We have observed, soberly, the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, which means we are also coming up on the anniversary of the first big sporting event played after 9/11, which was on Sept. 20, 2001, a Thursday night in Starkville.
South Carolina vs. Mississippi State.
If you were there, no way you have forgotten. There’s a good chance you have forgotten the score. You may have even forgotten that Lou Holtz was the Gamecocks coach. But you can’t have forgotten the eerie feeling of approaching and entering Scott Field that evening with all that security not knowing what to expect. You can’t have forgotten the amazing display of patriotism that ruled the night, or the South Carolina and Mississippi State players, who marched onto the field and held up a gigantic American flag in pre-game ceremonies.
So much I remember, including walking toward the stadium through the tailgating tents and fans and seeing far more red, white and blue than maroon and white. And seeing so many homemade signs like the one that said: “Go to Hell Ole Miss,” only with the Ole Miss crossed out and Bin Laden inserted. And seeing firefighters at each gate, holding out boots to collect money for a disaster relief fund for the families of New York City firefighters.
Larry Templeton, then Mississippi State athletic director, surely remembers the call he received from then-SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer on Sunday afternoon just four days before the game. You must remember, all college and NFL football games had been postponed or canceled that weekend.
“The commissioner said he had just gotten off the phone with the White House, which got my attention,” Templeton says. “And then he said, ‘The White House wants y’all to play that game Thursday night. Can you get it ready?’”
Templeton says he replied, “We’ll be ready. Can you get South Carolina here?”
Kramer said he would.
It wasn’t easy. None of it was. For instance, South Carolina was supposed to fly to Mississippi the night before the game. That didn’t happen. Not enough crew could be found for the hastily arranged charter flight. Instead, the Gamecocks flew in on game day.
From Templeton’s standpoint, security was the paramount issue. You must remember, the image of the two jets flying into the World Trade Center — and a third flying into the Pentagon — were fresh on everyone’s minds. There were reports of that al-Queda had plans for more attacks in the days that followed. Starkville might not seem a likely target now, but there were going to be 43,000 people gathered in one place for a nationally televised event.
Says Templeton, “We weren’t taking anything for granted.”
Templeton talked to then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who agreed, Templeton says, “to make the Mississippi Highway Patrol available to do whatever it took to make it as safe as possible.”
The MHP enlisted the help of the FBI. The Columbus Air Force base provided bomb-sniffing dogs, which roamed every nook and cranny of Scott Field in the three days leading up to the game and on game day. Among the scores of law officers patrolling the stadium and the surrounding area were FBI agents.
Because plans called for metal detectors to be employed at every gate, State fans were told to leave their cowbells at home. Says Templeton, proudly, “Most of them brought American flags instead.”
Among Templeton’s chief concerns was this: “I just didn’t know if our fans would show up. In the days leading up to the game, ESPN was promoting the broadcast seems like every five minutes. We knew there would be millions of viewers. I didn’t want them to see an empty stadium. We just didn’t know if our people would be comfortable enough to come…”
The ESPN audience saw a full house — or nearly so. They also witnessed a memorable show of patriotism, highlighted by the two opposing teams marching onto the field to help hold the American flag, which stretched from sideline to sideline. State quarterback Wayne Madkin, who led the State players onto the field, remembers that Bulldog players were not told of the script until just before they left the locker room.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen, we had no idea,” says Madkin, who now works for Entergy. “Our coaches had done a really good job of keeping our focus on the game. I mean, there were so many distractions. We were trying to get ready to play a football game, while wondering, ‘Is my family going to be OK? Is there going to be another attack?’ There was so much on our minds back then. And then we walked out on the field, saw the crowd and all those American flags and all the cameras. And that’s when it hit me that this was way bigger than a football game.”
And, 20 years later?
“I think we can take some pride in that we were able to be a small part of the healing of the nation,” Madkin says. “There was such a feeling of patriotism that night.”
They did play football that night, and South Carolina won a hard-fought 16-14 game. Even then, the score seemed almost insignificant.
Says Templeton, “I can hardly remember anything about the game. What I remember is that we felt like we were putting on a show for America that night. And I remember Commissioner Kramer shaking my hand and saying we pulled it off.”