On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Vinny Testaverde was sitting in the New York Jets‘ trainers’ room getting treatment on his day off, when the terrorist attacks on New York City occurred 30 miles away at the World Trade Center.
For Testaverde, the starting quarterback and a native New Yorker, the event triggered profound emotions.
In a 20th-anniversary exclusive for ESPN, he recounts the indelible moments — praying with neighbors in church, visiting rescue workers at Ground Zero and, a week later, discovering from a poster on a locker-room wall that one of his high school teammates had died in the disaster.
Testaverde also shares why, in the aftermath, he did something he never thought he would do — refuse to play a football game. He was the driving force behind the Jets’ decision not to play that weekend in Oakland, California, which in turn, spurred the NFL to postpone all games that week.
Now 57, Testaverde remembers the day that impacted him — and everyone — forever:
It hit me hard, maybe harder than most, because New York is my hometown. I remember when I was a kid, my father actually worked on some of those buildings in Lower Manhattan. He was a cement mason, a foreman, and he worked the basements, the concrete garages. He was part of that, so there was a connection there.
Being from New York, I had been down there many times, in the Twin Towers, going up to the top as a kid and looking around. It was sad. It was a lot of things. It’s something you couldn’t have imagined happening, and it was happening right before our eyes.
A bunch of us were watching it unfold on TV in the trainers’ room, and you could see guys getting nervous and talking about what the possibilities were. Shortly after that, everyone took off and went home. I remember calling my wife on the way home, telling her to get the kids out of school. A little bit later, I got phone calls from family. They all wanted to get together, so they came to my house, and we spent the afternoon and the evening together, just watching the news.
We were all nervous, on edge.
The next morning, in meetings, you can tell everyone is quiet and somber. You’re thinking about what’s going on in the world and what happened. With the hijacking of the planes, the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, half our mind is on football, half is on that.
We go out to practice and it’s very quiet. Even the hitting. Normally you hear the guys thumping each other; that was even quiet. Nobody wanted to hit. The focus wasn’t there.
I go home that evening. My wife and I grab our kids and we go up to our church, and the church is packed. Everybody is just sitting there, praying. All of a sudden, we start hearing some friends in church, how they lost some friends or people connected to them. You start hearing everything and it’s getting worse. I’m thinking, ‘We’re still playing a football game on Sunday?’ This is crazy.
I didn’t sleep at all Wednesday night. I decided I was going to go in early the next day and meet with Herm Edwards and Terry Bradway [coach and general manager] and tell them: ‘Listen, here’s how I’m feeling. I know we’re playing a game against the Raiders. With what’s going on … I’m not going to make the trip. I don’t think it’s the right time to play a football game. Whether you fine me, cut me, bench me, whatever it is, I’m staying home. I don’t believe it’s time to play football.’
And they both agreed with me.
For our team meeting, I went in 10 minutes early, addressed the team and told them how I was feeling and what I was planning. We had an open discussion. Some guys wanted to go play and show we weren’t afraid as a country, we don’t back down. I tried to claim it’s not the time to show that; it’s time to mourn our loved ones and get back to a normal routine.
They appreciated that. They backed me.
Herm came in, addressed the team and said we’re not playing. He told that to the league, which decided not to play that weekend.
I’ve always lived my life by trying to do the right thing. In my heart, I thought it was the right thing to do at that time, knowing my voice was probably a little bigger or louder than some of my other teammates. At that time, I had to step up and say what I felt.
The next night, I had a friend call me, and asked me to go down to Ground Zero. The police commissioner, I guess, requested if I could do that. I went down there on Saturday and walked around to visit the rescue workers. I saw some things I wish I had never seen. It’s hard to erase from my memory, just the destruction, the disaster, the dust, the debris, the metal beams that were twisted and bent. It was hard to believe.
I’ve never been in a war zone, but if I could describe a war zone, that was it. I remember walking down to Ground Zero. It was surrounded by the military. They were standing shoulder to shoulder with rifles, not letting anybody in. It was surreal.
Walking around the outskirts, all the store windows were broken. It was desolate, nobody was there. It was like a ghost town. It was eerie. That’s probably the best word to describe it — eerie.
We played the following weekend in New England. As usual, I took the first bus to the stadium to get there early. Near my locker, as you walk into the shower and bathroom area, there was a poster and it had head shots of rescue workers who had lost their lives at Ground Zero.
I’m just looking, going through it, and I see an old high school teammate of mine — Ronald Kloepfer. He was a year ahead of me (at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, New York). He was a great teammate, a good friend to everybody in our school. It was more than a week later and I hadn’t heard; nobody told me, so I was punched in the gut at that moment.
All of a sudden, you have to get your mind ready to play a football game. As my livelihood, it was always so important, but that day — the week after 9/11 and finding out about my teammate — it wasn’t as important. That entire game is a blur.
I remember getting chills being on the sideline during the national anthem, watching the Andruzzi brothers on the field — (Joe, a Patriots offensive lineman, and his three brothers, all New York City fire fighters). I got to meet those guys in 2018, when they opened the sports section of the 9/11 museum in Manhattan. They’re a pretty cool family. One of the good things coming out of this was getting to meet those guys and hearing their experiences and what they went through on 9/11.
My lasting impressions of 9/11 are burned into my mind and soul. I do have one tangible reminder.
When I made that first trip to Ground Zero, right after 9/11, I picked up a piece of granite or stone from the rubble. I brought it in, mentioned it to the team and put it in my locker, a reminder of what took place and to appreciate what we have.
Eventually, I broke it into three pieces and gave a piece to each of my kids. It’s a symbol of what can happen and what people can accomplish when they come together, people stepping up to help others, strangers helping strangers.
The original stone wasn’t that big, probably as big as my hand, but it holds so much meaning. That will never change.
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