20 years on: WKU Football alumni recall program’s response to tragedy

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Cassandra Shie / Herald Archives

Members of the 2001 WKU Football roster shared what they experienced as a team on 9/11.

Jake Moore, Sports Editor

Twenty years ago, members of WKU’s football team were completing their workouts on a Tuesday morning like any other. The season was still young and the Hilltoppers’ record sat at an even 1-1 with a tough road game against the Wisconsin Badgers scheduled for that coming Friday.

Linebacker Sherrod Coates stepped into Houchens-Smith Stadium to discover a frenzy of action around the television. 

“We had morning workouts, and I was coming into the facility… a couple guys were standing around the TV, and I’m like ‘man, what y’all watching?’ and they said, ‘a plane just crashed into the Twin Towers.’”

Coates, like millions of Americans at the time, didn’t know what to first make of the news.

“We weren’t sure that it was an attack at that time,” Coates said. “I said, ‘somebody’s gonna be in trouble because they shouldn’t be flying a plane that close to a building’. I don’t think we all took it as seriously as it was, because we didn’t know.”

Once workouts were completed, Coates, his teammates and the rest of the world began to grasp the true nature of the attacks.

“It wasn’t until I finished my workout and I was headed to get some breakfast that the guys said ‘man, a second plane hit. We’re under attack.’”

Brotherhood

Head coach Jack Harbaugh, quickly noting the gravity of the situation, corralled his players together and focused their sights on what was most important.

“When Coach addressed us, he kind of put everything into perspective,” offensive lineman Chris Price, one of Coates’ teammates, shared. “He talked about family. He talked about caring about what’s important right now. It was less about football and more about the people that are around you, how you’ve got to enjoy the people that are around you because you never know what could happen.”

Harbaugh’s words hit home for Price and the rest of the Hilltoppers. His speech simultaneously calmed and energized their spirits.

“He said he wanted us to make sure that we understood how important every minute was, and that we need to embrace each other, love one another and put petty things behind us,” Price continued. “I honestly think it was one of the things that helped us grow as a team, and it actually led to wins later on down the season.”

First Game Back

Safety Brian Lowder, another member of that year’s roster, remembers an air of uncertainty hovering around the program.

“Everybody was just in a wait-and-see mode, and really just concerned about our country at the time, kind of in limbo… it was an unsettling time.”

The Wisconsin game was postponed to a later date. In the meantime, there was still football to be played in Bowling Green. WKU was set to face Southwest Missouri in front of the Hilltoppers’ home crowd on Sept. 22 in their first game back since the tragedy.

“Everybody was definitely excited to be able to get back on the field and continue with football but also recognized that there were bigger things going on in life at the time as well,” Lowder said. “It kind of gave you a new perspective on things and an appreciation for the ability to be out there playing the game.”

For Coates, nothing could shake his focus. He used the game of football as a means to remain grounded during a time of fear and uncertainty.

“For me personally, my job was on the football field. I never allowed anything to break that focus,” Coates said. “Even though you’re thinking about it in the back of your mind, I knew I had a job to accomplish on the field.”

The Hilltoppers put away their opponents 23-7 that day. Harbaugh’s words on brotherhood and love allowed Price and his teammates to walk away from the win with a deeper understanding of what it means to play as a team.

“Being able to win and being able to enjoy it with your teammates, and knowing that those guys were there with you, that’s what made everything special,” Price recalled.

Up in the Air

The nation continued patching the wounds left by the attacks. WKU’s game against the Badgers was rescheduled to the 29th, and Harbaugh’s team hopped on a plane to Madison, Wisconsin to continue the season. Flying felt a lot different to the Hilltoppers.

“Before planes crashed into the Twin Towers, it was like it was nothing,” Coates said. “You could just jump on a plane and feel invincible. But getting on a plane after that happened, it was like, ‘oh my god, are we safe? Do we know who the pilot is? I hope security detail did a thorough background check on who’s on the plane, who put our luggage on the plane,’ stuff like that.”

Defensive end Patrick Reynolds, another member of the 2001 roster, recalled an eerie, nervous flight.

“It was very quiet. I think there was more thought going on than verbal communication,” Reynolds said.

Once the Hilltoppers’ team plane returned to the tarmac, all attention turned to the game against Wisconsin. Both programs understood there were greater things at work at Camp Randall Stadium that night besides football.

Bigger than the Game

While the national anthem rang through the stadium, amplified by the voices of all in attendance, members of both programs assembled at midfield to hold up the American flag.

“We walked across the field and shook hands with each of the players of Wisconsin’s team before the game,” Reynolds said. “Being able to look your opponent in the eye before the game and shake his hand as the whole team, it was just a moment that brought real value to what matters in life.”

“It wasn’t about Western versus Wisconsin,” Reynolds continued. “It was more of, ‘we’re all Americans here, we’ve got to unite and get through this together’.”

Harbaugh’s emphasis on brotherhood during the time of tragedy gave the Hilltoppers the boost they needed to take it to the Badgers. WKU lost 24-6, but every single Hilltopper walked away from the gridiron that night proud that they had put up a fight.

“Once we got there and we actually had a chance to play, that was one of the best games we played,” Price said. “We played Wisconsin to the wire, and a lot of it was just because we found new air. We found new air just being around each other and being able to support one another.”

Present Day

20 years after the events of 9/11, WKU will travel to the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, to face Army’s football program in front of an emotional crowd at Michie Stadium.

For Coates, the game will bring along special meaning. Coates has served as a fireman for the past 11 years following the close of his NFL career.

“Especially now, being a fireman and being a Western football player, it double-taps for me,” Coates said. “We lost a lot of firemen when the towers went down, and now my guys get to play against Army… it’s going to be an emotional situation.”

Price knows the meeting between the two programs will be remembered as a special moment for all in the WKU family.

“It gives you a sense of pride to know that we’re on the fighting side of what’s right, and that Western is a place where people can come together regardless of your race, creed or ethnicity,” Price said. “We can all become family on the Hill.”

​​Sports Editor Jake Moore can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Charles_JMoore.