Sep 10, 2021
Tom JunodESPN Senior Writer
YOU WOULD THINK they’d show some respect. You would think that the cops would, just once, refrain from breaking balls, given the solemnity of the occasion. But you know what? They don’t. And you know why? They’re cops. They’re ball-breakers by definition. And so even though it’s a solemn occasion and a sacred day — even though this year’s football game between the cops and the firemen, the Fun City Bowl, is dedicated to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 — the cops are mercilessly heckling the firemen. They’re heckling the very idea of the firemen, which is that they live together in firehouses and cook and clean for each other, that they take care of each other. “Hey, make me a f—ing sandwich!,” the cops in the stands yell at the firemen on the field. “Get me a cup of coffee!” Sure, the firemen on the other side of Met Life Stadium in New Jersey’s Meadowlands indulge in some heckling of their own, chanting “DUN-kin’ DO-nuts” over and over again, to remind the cops of all those hours they supposedly spend drinking coffee in their cruisers. But the firemen don’t get as personal as the cops do. They don’t pick out a player and ride him, by name, the entire game, the way the cops ride Joey Herman.
Joey Herman is 32 years old and a firefighter for the Fire Department of New York, the FDNY. He works at “The Nuthouse” in Bed-Stuy, Engine 214, Ladder 111. He’s also a wideout for The Bravest, which is the FDNY football team, locked since the game’s founding in 1973 in eternal struggle with The Finest, or the cops. He’d be the first to tell you that while the level of competition between the two teams leads to occasional bloodletting, the level of play is, shall we say, inconsistent — “let’s face it, it’s basically a glorified bar league.” But that’s beside the point. The point is that Joey, #13, can run routes, get open, catch the ball and then turn upfield…and on this day, the cops can’t stop him. The firemen run a spread offense, and though their quarterback throws three picks in the first half, he keeps chucking, Joey keeps catching and pretty soon there’s a little knot of cops in the stands trying to get in his head because their DBs sure can’t.
Now, understand, it’s still early June, but the heat has settled in like a fever and it’s, like, infernal at Met Life — so hot you worry that some beer-gutted warrior is going to die out there, so hot that most of the spectators cluster in the shade under the upper decks.
But the guys giving Joey the business stay right out in the sun, just a few rows up from the field. They want to be heard, and he can’t help but hear them, because first of all they’re relentless, singing, “JO-ey,” the way crowds used to sing, “DAR-ryllll” to Darryl Strawberry, and second, Joey’s not the kind of player who can tune them out. He’s a s–t-talker himself, self-described, and pretty soon, he’s standing there between snaps with his hands on his hips, craning his neck for a peek into the stands, thinking of comebacks, until he hears someone yell, “Don’t do it, Joey!” and it’s not coming from the hecklers. It’s coming from a coach for The Finest, who knows him and the kind of trouble he can get into, and that snaps him back. Late in the game, The Bravest is close to the end zone, and Joey gets open on an out, but the quarterback throws low and the ball skips into Joey’s hands. He catches all kinds of hell for that — “That was your chance, Joey, that was your chance!” — but then they run the play again, and this time, the quarterback makes the throw, Joey makes the catch and it’s done. The firemen win the game, and Joey runs straight for the stands and drops the ball right in the lap of the loudest heckler, who finally has nothing to say.
It’s a beautiful flourish, an artistic signature, and after the game, at the tailgate party in the parking lot with the trays of catered Italian delicacies, the garbage cans full of beer, the big PA system blasting “Fire” by the Ohio Players and the verklempt firemen swaying arm in arm singing “The Wild Rover” whether they’re Irish or not, Joey’s jumper to shut up the cops is as revered as his catch to win the game. But as I wade through the celebration, there’s a question I need to ask: “Why did those cops ride Joey so hard in the first place? It was like they knew him or something.”
“Well,” says one of the firemen, with a shrug that does all the heavy lifting. “There’s like this thing, with Joey.”
“Yeah. Like, a thing.”
“What kind of thing?”
