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By GARY SHELTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001
TAMPA -- The NFL did something terrific Thursday. It decided to do nothing Sunday.
The players will stay home. The fields will remain empty. The networks can show old movies. There will be no passes, no punts, no kicks. No highlights, no lowlights, no stadium lights.
The NFL called off its Week 2 games, and it should be cheered for doing so. It was a decision so sound, so sane, so smart that the skeptic is amazed it was made. For the sake of the victims, for the sake of the survivors, for the sake of the nation, for the sake of the fans, for the sake of the players, for the sake of us all, the league that owns Sunday afternoons has chosen to take one of them off.
There is no way there should be football this weekend. The wounds remain open. The tears still fall. We are not ready to sing fight songs and exchange high-fives over third-down conversions.
Give the NFL credit for recognizing as much. This is the league that other leagues look to and follow. As such, it could have gotten away with attempting to overcome its logistical problems and proceed. There would have been some criticism, but there also would have been praise for returning to something that feels so normal to many of us.
Instead, the league talked to the White House. When it was not urged to return to play, it chose not to play this weekend. "It never got to "Can we play?' " Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "It was a question of, "Is (postponing the games) the right thing to do?' "
It was, without question. How were fans in New York supposed to get to the Packers-Giants game with the tunnels closed? How were fans in Washington supposed to care about the Cardinals and Redskins? Several prominent Jets, including quarterback Vinny Testaverde and wide receiver Wayne Chrebet, said Thursday they would have refused to make the trip to Oakland. Could you have blamed any player from any team who refused to board a plane?
Those who argue that we need sports to feel normal again miss this point. The players are human, too. They are not wind-up toys taken out of storage each week Sunday. They've been watching the same images as you, feeling the same pain, trading the same stories.
"We were practicing, and John Lynch leans over and said to me: "They're still digging bodies out,' " Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "That really hit me. It's like "They're still digging bodies out, and we're supposed to play a football game?' "
Why? Who would you play a game for this weekend? The fans? The players? The networks? For all of us, sports has never seemed so small, so insignificant.
The Bucs seemed relieved to hear they wouldn't play. Oh, they would have pulled their helmets onto their heads and run onto the field and played. But it would have felt hollow, forced, unwelcome.
Put yourself in their places, as you have done so many times. Could you have concentrated on blitz pickups at a time like this? Could you have kept your mind on the task when watching tapes at night?
Given that, how good do you imagine the football would have been? It is the job of Tony Dungy, the Bucs coach, to get his team ready, and he insists it would have been. Still, could any team be? The Bucs are a team that feeds on emotion, remember? And most of us have precious little emotion left.
"I felt sluggish on Tuesday," Sapp said. "My game is so emotional. When I go in screaming and yelling, I usually get someone else screaming and yelling, and it spreads from two guys to five guys to 10 guys to the whole team. This time, I couldn't get anyone going."
Take the emotion away from a player and you take away his focus. Take away the focus, and you increase the chance of someone getting hurt.
"There are bodies falling out there," Sapp said. "It's a physical game. If someone's mind isn't on what they're doing, someone could get hurt."
"I think we would have been focused," safety John Lynch said. "As for the enthusiasm and the energy, that may be a different situation."
It is a rare gift, perspective. Take Sapp. He can be loud and profane, cocky and cantankerous. But, like his league, he seems to recognize his role in this tragedy. At one point Thursday, he began to talk about New York firefighters. "They're the bad boys," he said. "They're looking at a building on fire, and they're running up the stairs as people are running out. The right frame of mind is telling you to get out of that building. I'm no hero. Compared to that man, I'm a coward all day long. These people risk their lives without a second's thought. They're the big boys. They do the real work."
For the league, the questions become simpler now. Does it eliminate four playoff teams? Does it go to a 15-game schedule? (The guess here is the elimination of four playoff teams. That way, each team gets a full schedule, fans get to use all the tickets they purchased and players get 16 game checks.)
For now, however, the NFL has chosen to give a nation time to heal.
Need something to cheer Sunday, cheer that.