Bin Laden’s actions reached into the sports world

Last night, when I heard the news about Bin Laden being killed, I thought about how his actions even reached into the world of sports.

I thought about the 2001 Nebraska football season. Following the Husker’s crushing loss to Miami in the Rose Bowl, I asked Receivers’ Coach Ron Brown to put the season into perspective with 9/11 in mind. This morning, I interviewed Coach Brown for a radio program that you can listen to here. Ron’s thoughts about 9/11 and being bold for the Lord haven’t changed in ten years. Here is what Ron wrote ten years ago.

Many people might think that the 2001 football season at the University of Nebraska was a season to forget.

Yet, it was a year that will be remembered forever.

It was a year to remember because of 9/11.

The date September 11, 2001, marked the terrorist attacks on America. The entire country was shocked by the attacks.

A birds-eye view of the season shows the character that was developed, the lessons learned and the historical significance and context provided by the September 11 tragedy that shook the entire world.

When I look back on the 2001 year, I gravitate to the end of the regular season after we lost to Colorado. Tracey Wistrom, our All-American tight end, had been selected as one of 16 top-scholar college football players. The award ceremony took place in New York City, and I accompanied him.

It was Tracey’s first time in New York City, so he wanted to visit the typical tourist attractions via the subway. I am a former New Yorker, so I prepared him for what to expect.

I couldn’t prepare him for what we saw at Ground Zero.

We arrived at 6 p.m. on that December night. Workers, driving bulldozers to remove the rubble, were looking for victims in order to bring closure for their families.

It was quiet at Ground Zero, a very solemn mood. Everyone’s look was very serious. Our lives had been changed forever from the images TV provided of the attacks.

Beneath the rubble was a former college teammate of mine at Brown University, Charlie Margiotta. Charlie had become a Staten Island fireman. A native of Staten Island, he was a tremendously warm, affectionate man with lots of Italian love. It was obvious early on from Charlie’s personality that he would be a man who wanted to rescue those in need. I hadn’t heard from Charlie in 20 years—until the late summer of 2001. He called and left me a message that he was organizing a reunion of our Brown University team. Unfortunately, we were never able to connect before September 11.

His death reminded me of the brevity of life. We’re all going to die, regardless of the reason. We’re going to spend an eternity living somewhere. That’s the reason I spend so much time speaking in schools, community centers and churches about my faith. My message never changes. Jesus rescues us from the flames that will never be quenched.

There was another hero at the World Trade Center. This one lived. In the early 1980s, I coached a player at Brown named Mike Benfante. He carried a woman in a wheelchair down dozens of flights of stairs to save her life. Mike was honored in Omaha by the Bethphage ministry in Omaha the week we played Oklahoma. He surprised me by attending the game and greeting me as I exited the football stadium. Tears flowed from my eyes as Mike recounted his experiences on September 11, 2001.

One of my friends made it out. The other didn’t. Yet both of their spirits will live forever.

Preparation for the Rice game the week after the tragedy was very discombobulated.

We were so down because of the terrorism and the future of America. We were so introspective that we were actually looking down. I remember going to practice on September 11. It was a beautiful day, a clear and empty sky. All of the planes had been grounded, so there was an unusual quiet, since the Lincoln and Omaha airports were shut down.

Suddenly, we heard the roar of a jet. It was Air Force One, with its escort of military fighter jets. For the first time that day we all stopped and looked up to the leader of the free world, President Bush, busy at work. Looking up reminded me of our heavenly leader, God Almighty, who is always at work, providing righteousness and rescuing souls for eternity.

God was still on his throne, still working, even though there were hard times ahead for those of us in America and around the world. Seeing Air Force One flying reminded us that God was still in control.

The Rice game was postponed until September 20. Few fans or players will forget the atmosphere that evening. We paid tribute to America. We honored the military, police officers and firefighters with a special tunnel walk. The players entered the game prior to the tunnel walk without any cheers or fanfare. Instead of the players bursting on to the field, the heroes that protect our homes entered the field to a standing ovation.

One of the songs that has been played and sung a thousand times since September 11, 2001,  is “God Bless America.” We sang it that night. I have never heard it sung so loudly and proudly, 77,000 plus people singing with their heart and soul.

Halfway through the song, I couldn’t sing anymore. It all hit me. I realized how much God has blessed America over and over again. Yet we, as a nation, have done so little to bless God. Psalm 103:1 says, “Bless the Lord, oh my soul, bless the Lord.” What have we done to bless God? What have we done to honor the name of God?

Why is it that before September 11, mentioning God in any public setting had become so unpopular? So on the field, I dropped to my knees and asked God that we all be reminded, as a nation, to bless Him.

Most of our players and coaches attend the weekly chapels that are offered before each game. These services during the 2001 season were especially important. While many Americans were crowding into pews across the country due to the attacks, so too was our team more interested in spiritual matters.

Some fans might think our season fell short because we didn’t have a perfect record. We all want perfection, but only one has achieved perfection—God. Yet there are those who shy away from, or push away, this perfect God.

The time spent in New York with Tracey Wistrom at Ground Zero affected me deeply. I recognized at that time we need to be with God—at Ground Zero. Nothing should take the place of our relationship with Christ. Not our careers. Not our friends. Not our families. Each of us needs to realize that God will clean up the rubble of our lives with His heavenly bulldozer. Then He will raise us up again with a foundation that will last forever. There are too many people trying to erect their own building after life collapses on them. They end up building the same weak structure. Be at Ground Zero with God, and let Him forgive your sin, erase your fears, cancel your debt to Him. Let the Lord rebuild you, piece by piece. If the 2001 football season reminds you of these things, it will truly be “a season to remember.”

1. Following 9/11, there were three amazing evenings in Yankee Stadium. With the burning smell of Ground Zero still in the air, Yankees manager Joe Torre said, “life is a little bit different now and may never be the same again.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Defend your answer.

2.  In a way, Bin Laden’s terrible actions even brought “God Bless America” to Seventh-inning stretches. What do you think about when you sing this song?

3. The first Sunday of the NFL season is Sept. 11. What do you think will be the significance of that day as it relates to 9/11?

4. What does it mean for someone to meet God spiritually at Ground Zero?


Gordon Thiessen has served on staff with the Nebraska FCA since 1986 He has also founded Cross Training Publishing ( He has written Team Studies on Character and edited The Athletes Topical Bible. He is married to Terri and has four grown children.



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