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Twenty years after 9/11 shook the nation, its aftershocks are still being felt. In college football — a sport that had just launched its season when the terrorist attacks brought it to an abrupt halt — coaches and former players say they continue to be shaped by it both on and off the field.
From the first game back between South Carolina and Mississippi State to a coach’s true calling card to paying tribute to those lost, here are five stories that recall the lasting effect of the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Charlie Skalaski’s path back to football
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Charlie Skalaski sat down inside the University of Florida football staff room one morning in mid-July and considered a time two decades earlier when he would have been 1,000 miles away in a posh sixth-floor office overlooking Central Park. Life then was comfortable and busy, so busy he didn’t stop and consider whether any of it — he was working as a senior executive at a large corporation and doing quite well for himself — was what he really wanted.
He never would have come back here — back to his alma mater, back to football, back to what he said has always been his life’s purpose — if not for that tragic day 20 years ago when he was working in New York City and watched as the World Trade Center fell.
This second lease on life, he said, never would have happened.
“I don’t think I had the guts to take myself out of it,” he said. “I was a coward.”
Now 64 years old and the director of player personnel at Florida, he can still hear the panic in his wife’s voice when she called to check on him that day. He had plans to go downtown, which meant he’d take one of two subway lines — one that would let out two blocks from Wall Street or one that emptied at the World Trade Center.
He never got on the subway.
His assistant called him back to the office just as he was about to head down to the platform. She told him a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers, but they assumed it was an accident, a small prop plane that had lost control. But when they realized it was a commercial jet, the gravity started to sink in. Skalaski called security to shut down the building. The first tower fell. It was traumatic, he said.
His company brought in psychologists to counsel employees. They recommended letting everyone go home early for the next few months to spend more time with their families.
So for the first time in a long time, Skalaski would see his 10-year-old son play football. He went out to practice in their neighborhood of Ridgewood, New Jersey, one day when a woman approached him and made small talk. She asked who his son was and if Skalaski had ever played football. He had, he said. He was a defensive back at Florida in the 1970s and a graduate assistant under then-assistant coaches Mike Shanahan and Steve Spurrier.
The next day, he received an unexpected call.
“Hey, Charlie,” the caller said. “This is Chuck Johnson, coach at Ridgewood High School. Would you consider helping us out?”
More than 10 people in Ridgewood had died in the attack on the World Trade Center — two of them were volunteer coaches.
Skalaski started out as the junior varsity defensive coordinator. They played on Thursday and Saturday nights. Each week, he’d invite players over to the house for dinner.
Six weeks in, he looked around and asked himself, “What have I done?” All those years he had spent climbing the ladder — when this was the life he had wanted all along.
“I get emotional talking about it,” he said, “but this is what I was meant to do all along — this is what God put me on Earth to do. So much of my life I’m a success in the world’s eyes, flying private jets. But I’m miserable.”
A religious man, he looks back on 9/11 as a wake-up call. He was scared to make such a drastic life change, but he remembered a time a decade earlier when he put his other dream of working in the FBI on hold, eventually aging out of the ability to enter the training courses.
He was determined not to let that happen again.
The following summer, he used his vacation time to coach two-a-days at Ridgewood High. He took a severance package to leave his job that October and told his wife he had a new plan: get into coaching.
She thought he was having a midlife crisis but played along, telling him he had three months to find a job.
After hundreds of unreturned letters and phone calls, Skalaski found a last-minute opportunity at Liberty. With a straight face, he had to tell his wife that he wasn’t going to accept the six-figure offers he had for sales positions. He was going to Lynchburg, Virginia, to coach tight ends for $40,000 a year — a far cry from what he was making before.
None of this happens without her support and understanding, he said. He doesn’t spend 10 years at Liberty. He doesn’t get hired as assistant to the head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL. He doesn’t go to Eastern Kentucky and Charlotte and get a call from Dan Mullen to return to his alma mater, where he’s now part of a vast personnel department that last year signed the No. 10-ranked class in college football, according to ESPN.
Looking back, he sees the signs pushing him back to football. Like when he committed to Liberty and his house sold in less than 24 hours. Or when he was driving to LaGuardia Airport in New York to interview for the job, second-guessing himself the entire way, and Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” came on the radio.
“Never settle for the path of least resistance; Livin’ might mean takin’ chances, but they’re worth takin’.”
Tears rolled down his face.
This is what he was always meant to do, he said. He just needed to stop and find a way back to Gainesville, back to the game he loves.
— Alex Scarborough
Life outside football
Charlton Warren had just made first lieutenant and was at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia, leading a program to reconfigure the cockpits of C-130 cargo aircraft all over the world.
Once a teenager who had never been on an airplane, it was almost a world away from where he was when he took his official visit to the Air Force, a visit that ended up changing his life, eventually leading him to Indiana, where he’s now the defensive coordinator.
