By Peter Schwartz
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When it comes to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, everyone who is old enough remembers where they were at the time of the terrorist attacks on our country.
I was working for ESPN Radio at the time and was driving up to Lake Placid, New York, to cover Islanders training camp when I heard a report on the radio of a “small plane” hitting the World Trade Center.
Obviously, it was much more than that.
V.J. Beachem, a senior guard on the Notre Dame basketball team, was growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and remembers the day vividly.
“I was in first grade,” he told WFAN.com. “Back then, I didn’t really understand the depth of it and what was going on. I remember my teacher crying and the entire class and entire school watching on TV.”
That day, Irish head coach Mike Brey was on a recruiting trip in the Boston area and ran into Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Ann “Muffet” McGraw, who was also on a similar recruiting trip.
“Muffet McGraw and I got the last rental car from the Providence airport and drove all the way back to South Bend that day,” Brey said. “We listened to the radio the whole time.”
Beachem, Brey and the entire Fighting Irish men’s basketball team paid a visit to the site of the World Trade Center on Sunday when they took a tour of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in lower Manhattan. Notre Dame was visiting the hallowed ground three weeks ahead of their participation in the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic on Dec. 10 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
In a doubleheader at “The Rock” that day, Notre Dame will take on defending national champion Villanova at noon in a game that can be seen on CBS and heard on WFAN. That will be followed by Pitt vs. Penn State at approximately 3 p.m., with that contest airing on the CBS Sports Network.
The event supports the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund, which was created within a week of 9/11 and provides educational assistance for children of the victims that perished or were permanently disabled as a result of the attacks and during the rescue activities. To date, the fund has helped 3,100 students, but there are still 3,000 more who need to get through the program.
Having the four schools participate means the world to the foundation and the families who will receive financial assistance as a result of the doubleheader.
“It’s an amazing thing,” said Rhianna Quinn Roddy, executive director of the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund. “It tells me that Americans have truly not forgotten the families of 9/11. To see the team here, knowing that they are the ones who are going to be playing on Dec. 10 to support the families, it’s even more meaningful.”
Sunday’s visit was an eye-opening experience for the Fighting Irish, who are in town to face Colorado State on Monday night at Barclays Center. After their bus pulled up to the site at around 1 p.m. Sunday, they gathered near the North Pool and were given some background on the memorial and museum. From there, they were shown a tree that survived the attacks, an earthquake and two hurricanes before heading into the museum.
The players, coaches and other staff members looked carefully at every exhibit, artifact and photo while snapping pictures with their cellphones. For many of the players, the 9/11 attacks occurred when they were 6 or 7 years old, so this tour proved to be extremely educational.
“It’s interesting being here today,” Brey told me Sunday next to Foundation Hall, located downstairs in the museum. “A lot of them were in first and second grade. Their memories aren’t great about this.”
As the team made its way through the museum, the players saw artifacts from the original World Trade Center, including steel box column remnants, twisted steel, the slurry wall and bedrock. There was also the Ladder Company 3 fire truck that was damaged in the attacks, as well as an “in memorium” area that honors all 2,983 people killed in both the 9/11 and Feb. 26, 1993, attacks on the World Trade Center.
Visiting the memorial and museum can be a very emotional experience but an important one in terms of understanding what happened.
“Just being underground where everything happened is crazy and kind of surreal,” Beachem said. “It kind of puts everything into perspective. It’s kind of almost coming back full circle where it all happened.”
In three weeks, Notre Dame will be back in town but across the river for its highly anticipated contest with Villanova. From a basketball standpoint, you can’t ask for much more than the defending champs against an Irish team that has an ACC championship and back-to-back Elite Eight appearances over the last two seasons.
“It’s an unbelievable matchup,” said Brey, who has the Irish off to a 3-0 start this season. “It’s two programs that are pretty darn solid and two coaches that are really good friends.”
Brey and Villanova head coach Jay Wright have known each other for quite some time. In fact, they go all the way back to some memorable America East Conference contests when Brey was at Delaware and Wright was at Hofstra.
“Jay and I have remained really close,” Brey said. “I have the utmost respect for him. It should be a great day of basketball.”
While the Fighting Irish players are looking forward to a measuring-stick game against the team that cut down the nets in Houston in April, they realize that this is more than just a basketball game. Sure, they would love to step on the Prudential Center floor and knock off the defending champions, but there is also an understanding as to what the real objective is that day.
“We’re very excited about it,” said Beachem, the Irish’s leading scorer at 19.7 points per game. “It’s a great game against a great team, but we’re always finding ways to make it about more than just a game and helping out the families who have been through so much over the past 15 years. To do it by playing the game that we love is great.”
This was a business trip for Notre Dame as they get ready for Monday night’s game in Brooklyn. But with so much more to life than the game of basketball, it was important for the team, especially the players who were so young on 9/11 to see the memorial and museum, understand the magnitude of what happened and to honor the victims.
A couple of hours away from basketball proved to be a worthy experience for everyone.
“I thought it was neat to educate them,” Brey said. “I love the idea that we’re helping with scholarships for education for the children and the widows of the victims. I’m still a teacher, too. I have to coach and win basketball games, but I think some of our guys really had their eyes open this afternoon.”
Notre Dame will have to be extremely focused when it faces Villanova in 19 days at “The Rock.” The Irish certainly were attentive and emotional on Sunday during their visit to the World Trade Center site. After seeing the memorial and museum, the team, especially the players, can relate to the phrase that was born 15 years ago and is the title of the event they will participate in on Dec. 10 — “never forget.”
Don’t forget to follow Peter on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NDmbb, @PruCenter, @Sept11Memorial and the Never Forget Tribute Classic by using the hashtag #NFTC2016.