GREEN BAY — Mike Sherman was in his office, picking his old friend Andy Reid’s brain about the Green Bay Packers’ upcoming matchup with the New York Giants. Mark Tauscher was in the middle of his weekly appearance on a morning radio show on the local top 40 station. Chris Gizzi was making breakfast. And Marco Rivera was asleep.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” Rivera, the Packers two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl guard said earlier this week. “I get goose pimples talking about it.”
Like virtually every American who lived through the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Sherman, Gizzi, Tauscher and Rivera all remember where they were that Tuesday morning when four passenger airliners were hijacked, with American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175 striking the World Trade Center towers in New York, American flight 77 hitting the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and United flight 93 crashing in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In all, 2,977 people were killed.
For Rivera, a through-and-through New Yorker who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, the events were overwhelming to watch. Tuesdays are off days for NFL players, and Rivera was sleeping in when his wife, Michelle, woke him up to take a call from Packers veteran center Frank Winters, a New Jersey native.
“So I get the phone, ‘Hey Frank, what’s up?’ And I thought it was odd. ‘Why would Frank be calling me early on a Tuesday?’” Rivera recounted. “He goes, ‘Hey kid, you see what happened to the World Trade Center? A plane just crashed into one of the towers.’ I jump out of bed, I put my TV on — it’s on all the channels — and we’re looking at the TV at the same time and we see the second plane hit the second tower. We were just dumbfounded.
“We hung up the phone, and I call my mom. She’s watching it, and she’s crying on the phone. It was more personal for me. I know Frankie felt the same. We grew up with those towers as the skyline of New York City. They were huge, they were impressive, we were prideful of those towers. When they came down, that took a part of every New Yorker. It took away the idea that we were invincible, that nothing like this could happen on American soil.
“I don’t think about 9/11 a lot; I don’t want to think about it on purpose, because it was such a bad day for America. It hurt. It hurt.”
And in the aftermath of the attacks, the NFL had to decide whether to postpone the 15 games scheduled for that week. The Packers were set to travel to East Rutherford, New Jersey, to face the Giants at the Meadowlands, just across the Hudson River and roughly 15 miles from where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
“I was in my second year, living by myself, freaking out. We had no idea what was going to happen with the game,” recalled Tauscher, an offensive lineman who’d made the team as a seventh-round pick from the University of Wisconsin a year earlier. “I just remember that uncertainty. That week was such a roller coaster. It was just a myriad of emotions.
“A lot of guys were freaking out about getting on a plane, and nobody wanted to get on a plane to go to New York to play. I don’t know how the decisions got made. Guys want to play football, and there was a desire to get back to normalcy, but it just wasn’t right yet.”
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked Packers team president/CEO Bob Harlan about moving the game to Lambeau Field before the league finally decided to postpone the entire Week 2 schedule on Thursday.
“They had never really canceled a game before. Based on that, I said (to the players), ‘They’re probably going to play the games,’” Sherman, the team’s coach and general manager in 2001, recalled, referring to the league’s 1963 decision to play games in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that November. “Some of the players felt uncomfortable with that, then they finally came around and canceled the game and moved it to the end of the season.”
By doing so, they put the Packers — and, as it would turn out, Gizzi, a little-known linebacker and special teams ace who’d graduated from the United States Air Force Academy — front and center as the country tried to move forward.
‘The ground started shaking’
When the NFL rescheduled those Week 2 games for the end of the season, it meant the Packers’ next game would be on Sept. 24 — a “Monday Night Football” game at Lambeau Field against Washington. Both the Giants and New York Jets were playing road games that Sunday, and at the time, Monday night was the NFL’s marquee, signature game of the week. So, the players knew the game would be an important part of the nation’s journey toward healing.For Sherman, the week was a balancing act — of getting his players ready to play, while also finding ways to honor the country and those who had perished. He knew all eyes would be on his team, as the hosts of the prime-time matchup.
The night before, Sherman approached Gizzi, who remained in the Air Force reserves upon restarting his football career following two years of active duty, about leading the team onto the field while carrying the American flag.
“I didn’t really know what he meant by that,” Gizzi, now the Packers strength and conditioning coordinator under head coach Matt LaFleur, recalled this week. “I just said, ‘Yessir,’ in true military form.”
