start with Harry Swayne. The veteran offensive tackle had left his family in northern Virginia on the night of Sept. 10, 2001, taking the last flight from Dulles to Fort Lauderdale to work out for the Dolphins, who needed a reinforcement after Marcus Spriggs tore up a knee in the opener.

Swayne was getting a physical at a hospital when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. And when the second hit.

Upon returning to the Dolphins' facility for his workout on that Tuesday, he found Rick Spielman, the vice president of player personnel, coach Dave Wannstedt and other team staffers in the same state of shock that gripped everyone else in America.

Swayne also found Ethan Brooks, another offensive lineman trying out. Brooks was too nervous for Swayne's liking.

"I wanted him to do well, so they could sign him and I could fly back," Swayne recalled.

Or, since that wouldn't prove possible, drive back.

"I was so not interested in anything," Swayne said. "Trying to get hold of my wife was almost impossible. When I did, she goes outside, and wanted me to hear all the jets scrambling the area. We just had a third kid. I live like 30 minutes from the Pentagon. Maybe this football thing isn't for me anymore."

He worked out well enough to satisfy the Dolphins, who couldn't get another option, Jumbo Elliott, on a flight out of New York.

The team persuaded Swayne to sign and stay.

Eventually, the Dolphins played, although not that Sunday here against Buffalo. On that Thursday, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue chose to postpone that weekend's games until the week after the scheduled end of the regular season. The Raiders would be next to visit South Florida, on Sept. 23. Maybe.

"Nobody knew how many more weekends would be missed," said Harvey Greene, the Dolphins' vice president of media relations. "Airports were shut down.

"John Herrera, the Raiders' advance man, drove here. He stopped in Arizona and Texas one night apiece, and he might have had to drive all the way back if the game was canceled and the airports were closed."

The game went on.

"We wanted to play," former Dolphins receiver Oronde Gadsden said.

He especially felt that way during the unifying, electrifying pre-game ceremonies.

"A lot of people were emotional," Gadsden said. "Everyone had the little flag, and there was a 100-yard flag covering the field.

"You got a sense, it's the same thing you feel in the Olympics, 'Let's go get 'em.' If you had sent 32 teams with all their players to go find Osama bin Laden, someone would find him. Just give us our equipment, and

drop us off."

Yet there was some fear, too.

"If they were looking to get a lot of people, I can tell you where 75,000 are at," Gadsden said. "Maybe we could have just played the game with no people."

Instead, the people attending saw a great finish. Jay Fiedler, a New Yorker who had lost friends in the attack, secured the 18-15 victory with a 2-yard run with five seconds left, and earned a place on the cover of Sports Illustrated. No Dolphin has been on the cover for an on-field accomplishment since.

The season settled back into normalcy. A new normalcy. Sam Madison still remembers his first trip back to the Meadowlands in New Jersey, to face the Jets on Oct. 14, 2001.

"They had the dogs there, they had the barricades they had to let down for the buses to go through," said Madison, then a Dolphins cornerback. "It was like you were going into the Green Zone.

"That was a real eye-opener for me, being that I had been to that stadium 101 times before, and it was nothing like that. And, to see it, it was real."

It was just a little of what 9/11 changed forever.


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