They said sports would never be the same, but it only took about a week for everyone to realize that prediction was wrong. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 did almost nothing to diminish the investment, both emotional and financial, Americans put into the games they watch and play.
Yet the attacks touched almost every American on a personal level, and those in the sports world were not immune. From the coach’s son who escaped the burning towers to the skier whose cousin died in one of the plane crashes to the baseball player whose son was born that day, Sept. 11 lives on in the hearts of many athletes in a very intimate way.
Tim Coughlin still makes the drive from New Jersey into Manhattan every weekday for work. It never feels routine.
“I don’t relax until the end of the day, when I’m in the car, through the tunnel and close to home,” Coughlin said. “I know this is still a big-time target. I haven’t relaxed in five years.”
Coughlin’s father, Tom Coughlin, was coaching the Jacksonville Jaguars at the time of the attacks. They happened on a Tuesday, game plan day, the busiest day in an NFL coach’s workweek.
There Coughlin was that day, on the cell phone with Tim, trying to coach him out of the second tower that got hit. Tim made it out safely. But his life was forever changed.
“I think that, emotionally, my temperament changed a bit,” Tim Coughlin said. “Not at first. But like three months after. I came to question things, get a little bit angrier in the way things were handled in some regard. I guess I became a little distrustful. It gets hard for me around that date, what’s happened, and what’s unfolded since then.”
He thinks about moving away from the hustle and bustle and memories of New York someday. But at 34, and still an up-and-comer in the bond trading business, Coughlin can’t yet call all his shots. He is now closer to family, ever since his father moved back to the area to coach the Giants.
Tim said Tom Coughlin was already well attuned to his family before the terrorist attacks. It’s an image few outside the coach’s inner circle see. But Sept. 11 sharpened the focus a bit.
“I think he’s able to look out beyond a little bit better. Not a ton. But without a doubt, there were some sensitivities created around the circumstance,” Tim Coughlin said. “He realized how close this came to being a terrible tragedy for his family.”
In the days following the attacks, Tom Coughlin didn’t want the focus to be on himself or his son — not with the huge number of people whose kids and husbands and loved ones hadn’t made it out of the towers. Still, even then, the no-nonsense coach offered a small window into his heart: “You get someplace and you thank God for your blessings,” Tom Coughlin said that week.
Five years later, Tim Coughlin still realizes how lucky he was to escape. One image, however, sticks with him above all others: It was that of a woman, a security worker at the World Trade Center, who was shouting instructions, telling people to get off their cell phones, pay attention and find a safe path out of the building.
“There was general fear in her eyes,” Tim Coughlin said. “She knew what was going on. I listened to her and got out as fast as possible. She saved lives, saved a lot of them. I know she didn’t make it out. I was very blessed to get out of there. I’d have given anything to see her get out of there, too.”
Emily Cook’s mother died in a car crash when she was 3. Obviously, when something like that happens to a kid, the importance of family hits home in a way that’s hard to explain.
Fast forward to 2001. Emily’s dad, Don, lived in Boston, where he was an executive for a financial planning company. As a West Coast representative, Don traveled about three weeks of every month. Meanwhile, Emily’s hectic training and competition schedule for the U.S. freestyle skiing team made it hard for father and daughter to connect.
When American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, one of the flight attendants was Kathy Nicosia, a cousin of Emily’s mother. Emily had stayed in good touch with her mom’s side of the family, even though her mother had passed away long ago.
“My dad really made an effort to do that,” Cook said. “Obviously, the impact on our entire family was pretty huge when that happened.”
Some people talk about family being important. Far fewer really do something about it.
Asked the biggest impact 9/11 had on her, Emily Cook doesn’t waver for even a second.
A few months after the tragedy, Don Cook picked up stakes and moved to Park City, Utah, to be near his girl. His company approved the move, and the two have lived within walking distance of each other ever since.
“It’s wonderful. He’s my closest family member,” Cook said. “After 9/11, he realized how important that was to him.”
It worked out great. They eat dinner. They meet for coffee. They hang out. Don did the job from Utah for a few years. He retired not long ago.
Earlier this year, Don was pressed up against the ropes, video camera in hand, at the Turin Olympics to watch Emily’s comeback. She made it back four years after terrible injuries to her feet forced her out of the Salt Lake City games, where post-Sept. 11 passions ran high.
She was heartbroken to miss those Olympics but has been through enough to know a more lasting kind of heartbreak.
Even with that perspective, Cook had a lot to overcome. Her injuries were so devastating, doctors said she’d be lucky to walk normally, let alone be an aerials skier again. But she made it. And her dad was close by, as he has been since the move five years ago.
“After 9/11, it made me so much more proud to represent my family as an American athlete,” Cook said. “My family was completely nuts during the Olympics. Half my family was in Torino. I had the rest of my family at home, having parties, watching on TV, sending a million e-mails a day.
“Representing our country and representing my family at the Olympics — that was about as special as it gets.”
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