This year marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The four coordinated hijackings of passenger airlines led to the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and nearly 3,000 deaths. The league postponed all of its games for that week.
Many players and coaches came together to help the country heal and support first responders, including then-first-year New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards. Having just come off a 45-24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in his first game on Sept. 9, Edwards guided his team in coping with the tragedy and led efforts to support first responders at Ground Zero. He also took the Jets to the playoffs, becoming the first head coach in franchise history to do that in his first season.
Earlier this year, Athlon Sports had the opportunity to discuss 9/11 with Edwards, who is now the head coach at Arizona State. Below is a summary of the conversation.
I know this may be an overwhelming question, but can you describe your feelings and experiences on the morning of 9/11?
What I felt was probably what a lot of people felt, which was disbelief. I could remember sitting at my desk on Tuesday, a clear day, and really not seeing any airplanes fly by for about an hour. That kind of gave me the indication that something’s wrong here. Then I turned the television on and watched the second plane run into the building. I thought it was an accident. I thought the plane was off course. I didn’t have the volume up. I was watching tape because we were getting ready to go on the road to play the Raiders. Then I turned the volume up and realized what was happening, and it was disbelief. Obviously when you sit there and you listen to what is taking place, you don’t know what to do. And then after that, I think I became angry. I felt compelled to do something because this was an attack on America.
The NFL did not cancel the games until next day. How tough was it for you and the team to deal with the tragedy, while also being unsure if you had to fly to Oakland to play a game on Sunday?
We went out on Wednesday to try to practice, and the league was going to determine something on Thursday. Well, halfway through the practice, within about 30 minutes, I called the team back in. We went back into the meeting room as a team and I told them, “You guys need to vote on what you want to do. Do you want to play, if they decide just to play, or do you want to cancel?” I said, “I’m okay. You guys decide what you want to do.” The players decided they weren’t going to play, so we were going to forfeit the game if the league decided to play.
You would have just said, “We’re staying in New York.”
We lost our first game and would’ve been 0-2, and that was OK with me. We couldn’t play a football game. There was no way in the world we were going to play a football game. The feeling that the players had, I mean you could just sense it. That was my job as head coach to make sure that the players understood that we’re going to make a decision as Americans right now — not football players — but as Americans. We get to make this decision because this is bigger than football.
When the discussion of Americans needing a diversion with sports the weekend after 9/11 came up, you famously suggested to go to church instead. How did your faith help you cope with this tragedy?
I felt at that point in time, we needed to pray, we needed to hug our children, and tell our loved ones how much we love them. You know, when you think about this, there were people that got into their cars and drove to the subways and to the rail systems and got out of those cars and went to work like you do every day. And on that day, a lot of those people never came back. I think sometimes we take a lot of things for granted because we live in this busy world where on Monday, we want to know what the weekend looks like. We have these great plans of what we’re going to do every day, and on that day, all of a sudden everyone’s plans got changed. The world’s plans got changed on that day.
The NFL went back to work the next week, but many of the Jets players went to Ground Zero to support rescue workers that Monday. How did you and the franchise give back to the community during the 2001 season following the attacks?
I think for us we were compelled to go down there and to try to do something to help the first responders and seeing all those people down there because they were truly the heroes. We wanted to let them know that we felt that way, and I think every player on our football team and the other people that were involved in the organization decided to go down. It was the greatest victory I’ve ever had as a coach, to be quite honest, when we went down there and we represented the New York Jets, their franchise and just the city of New York.
Your first game after the attacks was a 10-3 win over the New England Patriots. Can you describe the emotion going into that game?
I don’t think either coach — and I talked to Bill [Belichick] before the game — knew how we were going to play because we were still coming off [of the aftermath of the attacks]. No one knew the emotion of the fan base, whether it was with the New England fans that we were in their stadium, but with the Jets fans that were there as well. The embracing of just the whole situation. I can remember the flags and just all the red, white and blue, which is everything that represented America in a positive way. There wasn’t a dry eye in the stadium, to be quite honest, when they made introductions. I remember talking to the team before we went out. I said, “Guys, I don’t know how you are going to play today, I have no idea. I don’t know if we’re going to play good or play bad — doesn’t matter. You just play for all those that needed today and play for all those that are no longer here. That’s got to be the reason we’re playing today: to honor those folks.”
Congratulations on having a “A Football Life” episode [the NFL’s documentary series] airing about you this fall. Will 9/11 be one of the moments included in the episode?
Yeah, I would hope so. I think we talked about it a little bit because that will be a part of my coaching career. It’s kind of ironic. I’ve had to coach through 9/11 and I’ve had to coach through COVID. That’s not on any coach’s game plan, by the way.