Another shrug. “You’re gonna have to ask Joey.”
IN THE PARKING lot at Met Life, you have a choice between roast beef and mixed Italian meats for your hero at the tailgate, and firemen and cops for your company. I chose the firemen, in part because the firemen told me to (“go over and try getting a sandwich from the cops”) and also because they felt closest to the story I was trying to write.
I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island’s Nassau County, in the town of Wantagh, where folks who knew me then still call me “Tommy.” It’s the suburbs of New York City, a place where how something is said is as important as what is said, where people welcome you by breaking your balls a little bit, where the prevailing conversational style is at once deadpan and operatically over-the-top, where everybody’s got a complaint and everybody’s a comedian. Long Island has always been the home of cops and firemen, but after 9/11 it became the home of fallen heroes, cops and firemen whose glory was emblematic of how a national tragedy is also, of course, very much a local one. If most of us remember 9/11 on 9/11, on its 20th anniversary in places like Wantagh, they’re never allowed — never able — to forget it, every day, for 20 years and counting.
I went to the Fun City Bowl not just to remember, but to spend time among people who didn’t have the luxury of forgetting. I went to find out not just how they remember, but how they expect to keep remembering. I went to find out what they know about how the living might honor the dead. I decided to hang out with the firemen because they were just as generous with their food and their conversation as they promised they would be, and also because their loss on 9/11 was consummate. I wound up rooting hard for them, perpetual underdogs in the grudge game, but the afternoon grew so hot that eventually I walked over to the police side of the field to find a place near the stands and out of the sun. And it was over there, as I started clinging to the concrete wall ringing the field for its little sliver of shadow, that I began hearing the cluster of cops heckling Joey Herman. I wasn’t even looking for them.
THERE’S A GROUP of firemen, shiny-scalped guys with pink faces, white horseshoe mustaches and surgery-stiffened gaits mostly, who call themselves The Alumni. They used to play for The Bravest. They played for The Bravest when The Bravest needed them most. And they all have one thing in common, which is that they’re alive and some of their best friends are not. They either didn’t work that September morning or they were at some command post on the outside looking in when the buildings came down. These are the stories they tell — the stories of 20 years ago. The stories of the ones who went in, went into the towers that other people were fleeing, went up when other people were trying to get down. The stories of what they saw, what they knew would see, in the eyes of those who put on their gear and headed for the stairs — not fear exactly, but foreknowledge, submission to duty, to fate. The stories of the 343 firefighters who died. And God help anyone in the department who doesn’t know the number.
When the buildings collapsed, The Alumni went in search of the guys who went in — they went into the Pile when it was still burning and smoking, optimistic at first. But all they found was the settled silence of humans who no longer existed except in ruined air. Most of them wound up working the Bucket Brigade, passing buckets hand to hand that went in empty and came back with human flesh in fragmentary form. They would stop all work on the Pile until the buckets were evacuated, saluting as they went by.
One of The Alumni is a guy called Mike Heffernan. Heff. He was a firefighter in the FDNY in 2001, and #13 for The Bravest. He didn’t go to work that day because it was his baby daughter Mariah’s very first day of school and he wanted to be with her. He was heading out to the yard to take a picture of his wife Irene and Mariah when he saw what was happening on TV. He told Irene to come back inside. Then he told her that he had to go.
“No,” she said. “I already lost my first husband. I’m not losing you.”
Irene’s first husband, Jeff Herman, was a cop who had been shot and killed in the line of duty when he was 25 — when his son Joey, now Heff’s step-son, was just three months old.
“They don’t need you,” Irene said. “They can pick anyone. What do they need you for?”
“If you make me get in the car,” Heff said, “I’m going to jump out on the way.”
“I didn’t see him for days,” she remembers now.
Twenty-two players on The Bravest were killed on 9/11, seven of them active and fifteen alumni. When the game was next played, in October 2002, every surviving player came back and suited up. Guys in their 40s played. Guys who’d been out of the game 10 years. It was like the Miracle of the Freaking Loaves and Fishes. By kickoff, there were more than 80 guys on the roster. Of course, some of them couldn’t run 10 yards without falling down, but that didn’t stop them from playing, and that didn’t stop the cops from putting the usual beating on them.
