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NFL puts games on hold as nation grieves


In the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, the National Football League and its commissioner, Pete Rozelle, decided to play its scheduled games as usual just two days later. The games went on despite the fact that the rival American Football League cancelled its scheduled games for the same day.

It's a decision the late Rozelle said many times before his death was the single biggest regret of his life.

The current day NFL made no such mistake. On Sept. 13, two days after the tragic events that took place in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the league decided to pull the plug on the 15 games scheduled for the weekend (Sept. 16 and 17), including the Patriots game at Carolina on Sunday.

The league issued a statement shortly before noon on Thursday:

"We in the National Football League have decided that our priorities for this weekend are to pause, grieve and reflect. It is a time to tend to families and neighbors and all those wounded by these horrific acts of terrorism. We understand those individuals in sports who want to play this weekend. We also can empathize with those who want to take the weekend off and resume their personal lives and professional careers next week. We strongly believe that the latter course of action is the right decision for the NFL.

"On Sunday, Sept. 23, the NFL, its players and coaches will return stronger than ever and resume our playing schedule."

This marks the first scheduled NFL games that will not be played since Sept. 27, 1987, when a player's strike wiped out the Week Three slate. The league played a 15-game season that year with replacement players hired to fill the void until the regulars returned to work for the Week Seven games on Oct. 25.

The league initially did not make a decision as to whether the games would be postponed or simply cancelled. The options they reportedly weighed were to eliminate the Week Two slate altogether, a scenario that would leave just one team (San Diego) with a 16-game schedule while the other 30 teams would be limited to 15.

The Chargers would be affected because they were the lone team with a planned bye in Week Two and thus still have 15 regularly scheduled games remaining. That could create problems in the event they finish one half-game ahead or behind another team for a potential playoff spot.

The other option the league weighed was to cut back on the playoffs by a round and limit the postseason to four teams in each conference instead of six. In that case, there would be three division winners and a single wild card. That would open the door for the league to make up the missed games after Week 17, the week the playoffs are currently set to open, and begin the postseason with the divisional round Jan. 12-13.

But when word trickled down to the Patriots locker room shortly before noon on Thursday that the league decided in a conference call that no games would be played over the weekend, thoughts of 15- or 16-game seasons and numbers of potential playoff teams were nowhere near the minds of the players.

"You have to look at the typical response for our culture," linebacker Ted Johnson said. "Sweep it under the rug and move on. Pretend it didn't happen. This is real-life stuff. Our nation needs to grieve. It needs to assess what happened. To bury our feelings and say life goes on — that's not appropriate."

Johnson also is the team's NFL Players Association representative and he planned a meeting for the players that evening in the event the league decided to play. There were reports on ESPN earlier in the day that indicated a majority of the NFL owners wanted to play but as time went on that number dropped to roughly a 50-50 split.

Other reports said the league had no plan that included either New York team or the Washington Redskins — the three teams closest to the terrorist attacks — to play in the event the games went on.

"The consensus is that the players  didn't feel comfortable playing," Johnson said. "No one can really ensure safety as far as air travel or in-stadium security. So there's definitely a lot of apprehension and a lot of nervous guys around the league."

The vast majority of Patriots players were also glad the league came to its senses.

"Being out there and not being focused on the game is no way to go about playing football," Patriots guard Joe Andruzzi said. "I think it was the right decision."

Andruzzi, of course, was much more closely involved in Tuesday's events than most since his three brothers were among the firefighters called into duty. One of them, Jim, was actually coming out of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when it collapsed and was fortunate to escape with his life.

"Even the guys that didn't know anyone there, it's still a part of them," Andruzzi continued. "It's only four hours away. Airplanes aren't even allowed in the air yet (air restrictions remained in effect at the time of the decision) and we're supposed to fly out of there in two days. I think a lot of guys just need some time to take it all in and start back up next week."

Several of the Patriots players echoed their teammate's sentiments.

"I think [it was the right call]," linebacker Bryan Cox said. "Either way, if they didn't cancel it, it's my job to play football and I would have done that because some people get some kind of comfort out of watching sports and taking their mind off of what's happening. I wouldn't have been opposed to playing, but in not doing so it allows us to take a step back and see what happened because this thing was huge. Especially considering the people that had family involved it was the right decision."

"Everyone was wondering what was going to happen and how everyone would react," linebacker Marty Moore said. "They're having a mass funeral Sunday in New York and it wouldn't look good with the [NFL] playing a game in the Meadowlands. There are a lot of guys on the team that either have friends in New York that may have been involved or are now involved. It is nationwide and worldwide and there's mourning all around the United States."

Center Damien Woody voiced concerns over safety issues as well: "If guys are worried about other stuff off the field, then that's when you can get hurt out there. I would have done whatever they told me, but this was really the only decision they could make."

It was clear from the noticeable rise in the noise level that a decision had been made, but most players voiced relief and appreciation that the league took their concerns into account by calling off the games.

While most players were in agreement that the games should not have been played, quarterback Drew Bledsoe felt there might have been some benefits of playing, although he, too, felt the games could wait another week while the nation copes.

"At some point we're going to have to overcome this and start getting back to a sense of normalcy, but at the same time I can understand all the concerns obviously," Bledsoe said.

"One thing I did think about was as American citizens it would be difficult to go out and be in a competitive environment against other American citizens when what we really need to be doing is coming together, and that would make it very difficult to play the games. But I was a little bit surprised by the decision."

The Patriots decided the best thing to do was to allow the players to return to their families as the nation continues its grieving process. The team's offices were closed on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 14-15, and the players weren't expected to return for workouts until Monday morning (Sept. 17). Injured players were expected to continue receiving treatments on Sunday, but other than that, there wasn't much activity around the stadium.

"We were just informed of the league's decision," Head Coach Bill Belichick said shortly after the league's announcement was made. "I think everybody fully understands why we did what we did and we are supportive of it. We're going to take the next two days — Friday and Saturday — off and we will be closing business down for 48 hours. I told the players and the coaches that this would be a time for us to reflect and grieve and try to put this all behind us."

Two players — Moore and safety Je'Rod Cherry — drove 11 hours back to Foxborough from Cleveland in order to return to the team in time for their expected practices for the week. But two others — linebacker Roman Phifer and tackle Greg Robinson-Randall — remained away from the team.

Both made trips home after team meetings on Monday to spend their day off (Tuesday) with family and were stranded when travel restrictions prohibited them from returning to Foxborough by airplane.

Belichick explained that the original plan was for both to make their way to Charlotte any way they could to rejoin the team there for the Panthers game, but that was altered by the NFL's decision. Now both will be expected to return to Foxborough for the beginning of preparation work for the New York Jets, the Patriots next opponent on Sept. 23, in the home opener.