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What 9/11 Taught Us About Athletes

Johnie Freatman |
September 10, 2011 | 4:04 p.m. PDT

Associate Sports Editor

The actions of Flight 93 passengers earned the gratitude of a nation. (Dan Ciccone via Creative Commons)
The actions of Flight 93 passengers earned the gratitude of a nation. (Dan Ciccone via Creative Commons)
Ten years later, September 11, 2001 remains a day unrivaled in its devastation. Parents were killed. Children were killed. Brothers and sisters were killed. Friends were killed. Americans and internationals alike were killed. In some of these cases, former athletes were killed.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, some wondered whether sports would have the power to be a distraction for a country in such profound grief. Though it may have been a very temporary diversion, the wounds of that day are still poignantly felt ten years later, and likely will be forever.

Looking back, it’s not the games that should be remembered in the sports world. It’s the figures who showed their heroism that day. For all that was lost, the true definition of an athletic “hero” was found on the United 93 flight supposed to go to San Francisco.

Getting on the flight that morning was Todd Beamer, a 32-year-old sales account manager and father of two whose wife was at home in Cranbury, New Jersey, pregnant with the couple’s third child.

Beamer also happened to be a former baseball player, beginning his college career at Fresno State before transferring to Wheaton College after he realized that an MLB career was unattainable. A scrappy shortstop and third baseman in his college days, Beamer was a highly regarded softball player on his church’s team.

Joining him was Mark Bingham, CEO of The Bingham Group, a public relations firm. Bingham was 31 and very well-liked; he was also very close with his mother.

Bingham was an outstanding rugby player who helped lead Cal to national championships in 1991 and 1993. He continued to play for a team in his hometown of San Francisco, was a surfer, and two months earlier, had ridden the horns of a bull in Pamplona.

Jeremy Glick was a new father whose daughter Emmy was just 12 weeks old. A sales manager at the time of 9/11, Glick was married to his high school sweetheart, Lyz, a former gymnast.

An outstanding athlete himself, Glick won the 1993 NCAA judo championship as a student at the University of Rochester.

Tom Burnett was older than the other three, a 38-year-old husband and father of three daughters. He was the COO of Thoratec Corporation, a medical device company. The only reason Burnett was on United 93 was he wanted to return home early from a business trip to see his family.

In his younger years, Burnett was a standout quarterback. He led his Jefferson (MN.) High School team to the division championship and played two years at St. John’s before an injury ended his career.

About an hour into the flight, the terrorists took control of the plane and forced all 38 passengers away from the cockpit. 

These four men knew that they were going to lose their lives.

They also resolved, as Burnett told his wife, that they were “going to do something.”

Burnett learned through in-flight phone calls with his wife about the other hijacked planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. He eventually said “there’s three other guys as big as me and we’re thinking of attacking the guy with the bomb.” 

The other three men were Beamer, Bingham, and Glick. Four former athletes were about to forge a bond that would save thousands of lives.

After a decision to storm the cockpit had been made, Beamer uttered the now-iconic phrase “Let’s Roll.”

Shortly thereafter, the plane crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Everyone on board perished.

Though it’s impossible to know with absolute certainty, the terrorists were likely attempting to fly the plane into another building, just as hijackers of the other planes did. Many believe the intended location was the White House.

What is indisputable, based on recorded phone calls from Burnett and Beamer, is that the people on board believed that more lives would be lost if they didn’t act.

Ten years later, these four remarkable men remain heroes not because of anything they did in athletics. They are heroes who just happened to be former athletes.

In a day and age in which the adulation and worship of athletes has reached an all-time high, we are left with an example that puts athletes in the proper perspective. 

No level of accomplishment in sports can make somebody a hero.  However, just like anybody else, athletes can be heroes.

Just like the memories of these four men and everybody else who lost their lives that day, it’s important this lesson isn’t ever forgotten.


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