Twenty minutes before midnight, Denard Robinson dropped back in the pocket and lofted a pass into the dark night sky.
Roy Roundtree made a beeline to the right sideline in the endzone. He turned, leapt and made the catch over Notre Dame cornerback Gary Gray. Touchdown.
A yellow penalty flag flew to the ground behind Roundtree, but it didn’t matter. The game was over.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, the first night game in Michigan Stadium history appropriately began and ended with a wind-blown flag.
Four hours earlier, just as the sun sank beneath the skyline on the stadium’s west side, an NCAA-record crowd of 114,804 rose to its feet, doffed its caps and faced the American flag being raised in the south endzone.
Each Big Ten school typically has a flag fly at the top of the Big House. But for this one night, the stadium staff replaced each with the nation’s flag — the red, white and blue.
And the bitter rivals turned away from each other and joined the crowd and Michigan Marching Band in singing a rendition of “God Bless America” before the national anthem.
God bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
A chorus of 114,804 in unison as the 18 names of Michigan graduates killed in the 9/11 attacks scrolled up the videoboards. It was humbling. It was beautiful. It was inspiring.
And a decade ago, that moment — the public and the players together — didn’t happen.
On Sept. 15, 2001, Lloyd Carr’s Michigan football team was slated to face Western Michigan at Michigan Stadium. In the aftermath of terror attacks centered on the East Coast, the game was postponed until the next week.
Sports, a topic of conversation any moment of any day, have always been an escape. And even they shut down. Major League Baseball stopped games for the first time since the D-Day invasion in 1944.
America was gripped by fear. People no longer felt as safe filing into a stadium, especially one the size of the Big House. Players felt Michigan Stadium could be a target.
So for a weekend, it all fell silent. Sports seemed trivial. The heartbeat stopped.
But out of the uncertainty, out of the fear, came a newfound national unity.
When the Wolverines readied for their postponed game against the Broncos, Carr brought his team out to the sideline to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” In previous home games, the team had stayed in the locker room, entering after the anthem was over.
Off the football field, some struggled to carry on.
Michigan men’s soccer coach Steve Burns, in his second year of coaching, took his team to Louisville for the weekend.
“It’s important for healing to begin and we need to return back to normalcy,” Burns said on Sept. 12, 2001. “Our players see a good thing of being together on the road — being able to take a mental break, to lean on each other and start the whole healing process.”
Two of his players knew people who were working near towers, but they were fortunate enough to survive.
Red Berenson, Michigan’s legendary hockey coach, knew two members of United Airlines Flight 175, the Boston-to-Los Angeles flight that was hijacked by five al-Qaeda terrorists and crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Centers.
He played with Garnet “Ace” Bailey, then-Director of Player Personnel for the Los Angeles Kings, during his years with the St. Louis Blues. Also on Flight 175 was Kings scout Mark Bavis, who played golf with Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers the week before.
They were going to training camp but never made it.
But Berenson didn’t want sports to cease. He wanted Michigan to play the football game that Saturday.
He remembered playing the Chicago Blackhawks on the night of President John Kennedy’s assassination.
“(The fans) went crazy that night like they wanted vengeance of some kind,” Berenson said.
“Sports can be a release for that.”
So when he saw the footage of the catastrophe in New York City, Berenson knew sports needed to be at the forefront of the recovery movement. His first order of business was to send his captains to the Red Cross, asking how they could get involved with donating blood.
The unity hasn’t died. The rivalries are just as fierce. The intensity hasn’t died down. But in the softer moments, the times of silence, America remembers the past.
The feeling is different now. Ten years later, sports are still a game, but that game is a pillar of the nation. It’s one that won’t crumble.
“It’s a show of unity, strength and resolve to go back (to playing) — the sooner the better,” Berenson said in 2001. “We can’t spend the rest of our life looking over our shoulders.”
When Notre Dame wide receiver Theo Riddick crossed the goal line with 30 seconds left to give the Fighting Irish its final lead, a man in Air Force regalia standing behind in the south endzone threw his hands into the air, jumping up and down like a kid.
Then came Robinson’s pass to Roundtree. The dagger.
The airman’s shoulder’s slumped forward. It’s just a game, but it’s his game.
Win or lose, it’s America’s distraction.
– Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.