By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

There comes a time when you're glad you know how to box -- or know a damn good fighter.

This is one of those times.

World Trade Center
No one who witnessed Tuesday's acts of terrorism will ever forget them.

There comes a time when football makes perfect sense.

This is one of those times.

There come certain times in Life On Earth when things get so bad, when the crap comes down so heavy, that all you can do is throw up your hands to the heavens and say, "Let us pray."

Eventually, in Life On Earth, people will try to tell you that religion or God is a vague concept at best, a medium used to hold down or delude or opiate people, an inferior concept to science, because science is pure. And you might even buy into all that for a while -- up until some hurt and pain you know you aren't strong enough to handle alone comes down on you. Then you put in an emergency call. And it ain't to no 911. To God. "Let us pray. Dear God ..."

There are other times when you need a break so bad, when you need to bow your neck and join in with your fellows so bad, that all you can do is look up at the scoreboard and ask, "What's the score?"

Eventually, in Life On Earth, people will try to tell you that sports is the toy shop, a mindless entertainment that exists basically to hold down or delude or opiate people, an inferior concept to business, because business is pure. And you might buy into all that for a while -- up until some hurt or pain you know you aren't strong enough to handle alone comes down on you. Then you put in that emergency call. And it ain't to no bond trader. To the Home Team. "What's the score? C'mon, guys ..."

Well ... this is both of those times.

***** ***** *****

Think sports isn't like religion? Think again.

One of the spirited editors from this wacky bit of usually good-natured insanity called Page 2 is Jay Lovinger. Lovinger is older now, and as Richard Pryor once told us, "You don't get to be old being no fool." Sometimes, you don't get to be old anyway.

Lovinger just said something to me that sounded profound. We usually don't do profound on Page 2. But this ain't no usual time. Lovinger said, "For many, sports will be a big part of the healing process -- or, at least, the forgetting or distracting. And don't underestimate the importance of that.

"People will talk about what there is to learn from this, about how we must then put those lessons into effect so that IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN! IT MUST NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN!

"Bullcrap.

"There is nothing to be learned from this, other than:

"1.) There are some really crazy people out there; and

"2.) It is important to be lucky."

We're all lucky, those of us who made it through yesterday. Lucky we weren't on one of those four hijacked commercial jet airliners, or in the World Trade Center towers, or beneath them, or at the Pentagon, or in a grassy field in southwestern Pennsylvania.

We might be luckiest of all that we knew some of those people who were there, who took one for the team.

***** ***** *****

We're all in the Room of Rattled Consciousness now, with bats blowing saxophones, that place Muhammad Ali used to talk about, when you get hit with a haymaker, but can't lay dow, or stay down, have to keep living, and keep fighting. Have to show up. Have to defend. Have to hit back to be respected.

Capitol
If Flight 93 had reached Washington, D.C., we might not have a Capitol building today.

This is when you're glad you know how to box, or know a boxer. This is when you care about outdated and uncivilized notions of self-defense. This is when you separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls, and when being 6-foot-8 and 260 chiseled pounds won't help you. The most important character traits in sports are not size and strength so much as they are poise and intelligence.

How many times during the eternity that was Tuesday, in the wake of the horrific jet bombings, the mass murders at the World Trade Center towers and The Pentagon, did we hear political or terrorism experts cry out for the need for "human intelligence"?

That's what separates the men and women from the boys and girls in our microcosm of the world too.

Know what? Maybe there actually was a great deal of human intelligence and poise displayed Tuesday, intelligence and poise that saved many lives.

We'll never know, but we honor it anyway.

Because it might have been.

And because it'll help fire us up and steel our resolve when we put it on the bulletin board before we go out to play the second half. Our turn.

What do I mean?

Penn plane
We might never know why Flight 93 went down in Pennsylvania, but we can speculate that acts of heroism prevented that plane from reaching its destination.

I mean this, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart: I believe there were Unknown Athletes on Flight 77 out of Dulles, bound for Los Angeles, and Flight 93 out of Newark, N.J., bound for San Francisco. The hijackers turned them into two D.C.-bound cruise missiles, the most powerful weapons of mass destruction next to the Halo Effect-tactical nukes. Those two planes didn't accomplish their missions.

Why?

What -- or who -- caused Flight 77 to hit ground first, diffusing most of its destructive energy before it slammed into the Pentagon? If Flight 77 hits the Pentagon flush, like Flight 175 out of Boston hit World Trade Center tower No. 2 at 9:08 a.m., then we don't have a Pentagon anymore. All we have left is a Right Angle.

And the Nut Case Hijackers didn't want to crash Flight 93 in a deserted field in Pennsylvania. They were headed for the U.S. Capitol Building Complex, or the White House. But Flight 93 never got there, so the Congress could stand on the steps of the Capitol and sing "God Bless America." If Flight 93 had made it to D.C., there wouldn't have been any steps to sing from, and not as many Congresspeople, either.

And my question is: Did somebody do something on either or both of those flights to prevent the worst from happening?

Pentagon
The destruction at the Pentagon could have been much worse if Flight 77 had not hit the ground first.

Somebody who was scared, somebody who knew he/she was probably gonna die -- but did something anyway? Not a big something. Just enough of a move.

Maybe a stewardess who was stabbed but not dead yet tried to scratch the eyeball out of a head, and did, so Flight 77 bounced once before it hit the Pentagon.

Maybe some guy deadheading to S.F., some flight attendant, some gay guy, or some pilot, a former high school football benchwarmer, wrenched the controls away at just the right moment and planted Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania.

To me, that would be the height of athleticism ... the greatest athlete is the one who can rescue a child from the fourth floor of a burning building; the greatest athlete is the one who can face four thugs in an alley and protect a couple of nurses and get them out of there, then disappear and not wait for credit.

  The greatest athlete is the one who can rescue a child from the fourth floor of a burning building; the greatest athlete is the one who can face four thugs in an alley and protect a couple of nurses and get them out of there, then disappear and not wait for credit. A real player is somebody who never gives up, who keeps thinking all the way through, who's scared, damned right, but plays through being scared. 
   

A real player is somebody who never gives up, who keeps thinking all the way through, who's scared, damned right, but plays through being scared. The Heisman Trophy would not be enough for those kind, or for the Unknown Athletes on Fights 77 and 93. Not even close enough.

There is something called the Congressional Medal of Honor that might do.

We'll never know. But we can believe we know. Sometimes, sports is like religion. And this is one of those times.

Of course the NFL should play its games this Sunday. It will get us in the mood to do what we have to do. No, it won't be pretty. Boxing, pro football, and War never are. But all can be made noble, depending on the bully, depending on the invading force, depending on the opponent, and what is being defended.

And by God and all that is Holy -- and Sporting -- this is one of those times.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



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