By Peter Schwartz
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The morning of Sept. 11, 2001 began as a typical weekday for Mike Petke.
He woke up at around 7 a.m., had breakfast with his then-fiancée and now-wife Kim at their home in New Jersey, dropped her off at the bus stop outside the Lincoln Tunnel for her ride to work in New York City, and then proceeded to drive to Kean University for MetroStars (now Red Bulls) training.
It was the final day of practice for the MetroStars before their scheduled game the next night against the Miami Fusion at Giants Stadium.
But Petke would soon realize that this typical day in his life would turn out to be far from a typical. Just after 8:50 that morning, Petke was driving on Routes 1/9 when it became clear that something was wrong.
“I remember at some point the cars were slowing up, not in a traffic way but rather on their own,” said Petke, a Long Island native. “I’m assuming now that they had just witnessed the first plane hitting the tower.”
When Petke arrived at practice, the players were called into a meeting and it was confirmed to them that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. There was no discussion about it being a terrorist attack and there was no television in the locker room, so the team went out onto the field to warm up for practice.
Petke and his teammates were on the field for five minutes when they were called back to the locker room and were told that another plane crashed into South Tower. The reality of the situation was that the United States was under attack.
“Every single person in that locker room knew that this was no accident,” Petke said. “I tried to phone Kim, but the lines were busy as millions of people were calling their loved ones at the same time. I remember being numb and in a state of shock and disbelief.”
The MetroStars would eventually find out about the plane that crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and the aircraft that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
They would not return to the field for practice because there was no game to practice for. Major League Soccer cancelled the remainder of the regular season and went straight to the playoffs when play resumed on Sept. 20.
Petke believes that MLS, just like Major League Baseball and the NFL, made the right choice in not playing.
“I would not be able to go out on a field and play a game the next night,” said Petke, who currently serves as New Jersey Youth Soccer’s Director of Coaching for the Olympic Development Program and Player Development. “It would have been impossible. I, along with countless others across the country and around the world, was still trying to come to grips with the situation.”
Fifteen years later, we’re all still trying to come to grips with what happened, but we turn to sports from time to time for a couple of reasons. They serve as a form of entertainment, but they can also allow for an opportunity to reflect.
This Sunday, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the Red Bulls will play D.C. United at Red Bull Arena. On the field, it’s an important game for the Red Bulls, who trail NYCFC by just a point for first place in the Eastern Conference. It’s also a meeting between two markets that were directly affected by the 9/11 attacks.
It’s a rivalry game that carries even more significance than the final score.
“I think the Red Bulls vs. D.C. game will be emotional, as it is every year,” said Petke, who guided the Red Bulls to the Supporters’ Shield in 2013 and to the Eastern Conference finals in 2014.
“It’s a chance to pay tribute to a day that still changed life in many ways for all of us. Being a part of 13 9/11 games, it always put things in perspective for me. I, along with my family, speak about it every year as to never forget that tragic day.”
Hosting this game is not the only way that the Red Bulls will pay tribute to the 9/11 victims, survivors, and first responders. On Friday, the Red Bulls are kicking off their annual “11 Days of Service” campaign at the Community FoodBank in Hillside, New Jersey. This is just one of 11 different community activities that the team will be involved in.
“We are extremely proud and grateful for the time and energy the club gives during our ’11 Days of Service’ community initiative,” said Red Bulls general manager Marc de Grandpre. “Each member of the organization — players, coaches and staff — volunteer their time to honor the heroes that keep us safe every day. Giving back to those in need is the most effective way to pay tribute to the heroes and their families that inspire us on a daily basis.”
In the days and months following 9/11, sports became a part of the healing process and served as a small escape from reality, especially in New York with the dramatic home run by Mets Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza against the Braves and the Yankees’ memorable run to the World Series.
The MetroStars lost to the L.A. Galaxy in the 2001 MLS quarterfinals, but just like with any of the other sports, the results seemed so trivial given what was going on in our country. What the teams did to help off the fields, courts, and ice was much more important.
“The team did a lot of community service,” Petke recalled. “I was down on the docks of Jersey City loading up barges with supplies and doing anything that was asked of me.”
The MetroStars volunteered for any type of opportunity that was presented to them. During “The Concert For New York” at Madison Square Garden, Petke represented the MetroStars during the segment with local sports personalities.
“One of the greatest honors in my life,” he said. “I was able to stand on stage and address the sold-out arena and grieve together with them all.”
Fifteen years ago this Sunday, Petke, along with so many others in the tri-state area, were on their way to work on what was a beautiful sunny September morning. The day ended with tragedy that sprung a spectrum of emotions from sadness to anger and anything else other than beautiful or happy.
“Growing up in New York and living in New Jersey, 15 years later my emotions are just as strong and vulnerable as they were that day and the days that follow,” Petke said. “I can’t believe it’s been 15 years since that morning. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Anyone who is old enough remembers where they were that day. I had just started working for ESPN Radio and was on my way up to Lake Placid to cover New York Islanders training camp. There I was sitting in an arena that hosted the “Miracle on Ice,” one of the greatest moments in United States history on a day that was arguably the worst in our history.
Petke and the MetroStars showed up for work that day, too. Like everyone else in our area and our country, they went home and immediately adopted a slogan and a feeling that still resonates today.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @petkemike and @NewYorkRedBulls