CLEVELAND: On this day, on a sacred day of mourning and remembrance, Ben Watson was almost as popular as Peyton Hillis; red, white and blue complemented brown and orange quite nicely; and some Bengals fans were even welcomed in Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Jim Weidus was one of them. He grew up a Browns fan but converted in 1968 when the Bengals were an expansion team. Now he’s a firefighter in Cincinnati and attended the game Sunday wearing a Bengals shirt and fireman’s hat painted in America’s colors.
One Browns fan spotted the helmet and came over to shake his hand, then he saw the Bengals’ T-shirt.
“Love ya,” the fan said. “Even though you’re from Cincinnati.”
“It’s all good fun,” he said. “The helmet saves me.”
The Browns joined the NFL on Sunday in commemorating the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11 before the season opener against the Bengals. Watson ran onto the field during pregame introductions through a tunnel of military personnel with an American flag draped over his shoulders, eliciting an eruption from the crowd surpassed only by Hillis’ introduction.
All NFL games across the country featured a video of a taps performance in Shanksville, Pa., where United Airlines flight 93 crashed to the ground. A moment of silence was planned for all the stadiums following taps, but Browns fans couldn’t stay quiet long enough, as chants of “USA! USA!” rolled through the seats.
Those same chants filled the gates as fans entered the stadium and were handed miniature American flags. The chants alternated with the more traditional woofing from Browns fans, creating a strangely patriotic scene with a Browns twist in the concourse.
Sal Paratore walked to his seat with a flag draped over his shoulders like Watson. Four women sat in their seats before kickoff displaying a special Sept. 11 flag listing all of the names of those killed. One of the women, Diane Wickham, has a son in the Air Force in Kuwait on a mission to Iraq.
American flags dotted Browns Stadium on Sunday. Full-size flags hung from walls, waved in the air and were even worn as jackets.
Tom Richey is a burly 42-year-old bakery owner with a shaved head.
He lives in Dayton and made the drive up with his wife Sunday to root for his Bengals. He wore a jacket with an American flag print on it and described himself as extremely patriotic, even before Sept. 11.
His grandfather was a Marine. His son is in the Army. Richey wanted to enlist in the military, but he was ineligible because he is deaf in his right ear.
“I just love America,” he said, recalling a story from a few days ago, when he was driving in his car thinking of this day, this game and these tributes. With the radio off, Richey began singing the national anthem.
“I got so emotional, I just started crying,” he said.
On Sunday, he wasn’t alone. More than a few fans were wiping their faces during the pregame tributes.
Today’s Browns players were teenagers and college students when the planes hit the towers. Colt McCoy was a high school freshman in, of all places, history class. The principal came over the loudspeaker to alert the students to what was happening and television sets were rolled into each classroom. McCoy said the students stayed in the same room the rest of the day, watched television, huddled in the corner and prayed.
Cornerback Sheldon Brown was a senior at South Carolina in 2001. His college team was the first to board a plane after the attacks when the Gamecocks flew to Starkville, Miss., to play Mississippi State on Sept. 20 in the first major college football game after the tragedy.
“It was a big deal,” Brown said of that game. “Something you never forget.”
Players from both South Carolina and Mississippi State grabbed hold of an American flag that spanned half the field that night, so it was only fitting Brown was on the field again Sunday when members of the Ohio National Guard and the Marines unfurled a 100-yard flag that covered the field. As planned, every player on both the Bengals and Browns teams stepped forward to hold part of the flag in a moving scene of unity and patriotism.
Then when it was over, when the anthem was sung, the flag was rolled up and the players began to take the field, Richey wiped both eyes.
Tears of mourning for those lost and for love of country. Hope for better days ahead. Victory for the enemy Bengals.
America’s pastime is back. America’s past time will never be forgotten.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at cavs.ohio.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.