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Honoring the Real Champions

July 8, 2002

By Gary T. Brown
NCAA News

After the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania September 11, the United States swore it would never forget. The NCAA has helped in that regard at several of its championships since then.

No review of NCAA championships in 2001-02 is complete without recounting the 9/11 tributes. Beyond the hard-fought competition, the thrilling finishes and the inspiring individual efforts on the fields and courts, there were remembrances of the terribly historic tragedies ranging from moments of silence, to stirring ceremonies, to two heart-rendering marches with the American flag that survived the collapse of the Twin Towers.

The latter were perhaps the most emotional of the tributes. The flag that once waved proudly before the World Trade Center towers was presented proudly once again before reverently silent crowds at the Men's and Women's Final Fours. Those ceremonies, in fact, almost upstaged the games themselves, as fans were as riveted on the pregame proceedings as they were on the competitions that followed.

The flag's appearance at two of the NCAA's most coveted finals was almost made out of whole cloth. With the weathered and tattered fabric set to be retired, a series of circumstances brought the country's most inspirational version of Old Glory to the basketball courts in San Antonio and Atlanta.

It began when an NCAA staff member's father, who is an attorney with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which owned the two towers and whose police force staffed them), mentioned that the flag was going to be retired. It already had flown over Yankee Stadium during the World Series, and it had made appearances at the Super Bowl and at the Winter Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, the Division I Men's and Women's Basketball Committees were wondering how to uniquely recognize the events of September 11, particularly given that the Final Fours were late in the series of major sporting events that already had given tribute.

"When the committee heard that the Port Authority was going to retire the flag, members became interested in whether they would consider bringing it to the Final Fours," said the NCAA's Bill Hancock, who has handled administration duties for the Division I Men's Basketball Championship for almost two decades. "When we contacted the Port Authority, they were immediately excited about the idea."

The NCAA paid for three Port Authority police officers, Nat Harris, Tom Hoey and Brian Toohey, to fly from New York to San Antonio for the Women's Final Four, then to Atlanta for the Men's Final Four. Those three officers were selected in part because they had college basketball backgrounds.

"It was an honor to be asked to do this on its own merit, but then throw in the fact that we were going to the NCAA tournaments, which is where anyone who played college basketball wants to be, and it was incredible," said Toohey, a former Canisius College cager.

The trio presented the flag during a pregame ceremony before the Women's Final Four championship game between the University of Connecticut and the University of Oklahoma. The Port Authority officers were joined by four firefighters from San Antonio (Shane George, Nim Kidd, Dennis Meier and Frank Willborn) who traveled to Ground Zero to assist in the rescue effort. Student-athletes from both teams -- Jaime Talbert and Shannon Selmon from Oklahoma, and Sue Bird and Swin Cash from Connecticut -- also helped carry the flag.

"When the flag came out and people realized that it was the flag, you could've heard a pin drop," said Sue Donohoe, director of the women's championship. "It was one of the most stirring things I'd ever witnessed."

The procession drew similar reaction in Atlanta before the men's final between the University of Maryland, College Park, and Indiana University, Bloomington.

Hancock said, "The officers were so proud to be there, and we kept saying, 'we're so proud to have you,' and they'd say, 'we're prouder than you.' They just loved it."

Flag draws emotional response

On September 11, Toohey was stationed at the Newark, New Jersey, airport. He had worked the midnight shift, so he was headed home at 7 a.m. But first he had a doctor's appointment at 8. On his way out of the doctor's office, he heard the receptionist talking about an incident involving a plane at one of the towers. Toohey said he didn't think much of it at the time, figuring it was a small plane and that it had been an accident.

"Then as I was driving home I heard it was a big plane and that there was a huge fire," Toohey said. "Then the second plane hit, and I knew that was it. So I went home, got some clothes and went back to the Newark airport, and was there for the next 30 hours."

