September 16, 2001 — Atlanta Falcons starting center Todd McClure will go to church today with his wife Heidi and his infant son Maverick. He will pray for the victims of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks on the United States, their families and their friends. That’s what he’s been doing for the past five days.
Football is not Todd’s focus today. And, for an NFL player on a Sunday in September, that is rather odd.
But everything in America is odd right now, isn’t it? Nothing is normal. And many of us are wondering if it ever will be again.
On Thursday, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue called off this weekend’s slate of games. Falcons coach Dan Reeves then sent his team home until Monday.
Both moves, Todd believes, were the right ones.
“I know a lot of people on our team didn’t want to play,” Todd said Thursday night. “That’s the least of our worries right now — a football game. We’ve got our minds on other things. We’re just trying to see what’s going on with the country.”
Heidi is happy, as well. She didn’t want her husband on a plane headed to St. Louis. She didn’t want him on a football field in a crowded stadium. She wanted him home.
“Just out of respect for all of the families,” Heidi said, “I couldn’t see them celebrating for a touchdown when they’re still looking for people in the rubble.”
During these days dominated by death tolls and declarations of war, touchdowns do seem rather trivial.
We often discuss football in militaristic terms. Games are battles, players the soldiers who fight them. But on Tuesday, in one morning of madness, our paradigm shifted dramatically. The words of war went back to their rightful owners.
The world is lined up against an unknown enemy of unthinkable evil. They are armed with box cutters and jet airplanes, not missiles and machine guns. The element of surprise is always on their side. They know no rules of engagement.
This is not a game.
Life was much simpler early Tuesday morning. The day began normally enough for Todd. He said good-bye to his wife and son and headed off to work.
He was leaving the weight room when word hit the Falcons complex in Flowery Branch that a plane had collided with Tower One of the World Trade Center. He walked to his locker, and then learned a second plane had just collided with Tower Two.
“After the first one, you might think maybe there was a mishap, something happened with the plane,” Todd said. “But after that second one, you knew something was up.”
Todd immediately got on his cell phone. He and his wife have two friends from high school that live in New York. One is a flight attendant for American Airlines — she, Todd learned, was in Albuquerque, N.M., on a layover. The other was back home in Baton Rouge, La.
A morning of meetings awaited Todd and his teammates. It was hard to focus on football. A third plane had crashed into the Pentagon, a fourth outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.
“Everybody was just huddled around the TV,” Todd remembered. “We couldn’t believe what was going on. Everybody waited until the last minute to go to meetings because we wanted to know what was going on with the country.
“Once we got into the meetings, coach Reeves was saying that we’ve got to keep everybody’s families in our prayers, that a lot of people on our team will probably be affected by this.
“It was tough being in the meetings with everything that was going on. I have a wife and kid at home. My wife was terrified. I’m sure everybody would have rather been with their families. But this is our job, and it’s what we have to do.”
Todd got home at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday. There was a message from his mother. She didn’t want her son going in to Atlanta. Todd spent the rest of the day watching CNN.
There are several images from Tuesday’s tragedy that will stay with Todd, and they are the same ones that will stay with us all: terrorized planes, terrified people and one huge calamitous cloud of smoke.
There was little talk of the St. Louis Rams at the Falcons complex on Wednesday, and it was hard for the players to concentrate during drills.
That night, Todd and Heidi attended the team’s weekly prayer group for couples. The topic of discussion was never in doubt.
Wednesday night’s meeting was held at the Gwinnett County home of defensive tackle Travis Hall. Team chaplain Charles Collins spoke and fullback Bob Christian played guitar and led the group in song.
“We basically just had a time of prayer where anybody who had anything on their heart could just get it out there and pray for whatever they wanted to pray,” Todd said. “We prayed for the kids whose parents have died in this, and the parents who lost their children. I can’t imagine how families were affected after this. That’s the biggest thing I’ve been thinking about and praying for.”
During lunch time Thursday, Todd was playing UNO with the rest of the offensive line. That’s when they learned of Tagliabue’s decision on today’s games.
“I think everybody was relieved,” Todd said. “Because we didn’t really have a voice in it.”
Todd plans to spend the weekend with his family at their home in Sugar Hill. His sister-in-law is coming to town. And there’s some house painting he has been meaning to get around to.
No doubt the TV will be tuned to CNN, and Todd — like all of us — will be thinking about what comes next.
“I think we need to be swift with it,” Todd said. “I don’t know what the response should be, but we need to have some kind of force to show the terrorists around the world that we won’t stand for any of it, and that we will retaliate if it happens.”
In the Falcons locker room last Wednesday, I asked Todd some questions about football — out of habit, I suppose. But then I stopped. It just didn’t seem to matter.