Football: Twenty years ago, Northwestern saw its world upended by the 9/11 attacks


Bonnie Trafelet/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Running back Damien Anderson eludes an Indiana defender. Anderson was the leading rusher and a veteran presence on a 2001 Wildcats team that saw its season rocked by the 9/11 attacks.

John Riker, Sports Editor


Coach Pat Fitzgerald opened his remarks at Tuesday’s team meeting with a history lesson. 

With the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks coinciding with Northwestern’s (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) Saturday matchup against Indiana State (1-0), Fitzgerald took a detour from usual game preparation to educate his team on a historical turning point that predates some of their birth dates.

“A special week coming up here in Evanston,” Fitzgerald said to lead off his Monday press conference. “Not only for us recognizing our heroes, but more importantly throughout our country, it’s unbelievable, but the 20-year tragic anniversary of 9/11.”

The Wildcats opened the 2001 season with bowl aspirations after capturing a share of the 2000 Big Ten title and appearing in the Alamo Bowl against Nebraska under coach Randy Walker. With leading rusher Damien Anderson returning for his senior season and dual-threat quarterback Zak Kustok still under center, it was hardly a surprise when NU opened the season ranked 16th in the nation.

But four days after taking down UNLV in their first game, the Cats’ season — and the rest of the sports world — came to a halt. 

Fitzgerald, then-assistant coaching defensive backs, was in a staff meeting at the John C. Nicolet Football Center, NU’s former football headquarters, when assistant Carolyn Fleming interrupted the meeting to tell them a plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. 

After adjourning the meeting, the coaches watched television broadcasts from their offices. In the stadium, some of NU’s players turned their attention from their breakfasts to the TV screens, where they watched a plane crash into the World Trade Center’s South Tower. 

Eight hundred miles away from New York City, the devastation hit home for the Cats, with some players’ family and friends in the vicinity of the attacks.

Something just didn’t seem right, just didn’t pass that test of common sense,” Fitzgerald recounted Monday. “It’s one of those days that everyone will always remember where they were, what they thought and who was impacted that touched their lives.”

The Big Ten Conference and NU’s athletic department acted quickly, announcing the following day that all of the week’s sporting events would be canceled. The slate included the Cats’ game against Navy, a contest in which NU was a 35-point favorite. NU’s athletic department offered to donate game refunds to the American Red Cross. 

“Sports, compared to what happened, is so miniscule and trivial,” then-Athletic Director Rick Taylor told The Daily in 2001. “People can second-guess us, but I don’t care. We made the best decision we could.”

Jason Wright, former wide receiver and current president of the NFL’s Washington Football Team, conveyed the duality of the team’s acceptance of the decision and their urge to get back on the field. 

Everyone agreed it was the right decision by the conference,” Wright told The Daily in 2001. “There’s a lot of emotional turmoil that goes with it. But football is really an outlet for all our emotions.”

“Sometimes you take the little things for granted,” linebacker Kevin Bentley told The Daily in 2001. “We’ve been playing this game for so long that sometimes it’s routine. Then you see something like this happen. Now it’s like, Wow, we’re blessed just to be able to walk onto this field today.”

The Cats returned to action 11 days after the attacks, flying to Durham, North Carolina for a nonconference test against Duke. NU routed their hosts 44-7, then edged out No. 23 Michigan State 27-26 to improve to No. 14 in the AP Poll. 

NU won just one of their next eight games, including a 43-42 defeat to Bowling Green in the game that was scheduled to make up for the missed Navy contest.

As the Cats prepare to face Indiana State this weekend, the legacy of the 9/11 attacks lives on in Evanston, both in memories and NU’s 2021 season.

NU held its first official Heroes’ Day in 2005 to honor local first responders, a tradition that continues to this day and will be reprised on Saturday. The Cats will don an American flag version of their logo on their helmets and at midfield, along with welcoming first responders with free tickets. 

Another Heroes’ Day tradition, a PA announcement honoring the first responders, will include a special reference to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

This week makes you remember those that we lost and those that, when tragedy hit, they didn’t run from it, they ran to it,” Fitzgerald said. “That type of resolve and response is what our country is built on.”

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Twitter: @john__riker

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