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Coaches recall the night football games didn’t mean so much

Chestertfirefighters police officers lead by Rob Wesley (with flag) were honored pre-game ceremony Friday Sept. 14 2001 prior Chesterton/ Valparaiso

Chesterton firefighters and police officers lead by Rob Wesley (with flag) were honored in a pre-game ceremony Friday Sept. 14, 2001 at prior to the Chesterton/ Valparaiso football game. Victims and rescue personel killed in Tuesday's terrorist attacks were also honored. Andy Lavalley/Post-Tribune.

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Updated: November 9, 2011 1:58PM

Football is not a game for holding your opponent’s hand.

One time it happened for Morton coach Roy Richards, though. It’s a night he’ll never forget. It’s a night that hasn’t slipped from the mind of any football coach in the area that was coaching that evening.

On Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, the Governors clasped hands with Gavit, their opponent, at Morton’s Zlotnik Field and stood for a moment of silence to remember the people that died three days earlier in the attacks in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa.

The talk during the week had been whether to play the games or cancel them in honor of the victims. All the high schools around Northwest Indiana ultimately opted to play.

But it was a strange, surreal evening — a night where the games didn’t mean as much as they usually did, and where empathy and respect for your opponent was at an all-time high. Where the actual competition was dulled by the uncertainty and anxiety the whole country felt. Where it was hard to know exactly what you were supposed to feel, or how you were supposed to act in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.

It was a hard night to play.

Morton won 26-21.

“I’ve never felt so close to an opponent,” Richards said. “You won but you didn’t win. You didn’t feel like anyone won because we were victims.”

Ivan Zimmer, the coach at Calumet and a Marine pilot, was administering ISTEP tests when he heard a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers in New York. He arrived at the television set just as a second plane crashed into the other tower. Zimmer found out later in the day about the plane that crashed into the Pentagon and the one that crashed east of Pittsburgh.

He has mixed feelings about looking back on the events of 9/11.

“It made you feel good about how some people could deal with adversity at the highest level,” he said. “It was a sad week. A lot of innocent people lost their lives to committed wackos.”

Zimmer doesn’t remember much about the game — the Warriors lost 25-7 to Highland — but he knows it wasn’t easy.

“Whenever you have illness or death, it just makes the game not very important,” he said. “Your kids and your grandkids are important. It was a difficult time.”

Griffith was one school that actually called off practice the day of the attacks. Griffith coach Russ Radtke remembers people wading through construction at school to find televisions that were in the fieldhouse. They huddled there, eyes focused on the set.

There was talk of canceling the game that week against Munster but they played and the Panthers won 30-21.

Radtke had called his son, Shane, who was in the Army at West Point, and asked him what his thoughts were on playing.

Shane told him to play.

“We just couldn’t let them (terrorists) disrupt our lives and accomplish more than they already had,” Russ Radtke said.

For Munster coach Leroy Marsh, the overwhelming emotion of the time was fear. Munster was on lockdown for two days after 9/11 and the team skipped two days of practice.

He remembers fearing for the safety of his team during the game on Friday.

“There was a lot of anxiety and a lot of tension,” he said.

Crown Point coach Chip Pettit, a history teacher, recalls that the information about the hijackings came to the kids and teachers in bits and pieces. Not everyone was wired with phones and easy access to the Internet, like they are today. Even though the planes crashed in the morning, Pettit said the magnitude of the event wasn’t something they were aware of right away.

“We really didn’t realize everything that happened until we moved later in the day,” he said. “It was much different in terms of information.”

Some of the players went home but Pettit held practice that afternoon. They lost 47-0 at Portage.

He said the events of 9/11 haven’t really changed the way he coaches.

“We always tried to keep it in perspective,” he said. “We are playing a game with kids. We don’t equate it to war.”

Valparaiso coach Mark Hoffman can’t ever forget the 2001 season. In the year-ending highlight tape that his staff put together, they ran a silhouette of the American flag through every image of the video.

When they played at Chesterton, the two teams stood facing each other while the band played “Taps.”

“You could’ve heard a pin drop in that stadium,” Hoffman said. “It was an emotional evening.”

Hoffman believes that everybody that was at the game was “moved by the ceremony, everyone had empathy for the people that were killed on that Tuesday.”

Morton this season has instituted a pregame program called “Games of Valor,” where the team recognizes veterans for their service at every home game.

It’s not directly related to the events of 9/11. It’s there to expose everyone — the players on the Morton team were 6, 7 and 8 in 2001 — to people who have served our country.

“We can’t let our kids not know about it,” Richards said. “There are so many people that have sacrificed for us.”

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