Warren fell in love with the aura at Air Force — the mission to serve others appealed to him in a way nothing else did — so it’s where he decided to play college ball. He lettered three years as a defensive back (1996-98), and then he moved on to his military career.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Warren and his team were going over the plans of the next wave of cockpit makeovers when there was a loud banging at the door. A colonel left the room, but nobody thought anything of it and the meeting continued.
When the colonel returned, he told everyone the meeting was over, and he sent them back to their areas on base without any explanation. Warren, and those in the room with him, had no idea what was going on. It was not until Warren started walking back to his station, looking at the faces around him and the television screens ahead, that he realized something terrible had happened.
As he glanced at a TV, he saw the second airplane hit the World Trade Center. Sirens started blaring. The entire base went on lockdown.
“Your heart breaks for the people that are in these situations, and when it comes out as an act of terror, the anger fills you up,” Warren said in a recent telephone conversation. “I flipped into, ‘What are we going to do about it? What’s next? How can I help? What can we do?'”
Eventually, the lockdown lifted late that night on Sept. 11. But from then on, Warren knew he had to do something. Because of the program he was involved in, Warren did not think he would be deployed overseas to fight. But he did what he considered to be the next best thing: A year and a half later, he asked to move to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to participate in a joint program with the Navy to help create 500-pound joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs) to aid in the war in Iraq.
The goal was to load up each B-2 with 80 JDAMs, giving the bombers the ability to hit 80 different targets on one mission. Warren said a weapon like this takes five to seven years to develop, but they got it done in a much shorter amount of time, with help from Boeing as well.
“To be able to put that weapon out there, which I knew would have an effect on what was going on over there, was my way of contributing,” Warren said. “You couldn’t tell anybody what you were doing, but you knew what you were doing would help one day.”
Warren eventually found his way into coaching after his former Air Force coach, Fisher DeBerry, asked him to give it a shot in 2005. After several stops along the way, Warren is in his first year with the Hoosiers, and he is offering a completely different perspective on football.
“I want to beat everybody, but I’m not going to live and die on every rep or practice,” Warren said. “Football is super important, but there are people losing their lives every day in service of this country, and they do it because they’re willing. I was willing to be in the military, and I was willing to do it for 10 years. It grounded me. It has given me a broader perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win. But when you talk to these players, you give them a bigger picture of life outside of just toting a ball or just tackling a guy.”
— Andrea Adelson
Reflecting on the first college football game played post-9/11
Jackie Sherrill remembers all the extra security, the natural concerns of his players during the week and simply wondering what it would feel like playing in the first Division I-A college football game following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“It was far from a normal week. Our country had just been attacked … on American soil,” Sherrill, then the Mississippi State head coach, recently recalled.
But Sherrill had to get a football team ready to play nine days after those attacks and said the way the two teams and fans came together that Thursday night on Sept. 20, 2001, at Davis-Wade Stadium is something he will always remember. All of the college football games from the previous Saturday (Sept. 15) were postponed, and there were countless conversations and meetings about whether the Mississippi State-South Carolina game, already scheduled for that following Thursday, should be played.
Sherrill said the White House even got involved and, in conjunction with then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, felt like it was important to play the game, which was broadcast on ESPN.
The final score, a 16-14 South Carolina win over Mississippi State, was almost an afterthought. It was the emotional and surreal scene before the game that has endured all these years later.
“I think there was a healing process that night for a lot of people, just that we were able to play on and the terrorists weren’t going to keep this country down,” Sherrill said.
A huge American flag was draped across the field, and the Mississippi State and South Carolina players held it together. Mississippi State’s band played “America the Beautiful,” and after its playing, the crowd began chanting, “U-S-A, U-S-A.”
Sherrill’s daughter, Bonnie, then sang the national anthem. A teenager at the time, Sherrill says jokingly he had to persuade then-Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton to let her do it.
“A lot of the professional entertainers won’t sing the national anthem because there’s a delay, an echo while you’re singing it, that really makes it difficult,” Sherrill said. “But she was great and really nailed that high note. I was one proud father.”
And before the start of the game, the band played “God Bless America,” as fans, coaches and players all sang together.
“It was a good, hard-fought game, and both teams played with a lot of pride,” Sherrill said. “I’m glad that we could play a small part in getting our country back up and moving again from that terrible day.”
— Chris Low
How Dave Clawson gained a larger appreciation for life
Every Sept. 11, Dave Clawson’s mind somberly drifts back to his little office at Fordham University in the North Bronx.
It’s a day that still tugs at his heart and offers the kind of perspective that is often hard to find in big-time college athletics.
Clawson, in his eighth season as Wake Forest’s head football coach, was coaching at Fordham 20 years ago when the attacks occurred at the Twin Towers.
“We’re close enough that you could see the black smoke,” Clawson said recently, his voice trailing off.
The entire campus was gripped with fear. Students were afraid to come out of their dorm rooms.
For two hours, Clawson was holed up in his office with the door closed, television on and hitting speed dial on both his office phone and cellphone, frantically trying to reach his sister, Kathy, who worked on the 92nd floor of the second tower.
