CHAMPAIGN — “Where were you on 9/11?” evolved as the new “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?” when it comes to historical touchstones for tragedy in the United States. Different generations, different seismic events on the world stage.
So Bart Miller didn’t have to think twice about his answer.
Illinois’ offensive line coach was in high school on Sept. 11, 2001. On a field trip that morning for his management and sports marketing class at Elk Grove High School. Headed to the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago when airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York.
“We turned around right as we got into the Loop,” Miller said. “This was before smartphones. We had cell phones, but it wasn’t live updating on social media or any of that. We didn’t know what was going on. We came back to school, and when we got back, the plane had hit the Pentagon. … At the time, they didn’t know what the fourth target was, and Flight 93, obviously that went down, there was speculation that could be headed toward Chicago and, more importantly, toward the Sears Tower,”
Professional and college sports paused that week. High school football continued in Illinois. Miller and Elk Grove topped Palatine 31-14. But Miller remembers it being an emotional week, and everything was certainly not the same.
Elk Grove High School is located fewer than 10 miles west of O’Hare International Airport.
“It was the first time I’d seen no planes in the sky,” Miller said. “There were planes continually flying over Elk Grove High School, and it was eerily silent.”
Illinois will continue its 2021 football season Saturday at Virginia on the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Illini coaches have memories of that day 20 years ago. The oldest of the Illinois players hadn’t even reached kindergarten yet. Many of them weren’t even born.
“I remember the whole world stopping,” said 24-year-old safety Prather Hudson. “I’m from Columbus, Ga., and Fort Benning, the infantry base, is right there. Columbus was very on edge with who knows what could happen. I don’t remember too much, because I was so young, but it was very tragic and we’ve got to continue to remember that.”
That’s what the Illinois coaches have tried to get across this week. Education beyond the football field has been part of Bret Bielema’s goal since he was hired last December. Each of his assistant coaches delivered a presentation for the team in the last eight months. Multiple topics. None of them football.
Putting preparation on pause for a bit this week to discuss 9/11 was simply part of the Illini’s ongoing education.
“One of the things we’ve tried to do since I’ve been here is understand that this is bigger than just a football game,” Bielema said. “We’ll talk about holidays. We’ll talk about memorials. I’ll ask kids to explain it or put it up on the board.”
Bielema was in a defensive meeting at Iowa on 9/11, prepping for the Cy-Hawk rivalry game against Iowa State. Graduate assistant Robb Smith, now the defensive coordinator at Rutgers, kept the Hawkeyes’ defensive staff up to date as best as possible on all that was happening.
“I don’t even know if we took a coffee break,” Bielema said. “Maybe we didn’t even understand the scope of what was being said. … When the games were canceled, there were a variety of different emotions that ran through your mind. You’re dealing with young kids. We didn’t know what this meant in the bigger picture of global politics and all that went into it. It was really just a surreal time.
“I remember that weekend being canceled. I think they actually allowed recruiting that weekend and Kirk saying something — a strong memory in my mind — about whether or not we wanted to travel. If you didn’t want to travel by plane, he was good with that. I remember that moment like it was yesterday.”
Ben Miller has rather clear memories of 9/11, too. Now the Illinois tight ends coach and special teams coordinator, Miller was in his senior year at the Air Force Academy in 2001.
“When you were at the Air Force Academy, or really any military installation during that time, you didn’t know what to think,” Miller said. “It was a very peaceful time, and then it was chaos. … The world changed that day. I had a lot of friends who played football with me at the academy go over and fly airplanes in that war the last 20 years.
“Most of the guys playing for us now were babies. They don’t remember. We’ve got to keep that history alive so we don’t repeat it — or let it be repeated. We’ve got to teach these young guys a little bit of the outside world beyond football.”