They’ll tell you they hate the cops, whom they never — in my hearing anyway — call The Finest, but only “the cops.” They can still quote some of the speeches of Pudgie Walsh, the team’s founder and longtime coach, who used to tell them the Fun City Bowl was “the one day of the year you can punch a cop in the face and not be arrested.” But mainly he used to appeal to the pride they had in the very things the cops mock them for — the fact that they live and work and eat together in firehouses, the fact that they make the f—ing sandwiches. The cops, he used to say, were envious of them for their teamwork and their very way of life. “No cop has ever had to clear the hallway” of a burning building, he used to bark before his men took the field. “Now go out and clear that hallway!”
I TAKE A walk among the cops. There are more of them than there are firemen, which is no surprise, since the NYPD employs 20,000 more people than the FDNY. But that’s not why they had taken a much bigger area of the parking lot. The firemen had told me what to expect, that the cops weren’t going to have a big tent where everybody could gather; no, they’d be spread out all over the place, each to their own, each like their own freaking municipality, because the thing about cops is that they’re lone wolves, responsible only to their own partners, while firemen have to be responsible to a whole house. I walk under one “thin blue line” flag after another, those black-barred effigies of the old red-white-and-blue, and I have the distinct feeling that I’m scouting the edges of an army. I come back to the Alumni tent where, of course, a guy is slicing hero sandwiches as long as a ping pong table in a finished basement in Speonk. I choose the Italian mixed meats over the roast beef with American cheese, and watch the Alumni member cutting slice after slice with a long, serrated knife. I watch him for a while, admiring his industrial level of organization, and say, like a rube: “That’s a lot of slices.”
A pause. Then a shrug. “You don’t slice it, they don’t eat it,” he says, in a voice I recognize from growing up. He hands me my portion on a paper plate.
It’s when I’m eating at the long tables under the tent that I see a man whose blue eyes brim with an unsettling combination of vigilance and resignation. He’s not an Alum. He’s older than that, with the long forks of his mustache snow white and both of his hands gripping a cane. He’s wearing shorts, but he has a banked ferocity about him that makes him resemble a biker or a pirate. Out in the parking lot, before the 4 p.m. start of the game, a painting is being unveiled that presents all 22 players for The Bravest who died on 9/11 in the same frame. They were not all teammates; they played at different times, for different iterations of the team. But the painting unites them, as though they are all on the same roster, in their red home jerseys, like a photograph of a magic trick. There are prints that the families receive, and there are speeches before and after the presentation. But I can’t take my eyes off the formidable man with his hands folded on the knob of his cane, and I ask who he is. “Oh, that’s Mr. Bielfeld,” says one of the Alums. “His son Peter is in the painting.”
I walk over and introduce myself to 86-year-old Ernie Bielfeld, “Mister” to you, me and everyone else. He pats a place on the bench and bids me to sit down. When I ask if I can speak to him about his son, he says “What do you want to know? My son Peter was deceased on 9/11. He was a good kid. Different. Very caring. But he loved to play football and he loved to hit people.”
“I’ve heard that from some of his teammates,” I say.
“Oh, yeah? Well, that’s nice of them. But Peter was deceased — murdered — on 9/11. My wife died on January 1 of COVID in a nursing home. We were married 57 years. I’ll talk to you about them anytime. But I don’t know what else to say.”
His wife had died of COVID-19. His son was deceased, which meant that he was murdered, which explained the unremitting outrage in Mr. Bielfeld’s patient blue eyes.
