A day sports won't soon forget

Updated: September 11, 2003, 6:23 PM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

There were times New Yorkers stopped listening to John Amirante. Down on the Madison Square Garden ice, there was a low-riding rumble, a restlessness, an enduring sense that the "Star Spangled Banner" singer was just a nuisance on the way to the dropping of the puck, until the beer man came marching down the aisle.

American Flag
NASCAR fans showed their patriotism during the national anthem before the Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in July.
Two years ago, Amirante had just sung the national anthem for the first professional sporting event in New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a Rangers-Devils preseason game, and the tears rolled down his cheeks. As he walked to the ice that night, people cheered him on. They told him they needed him that night, the way he needed them. He was so sure that nobody would ever treat the signing of that song so cavalierly again.

"I don't think that's going to happen anymore," Amirante said that night.

Two years later, New York still stands and salutes. Maybe this is true everywhere now, but it sure is true here. Just this Sunday, they stood in the upper reaches of Giants Stadium to listen to pop singer Marc Anthony. They could see where the World Trade Center stood in the distance and once again, they sang with him. It's a small thing maybe, but it's still there at Metropolitan New York sporting events. Everyone stands and belts out the words.

The games were going to be different here. They just were. Everyone promised themselves. Nobody would treat the games so seriously. All of us do. But there were still bodies beneath the rubble when callers started flooding talk radio with angst over middle relievers and kicking games. We do it in the newspapers too.

We're all guilty. The end of the world comes every day on the air and in the sports pages, catastrophe for every blown save or missed layup. In the end, life just takes over this way again.

Another Sept. 11 comes along on the calendar, and the agony starts all over again. For the people living with the loss of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, the anxiety never ends. Through sports, there are still chances to push past the grief. These are the magnificent tales that still rise out of the rubble, out of the World Trade Center dust, out of the worst day of people's lives.

The best sport stories are still far from the landscape of pro sports, far from the photo-op moments that stain the goodwill of giving back. A year ago, Patricia Zampieri awoke her husband, Robert, at 3 a.m., in the family's Saddle River, N.J., home, telling him of the vision that washed over her. She had had an epiphany that he could use his status at Knickerbocker Country Club in Tenafly, N.J., for a golf fund-raiser to benefit St. Anthony High School.

Yes, the little brick schoolhouse in Jersey City made famous for its national dynasty basketball program under the legendary Bob Hurley would be a way to memorialize their son, Robbie, who was a 30-year-old commodities trader in the north tower.

Through the windows of the schoolhouse the students of St. Anthony High School saw the World Trade Center burn, the bodies of people leaping through the billowing smoke and to their deaths. Two years later, those students had $100,000 in scholarship money from the Robbie Zampieri Golf Classic, and the Felician Sisters who run the high school presented the husband and wife with a crucifix constructed out of mangled World Trade Center steel.

Ty Wigginton
Getty ImagesTy Wigginton and his Mets teammates showed they still remember September 11, wearing caps of various New York area services on Wednesday.
In the end, Sept. 11 didn't change sports people, as much as it exposed them. Bobby Valentine will be remembered for working the staging area at Shea Stadium, for taking into his life a young boy who had lost his father. When Jim Fassel went to ground zero and heard the story of a missing fireman, Frank Palumbo, leaving behind a wife and 10 children, he was inspired to start a foundation for them. He told the children that they could consider him a surrogate father, that they were welcome to call him anytime.

Kerry Collins raised $125,000 for Fire House No. 5 in New York City and on Monday dropped off five wide-screen televisions for the Hackensack, N.J., fire departments. The post-Sept. 11 world will not be measured in money and appliances, but with a sense that sports could ease the pain, if for just a few moments at a time.

It is still here, still real. From Manhattan to Staten Island, Westchester County to Northern New Jersey, Sept. 11 hangs over everything. Everyone does his best to push past the pain and every step of the way, sports has been there. It has been a good friend to remember, and a good friend to forget.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.