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Exhibit at 9/11 Memorial Museum shows sports as healer

Mike Piazza's jersey from the Mets' first home

Mike Piazza's jersey from the Mets' first home game after Sept. 11 is seen at the 9/11 Memorial Museum's "Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11" exhibit on Thursday, June 20, 2018. Credit: Newsday / Neil Best

Sports was among the least of concerns in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But in the weeks and months that followed, it played roles that included both honoring the victims and signaling a return to normal life.

Those roles, and the people and events that were part of them, are recalled in a special exhibition at the 9/11 Memorial Museum that opens to the public Wednesday.

It is called “Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11” and features sports-related moments from that time, none more memorable than the home run by Mike Piazza that gave the Mets a victory over the Braves at Shea Stadium in the first major sports event in New York after the attacks.

Piazza’s jersey from that night is on display, with other artifacts from that night, one of nine stations in the exhibition.

Entry is covered by a museum admission, but tickets are required because of limited capacity.

Piazza’s teammate, John Franco, cried Thursday while recalling those dark days during a preview of the exhibit.

“Being a New Yorker,” he said, “it still gets me that we lost so many lives.”

Franco marveled at the fact that Piazza’s home run still is so well-remembered.

“It’s amazing,” he said, glancing at the video screen that was replaying it. “Mike’s home run, if you look at it, they’re going to keep replaying it, day in and day out. The more they play it, it sends chills, and the hair stands up on my arm, so it’s a great moment in sports, a great moment in my career to be part of that.

“Unfortunately, it was under those circumstances. But it’s a great healing process. We put a little Band-Aid on the city maybe for a couple of hours.”

Former Rangers goaltender Mike Richter and former Giants running back Tiki Barber joined Franco at the preview.

So did members of the Downey family, representing the late FDNY Deputy Chief Raymond Matthew Downey Sr., whose helmet Mark Messier wore before the Rangers’ first home game that season. That’s in the exhibit, too.

For Barber, his post-9/11 memories include playing in Kansas City 12 days after the attacks and being embraced by the usually hostile Arrowhead Stadium crowd.

He said that after hearing countless national anthems before games in which he played, it was the first time that he cried while listening to it.

“With the anthem issue that exists in the National Football League, I always get asked, ‘What would you do?’ ” he said. “And I say I would stand, and it’s because of this, because of walking out in Kansas City and [previously] not even thinking about the national anthem until it started playing. It’s become emotional.”

Soon a generation of athletes who were not yet born on Sept. 11, 2001, will begin to arrive in major sports leagues. For them and other young people, the exhibit seeks to explain what happened for those who did not experience it.

“This is news to my kids,” Barber said. “A.J. was born in 2002, Chason in 2004. I don’t know if I have ever had that conversation with my kids about the importance of 9/11 and what it meant to us as a football team.

“So I think this is perfect. It’s a shame this is not a permanent exhibit, because I think it is something that’s going to resonate with a lot of people who are sports fans.”

Said Franco: “I think it’s a great idea. Sports played a big role in the healing process, and for the kids who weren’t even born, they come down to this museum to see that sports did play a role in it. Not a big role, but we played a role in it.”

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