September 20, 2001: Football Returns to America in Starkville

Jan 29, 2014; New York, NY, USA; General view of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline and the Freedom Tower in advance of Super Bowl XLVIII. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We all stopped and paused nine days ago to remember the ones who died during the terrible attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. For those of us old enough to remember those horrific events, they will forever be etched into our brains. No detail is too small to slip our minds.

When September 11 rolled around again this year, I thought about writing something about that day. It wouldn’t have fit anything we normally write about on this site simply because it would have only had to do with Mississippi State in the smallest of contexts. Maybe I’ll write that piece next year on the 15th Anniversary.

There is a 9/11 event though which is heavily focused on Mississippi State. When America began to get up off the floor and dust itself off, one of the quickest ways people found normalcy was through sports. And on this date in 2001, football returned to America in Starkville.

After the events of 9/11, there was a ton of debate if the NFL and the NCAA games scheduled for the following Saturday should be played. The NFL took some time to deliberate, but the SEC quickly came out and said they would play. It wasn’t until the NFL decided to postpone all of their games that the SEC and any other conferences which had originally decided to play reversed course.

No games on this weekend meant a ranked Mississippi State team which had struggled to put away Memphis would not get a chance to play BYU in Starkville before welcoming South Carolina, another ranked team, to Davis Wade Stadium. While this was an important detail from a football standpoint, many around the campus quickly realized this was going to be the first major sporting event in the country after the 9/11 attacks.

The Fall semester of 2001 was the final semester I attended Mississippi State as a student. I graduated the following December with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology. It was supposed to be an uneventful semester. One  I would just get through so I could finally get my degree. Then that fateful day happened and threw all of our lives into total chaos.

I, like most of the students, had season tickets for Mississippi State’s season. My friends and I normally sat in or around the same spot for each game. Before the first game of the season, we talked about changing things up a little bit because the school had placed what was supposed to be temporary bleachers in the north endzone for the students to sit in while the upper deck level on the east side of the stadium was being constructed. We thought it would be cool to sit in these stands at least once, and so we decided to do it for the Thursday night home game with South Carolina.

Everyone knew the importance of this game. Yes, a winner and a loser would be declared, but the significance of it being the first football game of any kind to be played in the country was lost on no one. We all knew the spotlight would be on Starkville, and everyone on campus, and I mean everyone, wanted to do something to make sure we helped bring healing and normalcy to our country.

When the day of the game arrived, there was anticipation, but not the typical anticipation we all feel when we are preparing to go to a game. There was excitement for the game, but there was some uneasiness in the air as well. I heard people talk about being somewhat afraid because they feared a terrorist might want to make another statement in front of a national television audience. It might sound silly now, but it was far from silly 14 years ago.

When we arrived at the stadium around two hours early like we always had, my friends and I found our seats in the north endzone just like we had planned. There was a large group of male students who were body painting letters on each other that spelled out a patriotic phrase on their chests, and something Mississippi State related on their backs. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a normal day at a college football stadium.

Mississippi State fans brought their cowbells and pom pons. People made signs about the game. But it was different. Much of what people did was centered around patriotism. And people seemed to be just a little bit more patient with each other than they normally were.

The one thing you can’t say about Mississippi State is we didn’t disappoint on that day. Players of both teams helped roll out a gigantic American flag for pregame festivities and the band put on an unbelievable performance. Jackie Sherrill’s daughter sang a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. It was truly a great moment, not only for our university, but for our country.

It wasn’t perfect, as most things never are. At some point during the moment of silence, someone yelled out, ” Go to hell, Osama! Go to hell!” Some in the crowd cheered. Most of us like myself, moaned. I thought it was highly disrespectful to the families of those who lost loved ones in the attacks for something that would only draw attention to themselves. But for the most part, it was a spectacular night.

Once the pregame festivities  came to an end, the game started, and many of us in the crowd that night remembered how great of an escape sports can be. The Bulldogs lost the game 16-14. It was the first of many losses over the next six years. But for once, a loss on the field didn’t sting so much. On September 20, 2001, just nine short days after the attacks on 9/11, it wasn’t hard to keep a football loss in perspective.