NY sports figure will never forget 9/11

The Mets returned home to play Braves for The Mets returned home to play Braves for first game in NY since the World Trade Center tragedy. Mets manager Bobby Valentine shakes hands with a police officer after a pregame ceremony. (Sept. 21, 2001) Photo Credit: Newsday/Paul J. Bereswill

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Even now, a decade later, it remains an indelible image of the sports world's response to the Sept. 11 attacks:

Fiery Mets manager Bobby Valentine in the Shea Stadium parking lot as it turned into a staging area, directing the distribution of massive supplies bound for rescue workers at Ground Zero and displaced residents.

For Valentine, though, the primary emotion was and is frustration over how little it all amounted to.

"Many of the people I tried to help in those days, I came up short so often because their needs were so great and my wherewithal was so limited," he said. "It's a helpless feeling I still have.

"Those times were so confusing; there was no preparation and there was no protocol. You'd want to go to sleep and you'd want to wake up because you knew there was so much to do. It was crazy times."

Valentine said he is uncomfortable discussing his role publicly because he knows nothing that players, coaches and executives did or could do compares with the work of firefighters, police officers and others.

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But he also understands that it was the responsibility of he and his sports celebrity counterparts to at least show they cared, and to help however they could.

Many answered that call, and some have remained involved with the people and organizations they first encountered 10 years ago.

Lasting bonds

Valentine has bonded privately with the family ofan accountant who lost his life at the WTC, leaving four children. They visited him during his time as a manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan.

Jim Fassel befriended the family of Frank Palombo, a Brooklyn firefighter who left 10 children.

The former Giants coach established the Jim Fassel Foundation, which raised $1 million to support 9/11-related charities.

"We'll never forget; that's the slogan for my foundation," said Fassel, now president and coach of the United Football League's Las Vegas Locomotives. "And we're not."

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Ernie Accorsi, then the Giants general manager, privately paid the Catholic school tuition of a young girl whose father died in the Cantor Fitzgerald offices.

But the money was only the start. He attended her Sweet 16 party and high school graduation.

"Everybody felt such a compelling need to help," he said.

The attacks hit players who grew up in the New York area harder than most. Many knew people who died.

"Being born and raised here, seeing those towers from when I was a kid, when they went down it felt like a punch in the stomach," former Mets pitcher John Franco said.

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Franco, a Brooklyn native, sensed an added level of appreciation in visits with rescue workers. He in turn felt an added sense of responsibility.

Among his efforts has been involvement with Tuesday's Children, an organization that supports the families of 9/11 victims. He had his two oldest children work as interns there "to see what it was like to help."

"The one thing I'm very proud of from that time was how so many New Yorkers united as one to help their fellow man," he said.

Franco will throw a ceremonial first pitch to former teammate Mike Piazza before Sunday's Cubs-Mets game. Franco said he was humbled by the honor. "I don't have words," he said. "I'm speechless.''

Game to remember

Piazza's eighth-inning home run to beat the Braves on Sept. 21, the first major sports event in the city after the attacks, remains the most famous athletic moment associated with that time.

Two other New York teams, the Jets and Giants, played a key role in the NFL's decision not to play games on Sept. 16.

Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who grew up in Elmont, knew victims, including a high school teammate, and made it clear that if the Jets were forced to play that weekend, "I wouldn't be on that trip."

Eventually his teammates agreed, and the league itself soon followed suit. Testaverde first visited Ground Zero alone. He said he still gets chills talking or thinking about it.

"It was like a war zone," he said Wednesday in a conference call. "It was a little frightening to be down there walking around, to be honest, not knowing what was going to happen. I just continued to thank everyone for the hard work."

Many other sports stars did what they could to help. That's how it began for Kerry Collins, then the Giants quarterback, who visited with other players and officials that first Saturday.

But soon he was getting involved, especially with Engine 24/Ladder 5, a firehouse in Greenwich Village to which he donated both money and time.

"I think for me it was just a natural relationship," he said. "My thoughts and prayers were always with them but I know you can never truly recover from that."

Collins had planned to be in New York this week to visit firefighters, but he got sidetracked by coming out of retirement to sign with the Colts and fill in for the injured Peyton Manning.

It touched everyone

Allan Houston, then a Knicks player and now their assistant general manager, said the basketball community felt responsibility, too.

"Being a player in New York during that time, you felt a burden," Houston said. "You felt as a player and one who people's eyes were on that you had an opportunity to shed as positive a light as possible."

Houston recalled the charitable efforts of Madison Square Garden, the Knicks and his own family. But his sharpest memory is the Oct. 30 game in which Michael Jordan returned to the NBA as a member of the Wizards on the same night the Knicks honored heroes of 9/11.

"It felt like a playoff game because of the electricity and the magnitude of the game," he said.

It was a difficult time to be an entertainment figure in New York. You were peripheral and essential at the same time. As Fassel said, "One pleasurable part of your job description is you get to lend your name ."

But Franco said for all the goodwill, "We were just a Band-Aid, just a little Band-Aid."

Valentine said his helpless feeling in time "led to a depression of some type.''

"I didn't think I did enough," he said. "But what I did, I did with all of my heart and soul . . . It's a celebration of life that proves that life goes on, and if you're willing to be strong and willing to look around, there is a lot of good that can be done."

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