Playing football, watching football…it seemed so surreal.
In fact, doing almost anything, routine or otherwise, seemed surreal in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, arguably the saddest and most horrific day ever on American soil.
Sunday marks the 10-year anniversary of that crisp, clear and sunny morning, when terrorists flew commercial airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., killing thousands. A fourth plane that was overtaken by the terrorists and was likely meant for an attack on the White House in Washington, crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard.
On that day, and for many days after, Americans were in a collective fog, shocked and broken-hearted.
But life, of course, marched on, and later that week, just three days after the terrorist attacks, and with New York and Washington and Pennsylvania still smoldering, Friday night lights shone brightly all over the state of Illinois.
High school football games went ahead as scheduled.
Although it's been 10 years, I will never forget, in detail, the North Suburban Conference crossover game I covered that Friday night: Libertyville at Grant.
There were many discussions from one community to another that week about canceling or postponing the games for Friday, Sept. 14, out of respect for our country, and for the dead.
The NFL elected to take the week off, and so did Major League Baseball.
But every school in Lake County, and most throughout the state, elected to play their football games as planned, perhaps as a way to regain some sense of normalcy, even if just temporarily.
Some people said that moving ahead was also a way to make a small statement to the terrorists, that our way of life can't be changed no matter how hard they might try to destroy it.
To me, playing the games also provided a much-needed chance for communities to unite, for people to meet up with their friends and neighbors in a familiar setting and not only show their patriotism but also seek comfort in each other.
In Fox Lake that Friday night, I was struck by how eerily quiet the venue was as I approached. Normally, a high school football stadium is buzzing before game time, with fans chatting and laughing in the stands, running around, and having fun.
Relatively speaking, the place was at whisper levels that night. Downright solemn.
I remember dozens of American flags fluttering in the wind all over the stadium and in the stands. Many people had brought their own flags to wave.
Others were holding lit candles.
It seemed like almost everyone, cool teenagers included, sung the national anthem that night.
Grant won the game 27-13 to move to 4-0 on the season, but I doubt all these years later that the score is what the people in attendance remember most.
That night was about so much more than football.
Here are some more memories from coaches and players who took part in those very surreal and poignant post-9/11 football games on Sept. 14, 2011.
"Our students got sent home early on Sept. 11th and we were not allowed to have football practice. But our kids organized their own practice and held it at a community park. Wednesday and Thursday were business as usual as far as football practices. In the locker room before the game, we put American flag stickers on our helmets for the first time, and, like most teams, we continue to wear them."
Grant coach Kurt Rous, an assistant at Grant at the time.
"Whenever you take the field, you're always motivated to play well and win. But that night, we were motivated to play just because we could, because that's something we are able to do in this country. I think before Sept. 11th, we all took that for granted. We weren't taking it for granted that night. I remember putting the flags on our helmets and how we had a moment of silence before the game. It was definitely therapeutic to get out there and play and to have some normalcy again. It's 10 years later, but I think that week really helps me keep a perspective about how lucky we are in this country."
Dave Behm, a Grant senior at the time who caught a 33-yard touchdown pass against Libertyville that Friday night. He is now the head baseball coach at Grant.
"We played at Mundelein that week and I will always remember everything about it. We debated on whether or not we could practice that day (Sept. 11) or play that week. It was weird at practice with no planes flying over. We sewed American flag patches on our uniforms. There was a candlelight vigil before the game and we blocked a punt with less than a minute to go to win."
Vernon Hills coach Tony Monken
"It was really hard to focus that week. Our minds weren't always on football. I mean, you noticed at practice that no planes were flying over. Not a single one. And one of our teammates had a cousin at the World Trade Center who had just made it out. In June of 2001, three months before, my family had taken a trip to New York and we actually ate at that restaurant on top of the World Trade Center. I remember getting chills every time I thought about that because that trip was still so fresh in my mind. The tribute at our game that night was unbelievable. We had a minute of silence and each player was holding a candle. I remember young kids in the stands had American flags painted on their faces. I think playing was the right thing to do. High school football brings communities together anyway, and the games that night really did bring everyone together at a time when people needed it. Everyone was preaching that we didn't want to let the terrorists take over our lives or scare us and that we needed to get back to normal. To this day, playing in that game is the most touching thing I've ever been through on an athletic field."
Jason Newburger, a senior quarterback at Vernon Hills at the time who led the Cougars to a playoff berth in 2001, the school's first season of varsity competition. He is now an assistant football coach at Vernon Hills.
"Everyone was so scared, but I remember feeling like, 'I'll be darned if these terrorists are going to ruin our season or our kids' high school experience.' That's why we wanted to keep everything as normal as possible, so we kept practicing that week and we went ahead with the game that Friday. Football was a good outlet for our kids. They were devastated, angry and were feeling a lot of national pride. Later on, we found out that one of our former players, Luke Laidley, who was a linebacker in the early 90s, had just made it out of the World Trade Center. He was on the 77th floor of the second tower and ran down 77 flights of stairs when he heard about the first plane hitting the first tower. He told us then that he had a new appreciation for life."
Carmel coach Andy Bitto
"We were at Bishop McNamara that Friday night. Prior to the game, all of the varsity players met at mid-field and lined up from goal-line to goal-line right down the middle of the field. Every other kid was from the other team. There was a moment of silence and prayer and then some patriotic music was playing. I believe it was "Proud to be an American." The national anthem that night was pretty emotional. There were a lot of tears in people's eyes, including my own. It ended up being a close game, which we won. But I remember the coaches focusing on the bigger picture at the end of the game: the events of that week."
Antioch coach Brian Glashagel, an assistant at Carmel at the time.
"We're in the Milwaukee and O'Hare flight paths and there were no planes going over at practice that week. It was so strange. It was a very emotional week for our country and our team. For many of our players, it was the first time they ever really experienced a tragedy. But playing on Friday was a chance to say that we are moving forward. We played Zion-Benton and it was also a good opportunity for the communities to be together."
Warren coach Dave Mohapp
"We played at Jacobs that week and when Jacobs took the field their captain was carrying an American Flag. You could just feel the emotion: sadness, anger, pride, respect and true appreciation for what this country stands for. I do believe that playing football helped in the healing process."
Lake Zurich head coach Bryan Stortz, an assistant at Lake Zurich at the time.
"Games on Friday were moved to Monday. The game was done in a very patriotic style. Both schools had their cheerleaders, dance teams and bands perform together. I recall every performer having an American flag. The athletes wanted to find some normalcy, but everything around them had been changed. Many realized for the first time that they did not control their lives, but rather they controlled how they reacted to life's unplanned events."
Wauconda coach Dave Mills, who was coaching at Brighton High School in Salt Lake City, Utah at the time.