Though Toohey may have been spared being at the site of the attacks, he was not spared the personal attachment to the 37 officers lost that day, the largest single-day loss of any police department in the history of the United States. Of those, he said, four were his classmates from the police academy, and he personally knew at least 25 more.

That's why Toohey and his peers have a special relationship with the flag that survived 210 stories of building falling on it. In Toohey's new role as sergeant in charge of special services, any time the flag went anywhere, it came back to him to be secured. But because of his ties to college basketball, he escorted Old Glory personally in March and April. The Final Fours, in fact, were the last sporting events for the flag.

"I had been around that flag tons of times," Toohey said. "And any time it came out it drew emotional responses from everyone. The student-athletes who carried it in San Antonio were visibly emotional. The emotional response that flag brings anywhere you take it is unbelievable."

Right now, the flag indeed is retired at the Smithsonian, part of a September 11 exhibit that includes the names of the more than 3,000 people who died that day. The Smithsonian is planning to move the exhibit to the American history part of the building as a permanent display.

The flag also serves as Toohey's computer screen-saver, along with another celebrity. After the men's final ended in Atlanta, Toohey said he was holding the flag with Harris and Hoey, and none other than John Wooden walked by. Wooden sat down nearby, obviously waiting for someone, so Toohey and his fellow officers walked up to him, said hello and shook his hand.

"He's the nicest guy in the world," Toohey said. "I said, 'Coach, we have the flag that was in the pregame ceremony. Would you like to take a picture with it?' And being the old Navy guy he is (Toohey said Wooden later told several stories of his days in the service), he stands up, gets rid of his cane and holds the flag, and the three of us take a picture with coach Wooden holding the flag.

"And he was as proud as a peacock."

A son's moment

In addition to the flag ceremonies at the Final Fours, a tribute at an NCAA championship on Memorial Day tugged at fans' heartstrings. At halftime of the Division I men's lacrosse final between Syracuse University and Princeton University, there was a silver-anniversary celebration honoring the 1977 Cornell University men's lacrosse team that had won the championship that year over Johns Hopkins University. Remarkably, 24 of the 28 players managed to show up for the ceremony, one all the way from South Australia. But one of the four who didn't was Eamon McEneaney, a lacrosse hall-of-famer and Cornell's all-time leader in assists.

McEneaney wasn't there because he was in the World Trade Center tower hit by the first plane on September 11. He was a vice-president for Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond trading company that lost 700 employees that day.

But there was another McEneaney at the lacrosse championship, Eamon's 12-year-old son, Brendan, who received a special memento in his father's honor during the halftime ceremony.

"I've known him since he was born," said Eamon McEneaney's coach, Richie Moran, who not only led the Big Red to the 1977 championship, but to two others in 1971 and 1976. "He's gone through a tough time. It was wonderful that he came. When Eamon's name was announced during the ceremony, Brendan and I had a chance to hug."

The ceremony took place at midfield, where the 1977 team gathered around two wooden lacrosse sticks that Brian Lasda, one of the Cornell players, had commissioned to be made at an American Indian reservation in New York.

"When Eamon first came here he used a wooden stick -- he's always been a strong advocate of wooden sticks," Moran said. "Then of course by 1977, we were pretty much into plastic."

The sticks were signed by McEneaney's teammates. Team members also wore visors and jerseys with No. 10 on them, McEneaney's number as a player. Then, at Moran's request, the crowd of almost 20,000 joined with the Cornell team in singing "God Bless America."

"For many years, we always sang 'God Bless America' in our locker room after games, whether we won or not," Moran said. "We also sang John Denver's 'Country Boy' after that if we had won. We didn't sing 'Country Boy' at halftime that day, but we did sing it at the pavilion after the game."

In September, Cornell will name its renovated film room and lacrosse meeting room after McEneaney. The school also will endow a professorship in his name that will bring in a leading literary scholar from Ireland each year.

"All our players are very close," Moran said of the ceremony at the lacrosse championship. "I have children of my own and they understand that they are almost like brothers to the players.

"It was a fitting time to do this."