The Super Bowl LIII match-up between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams Sunday recalled for many the 2002 championship featuring the same teams.
But Super Bowl XXXVI, played just month after the September 11 attacks, felt very different. At the time, the spectacle of sport felt trivial in the aftermath of the events. Coaches, players and team owners agonized over whether to play or not to play.
In an op-ed for the New York Daily News, 9/11 Memorial & Museum President & CEO Alice Greenwald recalled the emotional tenor of that first Super Bowl after the attacks:
"Looking back to 2002, the Patriots bested the Rams in an emotional game where, during the halftime show, U2 performed a special tribute to the 2,977 people killed in the terror attacks. At the end of the performance, after the names of each person killed had scrolled on an enormous screen behind him, Bono opened his jacket to reveal a U.S. flag. That unforgettable moment and others in sports after the 2001 attacks are captured in the special exhibition 'Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11,' currently on view at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum."
Greenwald explains that New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde, New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan and Jets coach Herm Edwards spoke up on behalf of their teammates and players across the NFL, leading a charge that helped ensure that regular-season play would be suspended temporarily, giving players and fans time to honor the dead.
During that interval, Jets and Giants players visited Ground Zero, using their celebrity to buoy morale among the men and woman working in the wreckage. They shook hands, signed autographs, handed out bottles of water, and exchanged caps and other paraphernalia emblazoned with their team logos for those displaying FDNY, NYPD and PAPD letters and insignia.
Testaverde, who had grown up on Long Island and made frequent trips to New York City, also responded to a request made by photographer Joe McNally. McNally wanted to use his craft to honor the extraordinary array of responders and others “whose lives had intersected with the World Trade Center tragedy on a significant level.”
Using a one-of-a-kind Polaroid camera that created life-sized images, McNally documented the “Faces of Ground Zero.” While rejecting any comparisons between his contributions to the recovery and the true valor and heroism of the responders and volunteers working around the clock, Testaverde accepted McNally’s invitation. McNally made two photos in which Testaverde wears his New York Jets uniform, carries a football in his right hand, and holds his helmet in his left. In one, Testaverde looks straight into the camera, proudly wearing an FDNY cap on his head. Exemplifying true sportsmanship and the spirit of unity he had witnessed at Ground Zero, Testaverde wears an NYPD cap in the second photo.
The 9/11 Museum has acquired McNally’s portraits of Testaverde and numerous others in the “Faces of Ground Zero” series of Polaroid portraits. The Museum recognizes the actions of Testaverde, Strahan, Edwards and numerous other athletes, coaches and fans across the field of sports in “Comeback Season,” which is on view until May 2019.
By Amy Weinstein, Vice President of Collections & Oral History, 9/11 Memorial Museum