The course of BYU football following a time of sadness
After practice, Crowton addressed the situation with reporters. "It's a hard day," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "You feel fortunate for what you have. The players are aware of what's going on. They fought through it pretty well."
That day, I remember asking Doman, who is now BYU's offensive coordinator, about how practice went amid the unusual and difficult circumstances. "It was weird," he said. "But when you put on your helmet, you forget about other things."
I wanted to forget those other things, too.
As it turned out, both professional and collegiate games throughout the country were postponed that weekend. BYU moved its game with Mississippi State to Dec. 1, and pushed back its regularly scheduled game at Hawaii from Dec. 1 to Dec. 8.
Of course, our lives were consumed by news reports about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. I remember the stories of people who were missing, of the many acts of bravery, of the task of cleaning up ground zero, and of our country's resolve in bringing the perpetrators to justice. When our month-old twin boys would cry in the middle of the night for their feedings, my wife and I, bleary-eyed and exhausted, would wake up and turn on the news. Not only did it keep us from falling asleep during the feedings, it also kept us well-informed.
After the Cal game, the Cougars didn't play again until three weeks later, on Sept. 29, at UNLV. BYU trailed the Rebels by three points with 1:41 remaining when Doman converted a dramatic fourth-and-4 play at the Cougars' own 37-yard line, then capped a 91-yard drive with a 21-yard scramble into the end zone with 1:12 remaining. BYU won, 35-31.
Judging by the way the Cougars celebrated that night after the game, sports seemed very important still. We needed sports. After weeks of fretting about terror warnings, a potential war in Afghanistan, and dealing with the anguish over the senseless deaths of innocent Americans, I realized that the games still mattered. Were they the most important thing in life? No. But could they help us heal, help us appreciate our freedoms? Yes. Could they restore a sense of normalcy, and motivate us to endure and overcome overwhelming adversity? Yes. To see such unbridled joy on a football field, after weeks of sadness and grief, was inspiring. And reassuring.
And to think it happened at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, where BYU would, later that decade, play in five consecutive Las Vegas Bowls.
After the UNLV game, you got the feeling that 2001 could be a magical season for the Cougars. BYU won eight more games — including a close win over New Mexico and its defensive coordinator, Bronco Mendenhall, thanks to another late, fourth-quarter comeback engineered by Doman — to post a 12-0 mark and break into the top 10 rankings. The Cougars were hoping for a BCS berth.
But in a dramatic 41-38 triumph at Mississippi State — in a game originally scheduled for Sept. 15 — Staley suffered a broken foot on the game-winning drive. Later that week, BYU was unceremoniously released from BCS consideration. And without Staley, who would go on to win the Doak Walker Award, emblematic of the nation's top running back, the Cougars dropped their final two games, at Hawaii, and to Louisville in the Liberty Bowl.
To this day, some wonder what might have happened had BYU played Mississippi State, when it was ranked No. 16, in mid-September. Instead, in December, the struggling Bulldogs had a losing record. The biggest knock against the Cougars that season was their weak strength of schedule, and beating a ranked Southeastern Conference team certainly would have helped. Who knows? Perhaps BYU would have been the first team to bust the BCS (as it turned out, that feat was accomplished by the Cougars' arch-rival, Utah, three years later). Instead, BYU was relegated to the Liberty Bowl. And yet, given all that had happened to our country in the fall of 2001, there was something noble about being involved in a football game with "Liberty" in its title.
It's hard to believe it's been 10 years. The memories of 9/11, the weeks that followed, and the 2001 season, are still vivid and fresh. So much has happened. So much has changed.
That's my 9/11 story, with a BYU football perspective.
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