It seems like just yesterday, I was sitting in the Eagles training room at Nova Care Center in Philadelphia on a quiet Tuesday morning. The mood was solemn as we had just lost in overtime to the St. Louis Rams in our season opener. The day was September 11, 2001, I had shown up on my off day to lift weights and run. I remember hearing people yelling at the TV and seeing reports a plane had struck one of the twin towers in downtown Manhattan. As we were watching the live report, we saw another plane strike the second building. I was confused for a second because it looked like they cut to some new footage of the hit. The news reporter was even more confused until she heard reports a second plane had hit the opposite tower. The early report had been about an accident, but upon seeing the second plane hit, there was no mistake…this was a choreographed attack.
Like the rest of America, I sat there in confusion and sadness watching the events play out. Seeing the towers collapse and trying to comprehend the loss of life. I had plans to take the 80 miles trip to New York for dinner on Monday night. But after the loss, I thought it best to get back to work and my job of winning games. Like every American, I believed we are the greatest nation on the planet and things like this don’t happen in America. We had not had an attack on US soil since 1941 and even that was not in the CONUS. Things like this don’t happen and here it was happening 80 miles from me.
I remember thinking, things will never be the same.
As reports filtered in about what happened, we began practice and preparation for the week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We decided as players, it would be in poor taste to play that week and take attention away from the attack on America. As a representative for the NFLPA, we put the vote to the players, we voted to not play out of respect for the souls lost in the attack. The owners were not happy and agreed if we weren’t playing, then they weren’t paying. The players were told we would forfeit our checks that week.
Five weeks later on October 22nd, we were scheduled to play the New York Giants on Monday night football. I remember taking the bus ride to the Meadowlands Sunday afternoon before the game and seeing the skyline for the first time. I distinctly remember thinking how lonely the skyline looked…that lonely vision was time stamped in my memory.
Even now, I remember every moment of that bus ride. Pulling into the Meadowlands we had been told they had been using the bubbled facility at the Meadowlands to identify the bodies of those lost in the attack. Seeing the look on the face of the hundreds of police and military decked out in full kit and fatigues with M4s strapped to their chest as we got off the bus. Needless to say, it just didn’t feel like we were walking into a war zone, we were in one.
As we got ready in pre-game, I don’t remember anything but quiet and whispering voices. It was as if New York was the stage, the Giants were America’s star and we were just the poor guys brought in to take a fall in the third act. I remember standing there feeling the electricity as the jets flew over the Giants came running out of the tunnel holding an America flag; the crowd exploded.
The game was a defensive battle as we they held us to a field goal and our defense kept them to 9 points. In the last two minutes, we threw a pass for a TD and the win. The score was 10-9 and we beat the Giants for the first time in 10 games. I had a hellacious battle with a guy most of you have never heard of. He was hands down the best and toughest player I played against in my 10 years.
Whenever some asks me who the best I played against…I give my standard response…everyone was good. I battled one on one against the best the NFL had to offer…from Strahan to Freeney but Keith Hamilton was the best. He was big, strong and angry and did not stop. I had a simple style of play. I battered opponents to the body with a big punch and doled out even worse to their heads with my helmet. Most guys would stop rushing after a while because they just physically did not want to take the hits. Not “Hammer”…he gave the last play like his first. Actually, it was a disconcerting. I was lucky with my punch and guys would use every move in the book to beat my hands. Keith took another method. He gave you his chest to hit and once your hands were in place, he would literally “fork lift” them off and throw you back into the quarterback like your were a child. We dubbed the move, the “fork lift”.
I watched him use this move on about every guard in the NFL and he could reeked havoc on your day and career if you could not defeat the move. Luckily, I was blessed with quick hands, a strong punch and just enough leverage that he did not lift me up unless I made a mistake. Every time I played the Giants, I knew I was walking into a 60-minute heavy weight title fight on National television.
That Monday night was no exception.
As I reflect back on the 12 years since that fateful September day, I feel blessed for the experiences I have had and feel a deep sense of gratitude and sorrow for the friends I have lost. For the victims killed during the attack and those friends and soldiers that have payed the ultimate, you are not forgotten.