THERE’S A 2015 New York Daily News story about Jeff Herman, a New York City policeman who died on June 2, 1989 after being shot in the leg and chest answering a domestic violence call. He was in his fifth year on the job, and ever since his death the NYPD has worked, according to the article, to “keep his memory alive” for his son. Now his son, the article says, has been given the honor of honoring him, given the honor of breaking a bottle of champagne across the bow of a boat christened “The Jeff Herman,” which, at 70 feet long, would be the largest in the NYPD’s harbor fleet. “He’s back on patrol,” is how the story begins, before it quotes Joey Herman saying that “my life is just continuous pride and honor to my Dad,” and ends with the news that he, Jeff Herman’s son, has decided to join the fire department.
JOEY’S STEPFATHER, MIKE Heffernan, grew up in a civil-service family. His mother, born in Ireland, demanded that her American sons take every civil-service test that the government offered because she believed they offered an avenue of escape from a life of labor. Mike’s brother John took a test and became a postman. Mike took a test and became a cop. He also played for The Finest, #10, which is how he met Irene Herman. She was a widow with a little boy she had raised herself, with the help of the NYPD. She was 29 when she married him and 36 when their daughter was born. She was pleased that both her children called him Dad.
Heff liked police work. He especially liked answering 911 calls and meeting the people who made them. But a lot of folks in New York didn’t like cops, and he didn’t like being disliked, whether on the streets or in the office suites of his commanding officers. He wanted to trust and he wanted to be trusted, and so when the FDNY ended a hiring freeze he and his brother were grateful that their mother had made them take the test. John the postman and punk-rock guitarist became a fireman in 1993 and Mike the cop and slot receiver for The Finest joined him a year later. “It was,” he says, “an immediate upgrade in my quality of life.” But he still had to adjust to life in the firehouse and Irene still had to adjust to life without the institution that had come to her aid when her husband died. “It was all I ever knew,” she says.
Heff was too late to go in and go up when he arrived at Ground Zero on 9/11. He arrived at a ruin, so he began doing what everyone else did — what everyone else thought they could do — and looked for survivors. It was as pure a fulfillment of firehouse culture as any fireman could imagine but it was also a matter of time before he ran into another fireman who knew more than he did. He met some of the men who worked with his brother John at 1-1 Truck; in fact, he met John’s captain. “I asked him if my brother had been working,” Mike says. “He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t comprehend that he’s going to have to tell his brother that his brother’s dead. But I was right in front of him. He knew exactly who I was, and it floored him. He never even spoke.”
A month later, John’s remains were found. A year later, Heff returned to football, #13 for The Bravest. Joey had been a waterboy when Heff played for the cops. Now he was the ballboy for the firemen. Thirteen years old and a veteran of both sides of the divide. In the footsteps of two fathers. Member of two tribes. Remembering one and riding with another, trying to honor each of them. Aching to know what his own path could or should be.
And that, even back then, was Joey’s thing.
FORGET? YOU’VE GOT to be kidding me. They’re not allowed to forget. They’re told to remember, trained to remember, ordered to remember, because you can’t build a culture of sacrifice without building a culture of memory. The FDNY is both, and so in the lobby of the headquarters building in Brooklyn is the name of every fireman who has died in the line of duty since the department’s creation in 1865. On the wall of every firehouse are plaques dedicated to every fireman who went to a fire — who “got work,” as the saying goes — and didn’t come back. With every death, there are full-dress funerals, and every October there is FDNY Memorial Day. And each summer there is the Fun City Bowl and, of course, for the last 20 years, there are the solemn September 11 rites at Ground Zero.
Over the course of the last season, the two head coaches for The Bravest, John Rosati and Steve Orr, felt the burden of that history, of sustaining those memories. It wasn’t simply that it was their last season, that they were retiring. It wasn’t simply that they were painfully aware of how much time had passed since 9/11 because they were painfully aware of what time had done to their roster and how many men had come and gone. No, it was that the players they were coaching now were children when thousands of Americans perished in New York and Washington and the fields of western Pennsylvania. How can those who never knew remember those who must not be forgotten?
