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Back in the game

Much has changed since that terrible day. Including our perspective.

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 2002

Much has changed since that terrible day. Including our perspective.

Slowly, carefully, we have reassembled the illusion. A year later, it is almost complete.

Once again, we feel safe enough, secure enough to fool ourselves. Once again, it feels natural enough, normal enough, to lose ourselves in little games and tiny moments.

A year later and we are almost back to where we were. Once again, we are able to take things that do not matter at all and treat them as if they matter a great deal.

A year later, and there is a difference.

This time, we know better.

It has been 12 months, and for the most part, the wounds have closed. We have pushed our rage and fear inside to that private hollow in us all.

As a society, we no longer are braced for the next vision of terror. We grumble about the same politicians we looked to a few months ago for guidance. We treat everyday problems as if they were catastrophes. We are less patient in security lines, and we wonder if the procedures are more about protocol than protection.

Yes, from time to time, we follow sports.

A year later, and we have rejoined the game. We have hoisted the athletes back onto pedestals, and once again, we have taken up the grandest game of pretend on the planet.

We have convinced ourselves these athletes in familiar laundry somehow represent us, somehow care about us and the result of their game somehow has meaning in our lives. We discuss. We debate. We disagree. Loudly.

A year later, it feels normal again at the stadium. Once again, you can drape the silliness around you. You can lose yourself in third and 11 and 3-and-2 pitches and, for goodness' sakes, a controversy over figure skating. You can bemoan the greed and the cheats and the abusers. You can dance in the aisles over someone catching a ball.

The difference is, we have shown that we know. Watching a game is, in itself, a game. Perspective? Of course sports is out of perspective. We want sports -- and music and movies and every other form of entertainment -- to be out of perspective. If we held sports in its proper perspective, we'd all stay home and discuss the crime rate.

We know that. Most of us, fans and coaches and players and writers, are aware of how silly a notion sports really is, how skewed the priorities have become. The tragedy of a year ago showed that.

There was a time, a brief, shining moment, when we saw the good in athletes and administrators. In the aftermath, we looked into the eyes of players, and we saw the same things we saw in our own. Fear. Anger. Concern.

For a long time, we had cheered these men for very unimportant things. After the attacks, we cheered them for doing important ones. They donated money. They donated time. They put aside the pettiness that is so much a part of sports. They stepped away from the spotlight and assumed their role as something less, and in the effort, they seemed like so much more.

There was a period, after the attacks, when it was unclear how long the games should be shut down. Some wanted to resume immediately. Some wanted to take a day, maybe two, then go full steam on the weekend. America needed the release, they argued. It needed a feeling that things were normal.

But how could you ask players to go on? They are human. They felt the same things the rest of us felt. And they deserved the time to regroup.

In the months since, the show has gone on. We have returned to the point where the most important thing in the world seems to be the right tackle of the local football team. The greed has returned. So have the cheats and the crooks and the whiners. The roles of player and fan have been resumed, and the distance between them has returned.

You wonder. Has anything really changed? Some. Flags are still everywhere. There are some who throw around references to 9/11 with appalling recklessness. And, yes, it can be a little more inconvenient to enter the stadium.

One story: I was at the NFC title game in St. Louis last season, and the security guard was being -- how should I put this? -- vigorous. He looked a long time at my computer. He checked out my binoculars. He thumbed through the pages of a novel in my bag. I noted how thorough he was.

"Wait till you go to the next room and the full-body cavity search," the guard said.

"Gee," I said. "I hope I get a pretty one."

He looked at me for a long time. Then, in a voice of rough leather, he said:

"I am the pretty one."

Another story: At the Winter Olympics, a security guard examined my cell phone. He started to return it, and a soldier, armed with a very large, very imposing rifle, ran over and stopped him.

"You have to change the face on that phone," he said. "Hit a number and see if the display changes."

The guard started to, then stopped. "What if it blows up?" he said.

The soldier thought for a minute, then said, "Point it to the ground."

Point it to the ground? Like it's Captain Kirk's phaser? As if it would only blow up in one direction?

This is the way it is going to games these days. We suffer a little indignity. A few months ago, we complained less about it.

A year later, and it feels good inside the stadium. Say what you want about the games. We know their importance. Say what you want about the athletes. We know who they really are. We have seen them in a moment of crisis, and we have seen how they respond.

Deep down, we know they are exactly like us.

Deep down, they know it, too.

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