CANTON: Eleven years ago today, Darrell Hazell sat in a staff meeting with the rest of the Rutgers University football coaching staff preparing for an upcoming game against Cal.
What seemed so important at the time — game-planning for a win — was quickly put into perspective in a way no one in the room could have ever imagined.
During the meeting, two hijacked airplanes slammed into the nearby World Trade Center, exploding into giant balls of fire and thick, billowing grey smoke that ominously served notice that the United States was under a large-scale terrorist attack.
But Hazell, now the Kent State football coach, didn’t quite understand the significance or scope of what was happening.
“Suddenly, one of the staff’s graduate assistants walked into the room and said, ‘Hey, a plane just went into the World Trade Center,’ ” Hazell recalled Monday afternoon as the featured speaker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Club luncheon. “But I didn’t think anything of it at first.”
About 15 minutes later, the GA poked his head in the meeting again.
“He said, ‘Hey, you guys better come out here and take a look at this on TV,’ ” Hazell said. “Understand, Rutgers is about 30 minutes as the crows fly from downtown Manhattan.”
As everyone got up, Hazell stepped out of the staff room and walked across the hallway to his office.
“As I look out my window, I can see the smoke billowing from the building. I’m thinking, ‘what in the world is going on?’ ” he said. “A little bit later, the second plane goes into the building and I said, ‘We’re under attack.’ ”
It is a moment etched in time that Hazell, 48, will never forget, the importance of which he doesn’t want others to forget either.
That’s why Monday, on the eve of the 11th anniversary of 9/11, Hazell shared with an audience of hundreds the importance of honoring those who’ve served our country and those who perished in the attacks.
“Think back to where you were and what you were doing at 8:26 a.m. Eastern Standard Time when that first plane went into the building,” said Hazell, whose 26-year coaching career includes two seasons as an assistant at the U.S. Military Academy.
“On that day, there were 6,500 planes that had to be grounded carrying over a million people,” he continued. “The air traffic controllers did an unbelievable job getting all those planes on the ground. Then you think about the 343 firefighters who lost their lives running into that building trying to get someone else out of that building. You think about the 3,000 other innocent people who lost their lives that day, who woke up that morning, drank a cup of coffee, kissed their wife or husband and children goodbye, not thinking anything of it.”
Hazell then asked for anyone who’d ever served the country to stand in recognition, the audience joining him in giving them an extended round of applause.
“When you brush away the debris, brush away the dust and brush away the tears, what I saw is a country coming together,” Hazell said. “You saw people from different races, backgrounds and [economic] levels all coming together. We can never lose sight of that.”
After the luncheon, Hazell shared more privately about the aftermath of the attacks and how it affected him, the Rutgers staff and players.
“We were all numb,” he said. “We’re wondering what’s going on and what’s next? Obviously, word came down that we weren’t going to be playing that week. But you couldn’t put anything out of your mind because we had some kids on the team who were looking for people, for grandparents and things like that. Thankfully, they got out.”
A lasting impact
Eleven years later, the day’s events still have an impact. Hazell doesn’t want anyone to forget why.
“You think about all the things that it changed, how we do travel now and other things,” Hazell said. “Me personally, I appreciate things in the country more. Not that I didn’t before, but it’s more visual to me — the flag and the street sign coming in today of the Veteran’s Memorial Highway. All those things became more important.”
That’s why before each football game when Hazell and his team line the sideline staring at the flag as the National Anthem plays, his raw emotions often show.
“For the next eight years, every single time the national anthem was played, tears would come down my face,” he said. “We can never forget the service that people provide on a daily basis to this great country.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.