The team has some traditions that help the rookies learn about the rituals and players who came before them. This season, there were a lot of rookies — 22, in fact, the same number as the number of the hallowed 9/11 dead — and they had to get their balls broken and they had to put on a rookie show and when they went on the road for their National Public Safety League games, they had to watch the DVD of “The Bravest Football Team,” which NFL Films made when Orr’s hair was turning gray instead of frosty white. But then one of the rookies, a defensive back named Mike Silva, had an idea. He talked to his fellow rookies about giving a surprise to Rosati and Orr before they departed, to reassure them that their team and their legacy were in good hands. They had a team lunch the day before they played The Finest, and one by one each rookie stood up and testified about a player he never knew and never would know but now was called upon to remember and represent. And these guys, these kids? They did the work. They did the research. They went to the firehouses where the 22 men made the sandwiches and put on the gear that gave them the crazy idea they could run into burning buildings, they talked to the captains and even some family members, but most of all they listened to the stories, which they then told as if they were their own. And all those players had stories. And all those players had lives. And all those players had names. And in that the moment, at that lunch, Thomas Haskell, Jr, Timothy Stackpole, Charles Margiotta, Christopher Sullivan, Daniel O’Callaghan, Stephen Belson, John Bergin, Brian Bilcher, Salvatore Calabaro, Michael Cawley, Tarel Coleman, Thomas Cullen III, Thomas Foley, Andre Fletcher, John Florio, Keith Glascoe, William Johnston, Patrick Lyons, Tom Mingione, Durrell Pearsall, Daniel Suhr and Peter Bielfeld, who loved football and loved to hit, came back to life, though all of them were deceased 20 years ago.
JOEY HERMAN HAD no memories of Jeff Herman. Jeff died when Joey was three months old, so Joey had to do the work and learn about him. He learned that Jeff didn’t play football but was a gym rat — “a muscle head,” as Joey says. He learned that Jeff was a pool shark who kept a custom cue in his police locker. But mostly, he learned that Jeff was a good cop, solid and honest, and that he didn’t deserve to die.
Joey never minded doing that kind of work, never minded that he had to hear about a man he never knew from the people who knew him. What bothers him, even now, is that Jeff never knew him during those early years — that no man did. “You know how you get a dog and you always remember what he was like as a puppy?” he says. “Well, I was a puppy back then and no man got to see it. My mom did — it was just me and her for five years and that’s a long time. But Jeff didn’t get to see it and neither did Mike. And so the feelings are hard to juggle. My mom did a kicka– job of raising me and so did Mike. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder what I’d be like if Jeff had raised me — if he’d been around when I was a pup.”
Feelings are hard to juggle when you know you’re not supposed to feel them; thoughts are hard to juggle when you know you’re not supposed to think them. Joey grew up knowing he wasn’t supposed to feel what he felt and think what he thought. He was supposed to be happy. It had all worked out for both of them, hadn’t it? His mother had a husband who loved her. He had a step-father who loved him and treated him as his own. And yet the culture of memory, NYPD-style, never stopped or even slowed down. “I went to so many events that I got to know police commissioners by their first names,” he says, and though they thought they were doing him a service — though they were doing him a service — by never letting him forget Jeff Herman, they were also dividing his loyalties and splitting his allegiances.
And so he joined teams. He wasn’t just good at sports; sports answered his need to be part of something without having to wonder if he was betraying something or somebody else. When he was on a team, he could be a teammate, and so for years sports was all he did, all he wanted to do, especially once he picked up a lacrosse stick. He became that kid, the kid whose stick was like a new appendage. He didn’t start playing lacrosse until he was in high school but he was an All-American twice in college, first at New York Tech and then again at Nassau Community. Unfortunately, he was no student — as his mother says, “Joey chose not to excel in college” — and by the time he was 24 he was working as an unskilled laborer in New York City construction gangs. He had left himself no choice but do what he had been putting off his entire life:
He was going to have to choose.
IT WAS AN impossible choice but also an easy one. He should have been a cop. In fact, it was like he was already a cop, already in — there were cops who told him that all he had to do when he took the test was put his name at the top and he could go anywhere he wanted. Anywhere he wanted? Hell, he knew where he wanted to go if he turned out to be a cop just as he knew what kind of cop he wanted to be. He wanted to be a cop in Bed-Stuy. And he wanted to be just like Jeff Herman. Just like his father.
