Tagliabue reflects on events of 9/11

On the night of Sept. 12, 2001, then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was walking home to his New York City apartment after two long days of meetings, calls, briefings and planning in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. By the end of that day, he and his team had determined what the options were for that weekend’s slate of NFL games, but no decision had been made. As Tagliabue walked through the streets that night, there was one feeling he couldn’t escape.

Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue sits down for an interview for the 9/11 feature that will air Sept. 11 on "GameDay Morning." (Craig Ellenport/NFL)

“Just the smell of devastation and death in the city,” Tagliabue recalled. “It was clear we would not be playing that weekend.”

Tagliabue didn’t get much sleep that night, and at 4:45 a.m., he got up and began crafting the memo that would announce the weekend’s NFL games would be canceled.

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Tagliabue was at NFL headquarters Friday to tape an interview that will be part of a special 9/11 memorial feature to air on NFL Network’s “GameDay Morning” before the first Sunday of the 2011 season –- Sept. 11.

Tagliabue, who succeeded Pete Rozelle as commissioner of the NFL in 1989 and gave way to Roger Goodell in 2006, recalled the frenetic events of 9/11 from the NFL perspective, from the moment he learned what had happened — “My assistant came into my office and she was basically hysterical” — to the nonstop schedule that ensued. Between accounting for NFL employees, supporting the two NFL employees who lost spouses in the World Trade Center, and assessing all the security issues, Tagliabue said “football games were the furthest thing from my mind.”

But when it came time to get back to football two weeks later, the focus was on providing a psychological lift.

“It was less about football and more about resilience,” Tagliabue said, adding that the signs of patriotism around the league during those Week 3 games showed there was a unified spirit following the tragedy.

There will be a similar spirit, no doubt, when fans pay tribute during the Week 1 games this season. Tagliabue said his hope for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is that it reminds people of the support for law enforcement and the military that took hold after the attacks. “It’s not exactly a happy event, reflecting on loss of life,” he said. “It should reaffirm the importance of what we’re doing.”

In the five years since Tagliabue stepped down as commissioner, he has stayed busy working in the fields of legal, business and higher education, and also doing a lot of traveling. He has remained out of the NFL picture, and was quick to note that he was not consulted or asked to get involved in any way with the labor issues that led to this year’s extended NFL lockout.

“They didn’t (call),” he said. “Once you’re gone, you’re gone. Part of the reason to leave is to pass the responsibility to the next generation of leaders and I think they performed beautifully.”

Some might think Tagliabue would be relieved to be no more than a spectator during the CBA mess, but that wasn’t the case.

“It was not fun,” Tagliabue said, “because I knew what people were going through, what commissioner Goodell was dealing with and how complex it is…. I wasn’t involved but I had been involved for over 30 years in some similar confrontations. They’re never fun, but I think the commissioner did a great job, his team did a great job, and both sides get a lot of credit for having produced an agreement that’s really positive for the long term.”

– Craig Ellenport

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