MINNEAPOLIS -- On Sept. 11, 2001, most NFL players had the day off, which long has been standard procedure for teams on Tuesdays. But the Minnesota Vikings made plans for players to come in that day.
After a 24-13 loss at Carolina on Sept. 9 in Week 1, the Vikings weren’t scheduled to play their next game until Sept. 17, on a Monday night, at Baltimore. So head coach Dennis Green altered the practice schedule to have players come in two days later on Tuesday, treating it like a Monday before a Sunday game.
Plans called for the Vikings to have meetings and a walkthrough that day. It was expected to be a routine day at Winter Park in Eden Prairie. Quarterback Todd Bouman said that changed as soon as he arrived.
“My locker was literally right next to our players’ lounge, and I walked in, and (wide receiver) Randy Moss was in the lounge, and right when I walked in the TV was on, and Randy was saying, ‘Something’s going on,’ ” Bouman said.
An airline passenger plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York at 7:46 a.m. CDT. At 8:03 a.m., a second plane hit the South Tower.
“At first we were thinking that it was a little plane that hit the tower and your mind is racing, like, ‘What is going on?,’ ” Bouman said. “Then when the second one hit, we knew something was definitely wrong. You’re thinking, ‘This is not real.’ It was almost like it wasn’t happening, like a dream.”
When the first plane hit, not all of the Vikings players had arrived at Winter Park. Guard Corbin Lacina was driving from his home in Sunfish Lake when he turned on the radio.
“I remember listening on the radio and hearing a report that an aircraft had hit one of the towers,” Lacina said. “At that time, you’re thinking, ‘Some idiot in a Cessna ran into the building.’ And I didn’t think that much of it.”
After arriving at Winter Park, Lacina soon learned about the second passenger plane crashing into the World Trade Center.
“One of the (media relations) guys had it on (television) in their office down by the locker room, and it turned out to be a very serious situation,” Lacina said. “We’re under attack.”
NFL to mark anniversary
Saturday will mark 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which resulted in the deaths of 2,977 innocent victims. In addition to the two hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center, another hit the Pentagon outside Washington and another was downed by passengers outside Shanksville, Pa., after it allegedly was bound for the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
The NFL will acknowledge the 20th anniversary during Week 1 games, including when the Vikings open at Cincinnati on Sunday. There will be pregame ceremonies, players will wear a 9/11 ribbon decal on their helmets, and coaches and team personnel will wear 9/11 lapel pins on the sidelines.
Many of those with the Vikings in 2001 have vivid memories of what happened that day. Punter Mitch Berger remembered seeing the events unfold on television in the players’ lounge and being in “total shock.” In an era before news was readily available on cell phones, linebacker Ed McDaniel recalled being in a meeting room when a player came running in to report what was occurring.
Steve Kelly, then the Vikings’ executive vice president, arrived at Winter Park early that morning. A television in his office was on when a program was interrupted with a news bulletin.
“I remember calling in (executives Rob Brzezinski and Steve Poppen) and saying, ‘Hey, guys take a look at this.’ ” said Kelly, now CEO of Process Bolt, a computer company in Minnetonka. “And soon, more and more people came into my office. I had one of the few TVs (at Winter Park).”
Kelly said those watching were stunned by what they saw.
“We watched the buildings collapse,” he said. “It was just chaos. … My first thought was of all of the people that I knew in New York, including the people at the league office.”
Kelly got on the phone to the NFL office in New York to find out what the Vikings needed to do. He was able to reach Roger Goodell, who was then a top league executive and would succeed Paul Tagliabue as commissioner in 2006. Kelly said he was told that cell-phone service was out throughout the area and that Goodell initially was “having difficulty reaching his wife.”
With all airlines grounded, Kelly then reached out to some Vikings employees who were elsewhere in the country.
“We had scouts in the field, so we had people all over the place,” said Kelly, who said most of those employees remained in place for the three days airplanes were barred from flying.
Meanwhile, Vikings players tried to go about their regular business at Winter Park, but it wasn’t easy.
“We’d be in a meeting and we’d get a knock on our door and somebody would say, ‘The building just got knocked down,’ ” McDaniel said. “Then we’d all leave the meeting and go to the TV room.”
Waiting for news
The players eventually went home, and many spent the rest of the day watching for news updates on television. Then a waiting game began.
Nobody then with the Vikings has been reported to have had a relative or a friend killed in the attacks but it took time for some people to be located. McDaniel said he was “a little worried” when he couldn’t immediately reach four of his cousins who lived in Queens, but he learned four days later they were safe.
The Vikings, like other teams, didn’t know for two days if NFL games would be played as scheduled for Week 2 or postponed. The word finally came down two days after the terrorist attack, on Sept. 13, that all games in Week 2 would be moved to what originally was going to be the first weekend of the playoffs, and then the postseason was pushed back. Minnesota’s game at Baltimore was shifted to Monday, Jan. 7.
“I remember being really distracted at practice with the uncertainty of it all,” said Lacina, who said Vikings continued to practice in the days after 9/11. “But looking back in hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t play (right away). Obviously, you can have the mentality of, ‘We’re not going to let these people alter us because of what they did.’ But I don’t think the country was ready the next weekend for football, to be honest with you.”
After the Baltimore game was postponed, the Vikings continued on with their original schedule, with their first game back on a rainy Sept. 23 at Chicago. Lacina never will forget the national anthem before the game, when a giant American flag covered the entire playing surface at Soldier Field.
“I remember being very emotional and I was sobbing, and everybody around me was, too,” Lacina said. “They’re playing the national anthem and cheering. It was gut-wrenching. There was just a lump in your throat.”
Berger also has proud memories of the extended pregame show prior to Minnesota’s 17-10 loss that day.
“Just thinking about it right now kind of makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck a little bit,” Berger said this week. “You’re thinking then about how these (terrorists) aren’t going to destroy our way of life, and we’re going to overcome this, and us as football players, we’re a big part of helping the country heal.”
Not only were the Vikings reeling from the tragic events of Sept. 11, just six weeks earlier on Aug. 2, tackle Korey Stringer, one of the team’s most popular players, had collapsed during training camp in Mankato and died from heat stroke complications. So that already had been weighing heavily on the minds of many.
“It was another whammy for us,” Lacina said of the attacks.
“It was about as tough of a year for a business as you can possibly imagine,” Kelly said.
The Vikings finished that season with a 5-11 record. They lost the makeup game 19-3 to the Ravens the week after Green and the Vikings agreed to mutually part ways, and the final game was coached on an interim basis by offensive line coach Mike Tice. Tice soon had the interim tag removed.
Following the season, McDaniel retired after playing for the team for a decade. About a year later, in New York for a friend’s wedding, he visited Ground Zero of the attacks.
“That was emotional,” he said. “Having watched those buildings come down at that time and then seeing that big hole in the ground, I was like, ‘Man, we all take life for granted but in an instant it could be taken away from you.’ That put it into perspective.”