And yet he heard what he was saying to himself and he knew how he sounded — which is to say that he knew how he would sound to Irene Heffernan. “I wanted to become a cop but I never told my mom because I knew what it would do to her,” he said. “She means everything to me and I didn’t want to break her heart. Was she going to worry about me if I became a fireman? Sure. But it’s different. Heff was a fireman and he still comes through the front door. Heff was a fireman and he’s still a fireman. Heff was a fireman and he’s still alive.”
So Joey went about becoming a fireman by not becoming a cop. He didn’t take the NYPD test he’d been assured of passing. A year after he christened the biggest boat in the NYPD’s fleet “The Jeff Herman,” he took the FDNY test instead and the first person to call him when the scores came in was Mike Heffernan. “He said, ‘You got 100! If you want it, you got it, you can go anywhere you want, the ball’s in your court, just keep your head down and your nose clean and stay out of trouble.’ And that was it for me. I was like, ‘I’m going to be a fireman. I’m going to follow in his footsteps.” Just like his father.
When it came right down to it, he couldn’t quite see himself as a cop anyway. “I see them all the time and whenever I do I look at them and how they hold themselves and they’re so official, so militaristic, with their guns, their pepper spray and their tasers. And that’s so not me. That’s so not my vibe.” What Joey actually is, he says, he has had to learn from living in the firehouse and putting out fires. “I’m a teammate,” he says, “and I’m playing the sickest sport. Cops sometimes have to run after guys in the street and tackle them. I respect that. But is that a sport? I run into burning buildings with a bunch of guys who all have to do their jobs or we don’t survive. Now that’s a sport — the ultimate sport. It’s the biggest rush I’ve ever had.”
On his job, he wears badge number 6289, to remember the day his father Jeff died. On the field, he wears the number 13, in tribute to his father Heff taking him to The Bravest games as a ballboy. He can sound like a divided man, and he still hears cops ask, “How could you be on their side? You’re with us. You’re one of us.” But after the Fun City Bowl, after he scored the touchdown and delivered the ball to his hecklers, he sounds like a kid from the neighborhood, ball-breaker born and made:
“I hate the cops,” he says.
A FEW DAYS after The Bravest beat The Finest, 20-14, a woman named Kathy Vigiano contacted Irene Heffernan. She said that she had gone to the game and had sat near her sons as they heckled Joey. She said that when the game was over, she looked up Joey Herman on the Internet and then she asked her sons if they knew anything about the player they’d heckled. They didn’t. Well, he’s another line-of-duty kid, she told them.
Joey wound up calling her. He had not really cared about who was heckling him as much as he cared about how he dealt with the hecklers — he’d been living off the way he dropped the ball in the guy’s lap for weeks. But the Vigianos? He was heckled by the Vigianos? It was like getting heckled by Fighting Sullivans. They were legendary. Their grandfather, John Vigiano, Sr., was a fireman dating back to the ’60s. Their father Joe Vigiano was a detective in the 7-5 who survived three shootings, and their uncle John Vigiano Jr. fought fires for 11 years in the FDNY. They were both killed on 9/11. The three sons Joe had with his wife Kathy were aged eight, six and three months at the time. When director Steven Spielberg found out that the oldest, Joe Jr, had dreams of becoming a paleontologist, he sent him a triceratops vertebra from “Jurassic Park,” but all the boys eventually followed the family tradition: Joey becoming a cop, Jimmy joining the Marines then graduating the Police Academy and the youngest, Johnny, planning to become a firefighter. Hell, Kathy Vigiano met Joe when she herself was a cop in the 7-5 and now she headed a lobbying organization for the families of cops killed in action. The Vigianos? Of course Joey was going to call the Vigianos, just to see why they had picked him to pick on.