While there were other memorable moments that night — from the U.S.-shaped American flag unfurled on the field and held by first responders, to Martina McBride’s singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which recalled Whitney Houston’s iconic rendition at Super Bowl XXV a decade earlier, during the first Gulf War — Gizzi’s sprint with Old Glory still endures in so many memories.
In Saturday’s @WiStateJournal and on @madisondotcom and @MadisonSport ~ 20 years after 9/11, an Air Force graduate (Chris Gizzi), a native New Yorker (Marco Rivera), a Wisconsin kid (Mark Tauscher) and a fatherly coach (Mike Sherman) recall the #Packers’ role in healing a nation. pic.twitter.com/RLbh89dcD4— Jason Wilde (@jasonjwilde) September 11, 2021
“I get chills right now just thinking about Chris running with that flag,” Tauscher said. “It was one of those moments you’ll never forget as a player. The raw emotion, that was our Whitney Houston National Anthem. The unification, and how everybody came together to take this on, was powerful.”
And it wouldn’t have happened if not for Packers assistant equipment manager Bryan Nehring and another quick-thinking member of the equipment staff.
“Moments before the game, Bryan asked me where my flag was, and I jokingly said, ‘I must have left it in my other uniform. What do you mean?’” Gizzi recalled. “So he gets one of the equipment assistants, who was a boy scout troop leader, he lived right by the stadium. He calls his wife, ‘I’m running home, have the flag ready.’ He ran home, got the flag, brought it back, handed it to Bryan, and Bryan runs down the tunnel in the north end zone, hands it to me, and I literally grab the flag, turned around, and stepped out on the field.
“I wasn’t really thinking about it; I was thinking about the game. But I got the flag, I stepped out, and the crowd went nuts. The ground started shaking. And I just took off running. The crowd carried me across that field.”
The image endures
Gizzi, his wife Jennifer (an Air Force graduate who served in Afghanistan after 9/11) and the couple’s four children recently moved, so the framed print of his patriotic run has yet to be re-hung while his mother’s copy — which she insisted he autograph — remains in his parents’ home. Sherman, meanwhile, has a poster-sized print of the moment prominently displayed in his study.
“I don’t remember the game a whole lot,” Sherman confessed. His team would win the game, 37-0. “I just remember it being quiet, and everybody going about their business. And then we kind of played that way. We played emotionally, but we played methodically. We believed we were doing the right thing.”
A little more than three months later, the Packers did travel to New York for that make-up game with the Giants. Upon arriving at their New Jersey hotel, Sherman had chartered buses for any players and staffers who wanted to visit the World Trade Center site. Those who went recall the gravity of seeing the site up close, and walking past flyers about missing victims of the attacks, posted by desperate friends and family members on walls and fences nearby.
“I remember pulling up with the bus and looking at the huge hole in the ground, and thinking about all the lives that had been lost. It was like an out-of-body experience,” Rivera said. “You’re there, and you’re looking at it, but you can’t comprehend what you’re looking at. I just remember it being so quiet. It was so quiet and eerie.”
For his part, Gizzi said his kids — daughters Alice (10) and Abigail (6) and sons A.J. (8) and Atticus (4) — have reached the point where they ask more questions about 9/11 and their dad’s role in the healing process. While he and Jennifer do their best to explain, the photo truly does say so much more.
“You get more and more distance from the moment, and you see the meaning it had to other people, you can’t ask for anything more than that,” Gizzi said. “We were there to bring people together.”
Photos: Packers' 2021 season in pictures
Check out photo galleries from every game of 2021 from the preseason through the end of the regular season and the playoffs.
The Green Bay Packers fell to the Houston Texans 26-7 in a preseason game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.
The Green Bay Packers failed to pick up a win in the preseason, falling to 0-3 in exhibition play after getting blanked by the Buffalo Bills 1…
Despite third-string quarterback Kurt Benkert’s strong showing while filling in for injured backup QB Jordan Love, the Packers came up short i…
Reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers threw two interceptions as the Green Bay Packers struggled on both sides of the ball Sunday afternoon, falling …