“I did it nonstop, hoping and praying that she would pick up,” Clawson said.
Then he watched with horror as the second plane hit.
“My heart sunk. I remember thinking, ‘If she’s at work, she’s dead,'” Clawson said.
Finally, Clawson got a call from his parents. His sister was alive. Her commuter train that morning was late, and as she arrived amid all the chaos of the first tower being hit, her instincts told her to go back home. She got the last subway out of Ground Zero.
“Just about all of her coworkers who went to their offices that day died,” Clawson said. “She would go to birthday parties with our children when they were little, and it would be a 9/11 widow and her three children.
“Those are things you just don’t forget.”
Similarly, Clawson will never forget Nick Brandemarti, one of his former players at Fordham who died in the attacks. Brandemarti had just started his career as an investment banker with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods and worked on the 89th floor of the South Tower.
“You kept hoping that you would hear something, that he was OK,” Clawson said. “All the cellphone towers were jammed, and you couldn’t get a call in or out. He called his mom and said that they were trying to get out. But as the days passed, you knew he didn’t.”
Every year, Clawson posts something on social media about Brandemarti, who had his football career cut short by a concussion after persevering for four years and winning the starting fullback job. He remained with the team as a student assistant coach, and he asked Clawson if they could meet every week.
— Dave Clawson (@CoachClawson) September 11, 2019
“We set aside a half-hour every Wednesday,” Clawson said. “We talked about the team, about leadership, about life, everything. We became very close.”
In fact, Brandemarti was the only former player who made it back for the final scrimmage in 2001 heading into Clawson’s third season at Fordham, which had gone 0-11 and 3-8 in his first two seasons.
“There was a little alley between our practice field and our game field, and my office was off that alley,” Clawson said. “I can remember breaking down the team after the scrimmage, and Nick was waiting there for me. We started walking together and I told him how much I appreciated him coming back and that it meant a lot to me. Nick looked at me and said, ‘Well, Coach, you know I love you,’ and I said, ‘Nick, I love you, too, man.’
“Those are the last words I ever said to him.”
Within two weeks, Brandemarti was gone.
Now when Clawson visits New York City, he makes it a point to visit the Ground Zero Memorial.
“I always go over to Nick’s engraved name and put my hands over it,” Clawson said. “It was a short life, but certainly a life well lived.”
On a 1,800-mile walk of advocacy, Greg Washington is honoring those suffering and lost
Greg Washington remembers looking into Emily Perez’s eyes when they learned about the 9/11 attacks while sitting in class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Washington, then a freshman linebacker for Army, had bonded with Perez and another first-year cadet, Scottie Pace, after arriving at the academy. That day, Washington told Perez and Pace that he would always have their backs.
“I couldn’t keep that promise,” Washington said.
Perez, a 2005 West Point graduate who became the highest-ranking Black female cadet in academy history, was killed Sept. 12, 2006, in Iraq. She was the first Black female officer to die in the war and the first West Point graduate of the “Class of 9/11” to die in combat. Pace became a captain and a troop commander, but he died in 2012 when the helicopter he was piloting crashed in Afghanistan after being hit by Taliban fire.
“I believe a person dies twice: Once in a physical form, and the last time their name is spoken,” Washington said.
And to that end, Washington, a two-time football captain at Army who shares the team record for career tackles for loss (23), began an 1,800-mile walk to West Point in New York to honor his friends killed in combat and other military members struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He embarked on the walk in April, starting in Mississippi, progressing through the Southeast and continuing up the East Coast.
“This has been my way of honoring them, and also honoring those who are struggling with [suicidal thoughts], who are fighting, to keep on fighting,” Washington said.
Washington first considered raising awareness about veteran suicide after a former Army teammate, Gregory Gallup, took his own life in September 2020. After tours in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2008 to 2010, Washington reached his own low point before a cousin called him.
“That one phone call is what saved my life,” Washington said. “I’ve been promoting other people to do these check-ins, because you never know what that phone call might do for someone.”
Washington has met veterans and their families throughout the walk, encouraging them to adopt what he calls the “Battle Buddy Check-in Challenge.” While stopping to rest in Alabama, Washington met a woman who told him her husband was struggling with severe PTSD.
“She cried in my arms, gave me a big hug and told me to keep on walking,” Washington said. “Moments like that, I knew that I couldn’t go back. A month and a half later, she contacted me on Facebook and told me her husband lost his battle. She was like, ‘Keep on fighting.’ She really inspired me.”
During the walk, Washington encountered a tornado in Mississippi and extreme heat in the Southeast. He has mostly been staying in an RV. A New Orleans resident, Washington doesn’t know the condition of his home following Hurricane Ida.
But the long journey, he said, has been worth every step.
“I’ve been called the modern-day Forrest Gump,” Washington said. “To make it to West Point, it’s a chance to rewrite the narrative of 9/11 for me and for my friends and family. Instead of it being that dark, gloomy day of something terrible happening, it will be a day we get to celebrate life, and the fight.”
— Adam Rittenberg