NEW YORK -- I spent the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, in bed watching the opening "Monday Night Football" game of the season: Giants vs. Broncos. Normally I would have watched the game downstairs in front of the big screen with my father, a fellow die-hard Giants fan. But I had torn ligaments in my left ankle three days earlier, so I stayed in bed with my leg propped up.
The game didn't go so well. The Broncos put it away with 17 straight points in the second half. I was already nodding off to sleep about midway through the fourth quarter when I heard my father trudging up the stairs. He poked his head in the room, we exchanged a few disgusted grumbles, and then he shuffled off to find his pajamas.
That was the last time I ever saw my father alive.
The past four September 11ths have been days I've wanted to end as quickly as possible. But this one this one feels different. Maybe it's because of that number: "5." It just looks and sounds a little more "concrete." Maybe it's simply because there was a Giants game last night, just like five years ago. All I know is, I feel compelled to pause and reflect. And to share, with whomever might be interested.
As I said in my eulogy five years ago after he died in the north tower, my dad was my hero. I never told him that. I can only hope that he knew. I cannot imagine a better father. I couldn't have asked for anything more.
We probably bonded over sports more than anything else. He was never a great athlete, but he was always a huge fan -- and he instilled that love of sports in me. He grew up a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, and actually worked for the Yankees (helping handle fan mail) during the historic summer of 1961. He told me so many great stories from those days, like the time Elston Howard just showed up in a local park and played catch with my dad and his friends. Too bad his killer baseball card and autograph collection (including a canceled check signed by Babe Ruth that Ruth's widow personally sent him) "disappeared." (Don't worry Mom, I forgive you!)
I still vividly remember my dad dropping me off at my first Little League practice. And attending countless athletic events I participated in from then on -- basketball games, baseball games, soccer games, track meets. I could always count on seeing his smiling face behind the bench, in the bleachers or near the finish line. And that smile was the best part -- because not only was he there, but you could tell he was genuinely enjoying the experience.
But my favorite moments were those my dad and I shared as fans. We watched tons of Yankees games together -- even though the Yanks were terrible for pretty much my entire childhood. Watching the Giants win Super Bowl XXI against the Broncos was great. But watching them win Super Bowl XXV was even better -- the two of us giggled like an extra candy bar had just fallen from a vending machine when Scott Norwood's kick sailed wide right.
The best game we ever saw together in person? Jets vs. Dolphins, Sept. 21, 1986. The Jets stormed from behind to beat Miami 51-45, thanks to Ken O'Brien's 21-yard touchdown pass to Wesley Walker on the final play of regulation and his 43-yard TD toss to Walker in overtime -- both of which we listened to in the car on the way home. That's right. My dad thought the game was over and wanted to beat the traffic.
I NEVER let him forget that one.
Nor will I ever forget watching the Knicks' run all the way to Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 1994. Basketball always was, and still is, my favorite sport. And my dad often waxed poetic about the great teamwork of the Knicks' 1969-70 and '72-73 championship squads. We had so much fun together watching all those playoff games in '94, losing our voices from screaming at the TV in both despair and delight. We prematurely made plans to go to the ticker tape parade. And I remember, in the waning moments of that Game 7 loss to Houston, running upstairs to my room to watch the final seconds alone. I didn't want my dad to see me cry.
That seems a little silly to me now -- crying over a sporting event. In the first few days after Sept. 11, I couldn't have cared less about sports. I couldn't turn on a TV. I couldn't even listen to U2. (And those of you who know me personally are undoubtedly most shocked by that last one.) I honestly wondered if I'd ever care about these things again.
But then a Mike Piazza home run gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling -- something I never dreamt a New York Met could do. And a Yankees World Series run that fell heartbreakingly short brings a smile to my face, even to this day. I'll never forget hugging my little brother after those Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter and Scott Brosius home runs -- right in front of the big screen downstairs. Right next to my father's empty chair.
The truth is, sports still mean a lot to me. Just not quite as much as they did when that empty chair was filled. That's natural, I suppose. But that chair that chair has haunted me for five years. When my father died, one of my big worries was: "Will other people always look at me differently now? Are they always going to think of 9/11 first?" I don't think that happened. Instead, I think I fell into a rut of looking at myself that way. It's pretty easy to do when you read or hear about the event every single day. But that doesn't make it a good thing.
In a way, I feel like I've been treading water for the past five years. And maybe that was necessary. But I don't want to just tread water anymore.
It's five years later and I've never missed my dad so much. But I don't want to focus on how he died anymore -- I want to focus on how he lived. Remembering all the happy times we shared together. And following his example of kindness and generosity.
I don't want to focus on that empty chair anymore, and why it's empty. I want to focus on the people sitting in the other chairs, and on the couch, and in my heart -- my courageous mother and brother, my wonderful girlfriend, and the family and friends who have been so supportive of me, especially during the past five years.
It's absolutely true -- you can't fully appreciate something until it's gone. But it's more than worth a shot.
This Sept. 11, whether you lost someone close to you that day or not, try to steer your focus away from that hole in the ground for a while, and toward the people you hold most dear. Remember the good times gone by. And make the extra effort to hang out with your brother or sister, or take your mom out for dinner, or go watch a game with your dad. Time is precious. You never really know when you're gonna run out of it.
As for me, I'm just wondering what my dad thought of that Giants game last night. On second thought -- I don't have to wonder. I can hear him grumbling in my ear right now. He watched the game with me. He just had a much better seat.
Kieran Darcy is an associate editor at ESPN.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.