Each Tuesday during the college football season, provided there’s a game scheduled the following Saturday, the University of New Mexico head coach meets with the news media on the UNM South Campus.
Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was a stunning and tragic exception.
The Lobos were scheduled to play their downstate rival, the New Mexico State Aggies, in Albuquerque the following Saturday, Sept. 15. But on that Tuesday morning, Muslim terrorists flew passenger planes into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York, another into the Pentagon in Washington, and hijacked another that crashed in Pennsylvania. Thousands of Americans lost their lives.
Greg Remington, UNM’s sports information director at the time, didn’t ask anyone’s permission to cancel the Tuesday media luncheon. He just did it.
“It was my decision,” Remington said that day. “… It was just (a response to) the events of the day.”
Far more complicated, though, was the decision to play or not to play on Saturday.
Would playing the games — not just UNM-NMSU, but high school, college and pro events around the nation — be disrespectful of the dead and their loved ones? Would not playing be capitulation to terrorists who wanted nothing more than to intimidate, frighten, paralyze us as Americans?
“We want to do what’s right,” UNM athletic director Rudy Davalos said later that day. “We just don’t know what that is right now.
“It’s both of our wishes (UNM and NMSU’s) to play the game. We don’t want terrorists to control our country. (But) there are a lot of factors involved.”
Lobos coach Rocky Long, not knowing what the decision would be, held practice as usual on Tuesday afternoon. Air travel in the U.S. had been suspended, but this game would require only a bus ride up I-25 and back for the Aggies.
“Nobody has to get on an airplane, so we’re in a much different situation than other schools,” Long said. “Now, I could see a national moratorium on games happening, but we’re going to continue like normal until we hear differently.”
Long and everyone else got the word on Wednesday. The decision essentially was taken out of UNM’s and NMSU’s hands when NCAA Division I conferences around the nation opted not to play. Dozens of college football games still were contested that Saturday, including games involving Western New Mexico and New Mexico Highlands, but at lower levels of the sport.
The NFL, perhaps still mindful of the blowback it received for playing a full schedule on the Sunday following the Kennedy assassination in 1963, followed suit. There would be no games that Sunday. Major League Baseball would remain dark until Monday.
As previously suggested, the Lobo-Aggie game was rescheduled for Nov. 24. At UNM and NMSU, everyone seemed at peace with the decision not to play four days after an unspeakable national tragedy.
“I think playing under circumstances like this would be really hard,” UNM running back Holmon Wiggins told the Journal’s Greg Archuleta. “I think it was a good decision on postponing the game to let people mourn or grieve or whatnot.”
Elsewhere in Albuquerque and around the state, however, different decisions were made.
On Thursday, Sept. 13, Cibola and Del Norte high schools played a football game at Milne Stadium — the Cougars winning 21-3.
“I feel we should go on,” the mother of a Cibola band member told the Journal’s Randy Harrison. “(The terrorists) want us to stop being free. God is in control of our lives.”
A full slate of prep football games, soccer matches and volleyball matches was played that weekend. APS athletics specialist Buddy Robertson said he saw the value.
“So many people are affected (by the terrorism),” he said, “but at least this is a way to show some empathy and sympathy with a moment of silence.”
At UNM, the annual McGuire Invitational women’s golf tournament was held as scheduled. Some of the competing teams, it was explained, were already en route on Tuesday when the towers came down.
For UNM football player Scott Gerhardt, 9/11 brought back haunting memories. He’d been a sophomore at Oklahoma City’s Putnam North High School in 1995 and was in class when a homegrown terrorist ignited the bomb that brought down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building — killing 168 people.
“We could feel the (school) building kind of shaking, and we were a good 20 or 30 minutes from downtown,” Gerhardt told the Journal’s Archuleta. “… It was a shock. I’d never seen anything like it (until Tuesday).
The 9/11 attacks, he said, “just brought flashbacks.”
On Sept. 18, a week after the tragedy, the Journal ran a column from Knight-Ridder sports writer Tim Kawakami, calling for Sept. 11 to become a day of remembrance on which no major sporting events ever again would be staged.
“September 11,” he wrote, “forever could remind America that there is so much else out there that is not measured in touchdowns and home runs, a sense of time that is not measured in innings and halves and celebrations that do not include champagne showers and golden trophies.”
A noble thought. America, however, has deemed it more fitting to play each Sept. 11, whatever sport, whatever day of the week — while never forgetting.
This year, Sept. 11 falls on a Saturday. The Lobos and Aggies, it so happens, are scheduled to play each other that day at University Stadium.
While never forgetting.