FLORHAM PARK, NJ – There will likely be a moment on Sunday – maybe a few – where Robert Saleh will look up at the stands at MetLife Stadium and remember how many lives were instantly changed 21 years ago.
Saleh’s New York Jets will open the NFL regular season against the Baltimore Ravens at home – just across the Hudson River from where hijackers crashed two planes into the World Trade Center during the September 11 attacks.
Football will be played on Sunday, but all the cheers won’t mean no one has forgotten. Certainly not Saleh, whose older brother, David, narrowly escaped the South Tower that day.
There were another 2,750 in lower Manhattan who never returned home.
And chances are many of the fans who support the Jets — in the stands and at home — to beat Lamar Jackson and the Ravens on Sunday have been mourning personal losses since that day.
“There’s no doubt about it. It’s amplified because it’s 9/11 in this city,” Robert Saleh said. “Not so much for me, but for people who are in the thick of it. Obviously I know it’s documented about my brother, but I heard stories this week about the cars being in (the Meadowlands) for months afterwards because no one could get them back. Long Island train stations and the tragedies that led to it.
Saleh was only 22 on September 11, 2001 and was just getting started in the financial industry in Detroit. His brother was training as a financial adviser in New York.
As Saleh and his family watched on television as the attacks unfolded there, in Washington, DC, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, they prayed, hoped, and begged that David was okay.
Several agonizing hours later, David called.
He did it.
Robert, who thought he had lost his big brother, immediately began to reflect on his own life and career path. After a few more months of traveling the world of finance, the former college tight end knew he had to pursue his dream.
He wanted to be a coach.
This two-decade journey began in Michigan State and took him to Central Michigan, Georgia, the Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers before becoming NFL head coach for the first time last year with the Jets.
“I’m meant to be here and I believe God does things for a reason,” Saleh said after he was hired. “And I believe this is one of them.”
His debut with the Jets last year — Sept. 12 at Carolina — coincided with the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
This year, he will be standing on the sidelines in a stadium packed with fans mostly from the New York/New Jersey area exactly 21 years since that day.
“I think it’s very personal for a lot of people and I think that passion is felt all over the country, not just in New York,” Saleh said on Friday. “But it’s a bit more important here and you know that (Sunday) means a lot more than just a football match for a lot of people in the stands.
“That’s why I think that’s what’s going to make Sunday pretty cool.”
The sport became a method of healing and a source of unity when it returned to stadiums across the country within weeks of the attacks.
And they continued to do so in the years that followed, especially during the days surrounding the anniversary. It’s something Ravens coach John Harbaugh has noticed.
“We’re going to New York, the Meadowlands, it’s going to be 9/11,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a great honor to have been chosen to go up there and play on 9/11. We take that very seriously, that part.
“We know the environment, we know how loud it’s going to be, we know how enthusiastic they’re going to be, their demeanor. They’re going to be in it. We have to match that as best we can.”
There will be poignant moments of silence before the game.
And most likely a few tears.
A 100-meter American flag will be unfurled in the field by members of the New York Police Department, New York City Fire Department and Port Authority Police Department of New York and New Jersey .
The Jets will then begin a new game day tradition of having fans sing the national anthem. It will be led by NYPD officer Brianna Fernandez, whose late father, Luis, was a 23-year NYPD veteran who assisted in rescue and recovery efforts.
A stadium will once again be filled with voices united by tragedy and bound by football.
“I know you like the tailgate. I would appreciate if you all come out early, get there early,” Saleh said, addressing his message to the fans. “I would like everyone to sing the national anthem. Don’t just listen to it, just sing it.
“I think it’s the coolest thing when the stadium sings it. I think it’s going to be electric.”
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister contributed.
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