He figured they knew him. He figured that they might be the kind of cops who think he flipped when he went to the firehouse — he gets that sometimes, some joker calling him a traitor. They had to know him because they were calling his name, they were speaking directly to him. But Kathy assured him that her boys knew nothing about him except that the cops couldn’t find a defensive back to stop him. They heckled him because they had to — and so the heckling was a form of respect. And when they found out that his father had also been murdered, well, he was one of them, one of the children of the slain.
Joey, s–t-talker from way back, loves to say he hates the cops. But Joey doesn’t hate the cops. How could he hate the cops? He so loved a cop, whose short life he remembers by putting out fires.
I’M NOT FROM there anymore. I live in Atlanta, Georgia, where 9/11 is a settled memory rather than a fresh wound, useful primarily for political arguments. But I go back to Long Island every year, and when I do I never fail to see the resolute command, the stern admonition, the desperate plea: “Never Forget.” And so I set out to write a story about never forgetting an event that, with its 20th anniversary, is on the edge of being subsumed into history.
See, there’s this thing with “Never Forget,” too, and the thing is this: It started appearing on bumper stickers and posters on pizza parlor walls almost as soon as the planes crashed and the buildings fell and the people died. It started appearing when the days and the unbearable carnage were impossible to forget. It was an expression of rage as much as it was a declaration of resolve, and beneath the imperative it contained an anxiety. But going to the Fun City Bowl reminded me that people there are in no danger of forgetting because what happened on September 11, 2001 wasn’t really a memory there — it was more like an amputation, something you wish you could forget but instead must live with. You have no choice in the matter, because you have to manage the prosthesis and you have to go to physical therapy and you have to stay away from the pain pills. It’s not something you talk about every day, but it’s something your kids have to see every day with terror and pride, and something maybe their kids dare to ask you about, when they’re sitting on your knee. That’s where the memory comes in — when you tell the story and try to reassure them, try to reassure yourself, that they can’t inherit your limp, only your resolve.
I talked to lot of people in the course of doing this story, and they had an inexhaustible supply of memories, testimonies, enduring witness. But that’s not where 9/11 lives in them, not exactly. It lives in their bodies, their grimaces, the glare in their eyes, the things they can’t control, how much they drink, how determinedly they try not to, how tears come to their eyes when they’re laughing and vice versa, how 9/11 is the only thing they don’t break balls about, how they still get waylaid by stories that they’ve told 100 times. When Mike Heffernan told me how he warned Irene he’d jump out of the car, she was on the phone with him and I heard her realize all over again that, oh my god, he really means it. When Mr. Bielfeld told me that Peter had been killed on 9/11, I heard him figure out a way to say it that delivered sentence on those who killed him — “my son Peter was deceased…was murdered…” These are not optional adjustments, because nothing about 9/11 was optional, at least for the first generation of Americans who had to endure it.
Joey Herman is from the second generation in that he was in school that day — and what he remembers was the kindness and care of the teacher who broke the news to his class. He once had a father who went to work and never came home and now he had a father who went to work and stayed late because he was searching for any part of his brother that might prove conclusive in the matter of identity. Sure Joey spent 9/11 watching 9/11 on TV — but does that mean he didn’t experience it? Does that mean he’s somehow removed from it, him of all people? He’s a guy who spends every day trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, a guy with two fathers who loves each and fears betraying both, a guy who has to split the difference between two opposing clans, a guy who fears that the choices he fears making were choices made for him before he was even born. You know what? He’ll never figure it all out. But then, he doesn’t have to, because he’s got enough trouble with the limp he inherited. He’s doing an incredible job with it, making sure people never see. But it’s never easy, it’s never anything but hard and he carries it around with him — he’s reminded of it — even when, on the football field, nobody can cover him.
When I learned that the people heckling Joey were the Vigianos, I figured he had led me to them — had led me to a 9/11 story that was about a family that had accepted the legacy of their slain father and uncle with such determined dispatch that they’d become symbolic figures of memorial. But in truth what the Vigianos did with their heckling was make me notice Joey Herman, #13 for The Bravest, who had a thing.