FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Mike Catapano was sitting in his sixth-grade music class when panic suddenly filled the room.
His instructor was distraught, having just heard that each of the towers at the World Trade Center, where one of his loved ones worked, had been hit by a plane.
“You’re young, so you don’t really know exactly what’s happening,” the Jets linebacker recalled of the Sept. 11 attacks. “Was it a crash? Was it an attack? You’re just so confused.”
Catapano, the only player on the Jets’ roster who was born and raised in New York, grew up in the Long Island village of Bayville — about 35 miles from lower Manhattan.
“I remember hearing that the World Trade Center went down,” Catapano said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I wasn’t really sure where that was at the time, and then everybody started saying, ‘twin towers.’
“That’s when I was like, ‘Oh my God!'”
His thoughts immediately turned to an uncle who worked at a nearby building. Then, his mother, Barbara — like many other worried parents — showed up at the school to bring him home.
“My mom was freaking out and buying all kinds of food from the supermarket, thinking that we might be going to war or something,” said Catapano, who was 11 at the time. “It was just pandemonium. For a little kid, it was just kind of all a blur. But I remember everyone around me kind of being in a panic.”
Once back home, Catapano and his mother flipped on the TV to try to make sense of everything that was happening.
“We just stared at the screen in horror,” he recalled.
Anxious moments eventually gave way to relief as the Catapanos confirmed, one by one, that all of their immediate family members were OK. That included his uncle and a few firefighters, including two who were first responders.
His music instructor and several classmates at St. Dominic Elementary School in Oyster Bay weren’t nearly as lucky.
Neither were many of his neighbors.
“It was all around us,” Catapano said. “As anybody in New York knows, it was just a terrible, terrible day.”
Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, including 2,750 at the World Trade Center.
“I remember one of my classmates being on TV and announcing his father’s name as one of the victims,” Catapano said. “It’s just horrible. … When you say 15 years, it seems like a long time ago. But, it’s really just like yesterday.”
During the days and weeks after the attacks, Catapano remembers joining his mother, a member of the neighborhood Rotary Club, going door-to-door bringing food and checks to people who lost the breadwinners of their household.
They did the same with families affected near his grandmother’s home in nearby Bethpage.
Sunday marks the 15-year anniversary of the attacks, and Catapano will be on the field at MetLife Stadium for the Jets’ season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Rookie Jordan Jenkins, the projected starter, is dealing with a calf injury and hasn’t practiced all week. That could open the door for Catapano to make his first NFL start.
He is excited for the possibility, but the game will take on even greater meaning for Catapano and his family.
“I remember the country really coming together right after the attacks, even as a little kid,” Catapano said. “I could sense that, and I’m sure you will feel that in the stands Sunday. That’s a special thing. It shows the resiliency of humans, the resiliency of the United States. It’s much bigger than the game of football.
“It’s cool to be a part of those feelings and kind of put it on the field and do it for those people in the stands.”
The memories of that day in 2001 will again be all around him before the game when the Jets hold a pregame tribute to remember the victims. Members of Tuesday’s Children, an organization that supports youth, families and communities impacted by terrorism and traumatic loss, will participate.
Representatives from the FDNY, NYPD and PAPD and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Tower Foundation will be honorary captains, along with members of the Jets’ 2001 team, who will also be featured in a video shown during the ceremony remembering 9/11.
Current players will wear commemorative helmet stickers, and coaches will have lapel pins on their shirts.
Catapano will also carry lots of emotions with him onto the field, and feels a responsibility to those former classmates, friends and neighbors who will spend part of that day grieving for lost loved ones.
“It takes it to a bigger picture outside of football when you’re representing New York and it’s Sept. 11,” Catapano said. “It makes you think about more than the game itself and how important the game can be to other people in New York. I’m just proud to be able to represent New York.”
(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)