Through Sports, We Heal From Tragedy

In the arena of sports, a funny thing happens. People from different walks of life come together under a common banner. It could be for a school, city, region, or even a country. For that short time, we become one. In modern history, we have had to endure a number of disasters and tragedies. Through sports, we are able to use these events to come together and help heal from tragedy.

On a world scale, you’ll find less of an event that brings nations together like the Olympics and the World Cup. In many countries, the nation stops to watch World Cup matches. Countries that struggle with powering the entire county will buy extra energy just so everyone can watch the World Cup matches. I remember at my last job during the World Cup, the televisions in the lobby always had the matches on and people kept coming to watch. Same with the Olympics to a lesser extent. These two events bring nations together, even nations that do not like each other, to compete and win for personal and national glory. Outside of the 1972 Munich Olympics, the events showcase of peaceful coexistence, or at least toleration during the short time that the competition is going on.

The event that probably comes to most people’s minds is 9/11. On September 11, 2001, America was attacked in a way that it never had before. The World Trade Center, twin towers that helped define the skyline of New York City, was destroyed, along with 2,974 people. America and her people were badly hurt. The nation stopped and we wondered what to do next? The country stopped. Much like when President Kennedy was shot back in the 1960s, people today remember where they were on 9/11 when the towers came crashing down. I remember that day. I was a freshman at UCF and for whatever reason, I decided I was not going to go to my morning class. I would find out shortly later that my class would be canceled and my suitemates and I were glued to the television.

Organizations were concerned about having large groups of people together for safety reasons. Sporting events were canceled or postponed. One organization that while concerned about safety, decided to press forward with their next scheduled event. The day was September 13, 2001, only two days after the nation’s innocence was lost. The organization was the World Wrestling Federation, now known as WWE. They pushed forward their Thursday Smackdown broadcast and opened up with Lilian Garcia doing a powerful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem. At a time when our wits were frayed and our emotions as frail as they have ever been, Garcia, with tears in her eyes and barely keeping her composure, killed it and gave those watching that show something to cheer about. Look it up on YouTube. Goosebumps.

The NFL followed after postponing their Week 2 games that were scheduled for the weekend following 9/11. I remember seeing the giant flag that covered the field in New York, the Cowboys player running with a flag on a pole, and the pair of Browns players running out with a flag flowing behind them. The nation began to heal. Sports helped bring them together. They cheered for their respective teams and gave them a sense of normalcy in an abnormal situation. The New England Patriots became an easy Cinderella team to cheer for that year, edging the St. Louis Rams for their first Super Bowl victory. It was about pride in America and it was hard to argue with a team named the Patriots in the Super Bowl and the Yankees in the World Series. America was healing, but it took a long time. Even today, we still honor and remember this event. You might recall the story of Welles Crowther, the man with the red bandanna. Crowther was a normal everyday American turned national hero when he helped get at least a dozen people to safety before the South Tower collapsed. On the day before the 10 year anniversary in 2011, when UCF hosted Boston College, Crowther’s alma mater, some students learned about the story of the man with the red bandanna and a grassroots effort was made for everyone at the game to be wearing a red bandanna. The school honored the Crowther family and the Boston College football team wore special helmet decals. It was a special moment seeing all the red bandannas being waived for a person who went to the opposing school. Through tragedy and loss, this brought these two fan bases together for something bigger than them or the game.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina absolutely devastated New Orleans. New Orleans is a city that sits below sea level and Katrina plowed through the levees that helped keep the city from being under water. We had not experienced a city so damaged and with so many people displaced. I remember seeing the pictures and videos of the devastation. Their professional sports teams: the Saints and Hornets, were exiled from New Orleans for a season while the city cleaned up and rebuilt their infrastructure. There was national excitement when the Saints returned to the New Orleans Superdome on Monday Night Football in Week 3 of 2006 and demolished the Atlanta Falcons on national television. New Orleans as a city was back. The Saints would win their first Super Bowl a few seasons later.

More recently, and one closer to home for me was the Pulse nightclub shooting on Orlando on June 12, 2016. This was the single largest mass shooting and an act of domestic terrorism on American soil. The why it happened is irrelevant. The tragedy took 49 innocent people. While I hadn’t lived in Orlando in 9 years, I visited rather frequently and still consider it my second home. This tragedy defined a city. Orlando, nicknamed The City Beautiful, came together in a way I never imagined. From students at UCF to random people from the richest neighborhoods to the projects, to Orlando Magic basketball players, Orlando unified. They donated blood, supplies, and kept looking for ways to help. A church opened their doors to families of the victims and offered to do funeral services if needed. One victim, Drew Leinonen, was a friend of a few of my friends. We went to UCF together. I only met him once or twice and knew him passively online, but the genuine pain from my friends was very real to me. It was this real pain that drove me to two sporting events that honored those victims. The first was a Tampa Bay Rays baseball game in St. Petersburg a week later. The Rays priced their tickets at $5 and donated the proceeds to the Pulse Victims Fund. The buzz was so big, the Rays drew their largest crowd in 10 years. The team gave everyone “We are Orlando” shirts and the team wore special Orlando Rays throwback hats made specifically for the game. I love that shirt. The national anthem was sung by a men’s choir and it was chilling. You could feel the energy in the stadium as a video played showing the victims along with a deafening moment of silence.

The second game I went to was the 2016 season opener for UCF football. UCF, like the rest of Orlando, took the events very personally. Before the game, they had 49 seconds of silence. You could hear a pin drop. UCF added the words “Orlando United” to the back of their helmets. Throughout the healing process of this tragedy, the city adopted the name Orlando United. Orlando United didn’t become just a slogan for recovery though, it became the mantra of the city. Through tragedy, the attitude of the city changed and the words Orlando United has taken a life of its own. The number 49 also has special meaning. When the shooting happened, Orlando City, the city’s Major League Soccer team, was building their stadium. They replaced 49 seats in Section 12 of their stadium with rainbow seats in 7 rows and marked as Orlando United as a monument to the event that brought the city together.

Just this past weekend, the city of Houston, one of the largest cities in America, has received a colossal amount of rain and flooding due to Hurricane Harvey. Roads and highways are now completely submerged. Thousands are stranded and the situation has become dangerous, similar to the struggles New Orleans faced 12 years ago. The Houston Astros just announced that their upcoming baseball series is moving to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Other college football games scheduled for this weekend had to seek for new stadiums to play. While the games continue to be played, the rest of the nation fights to keep the spirit of America looking forward. When the waters recede and Houston can rebuild, their teams will be with them, helping to put the city on the road to recovery.

As a nation, America has had its fair share of tragedies. The American spirit, however, is one of strength and perseverance. We have proven multiple times over that we are able to shed our differences and come together to help each other heal. There has been no tragedy that we have not been able to work together, heal, and overcome. Sports has worked as a medium that has brought people from different walks through life together under a common banner. By using that common banner, we can continue to work together in the future to heal from tragedy.

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