Gallagher column: Bennett, Catawba remember 9/11 game

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 10, 2011

It was Sept. 15, 2011, a sun-splashed day perfect for watching a college football game. So why werenít many people doing that?
Because many across the nation were urging teams not to play. It would be a small but fitting honor to the thousands who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Then, there were the people who thought it would be a fitting honor to continue the games.
Wingate and Catawba officials were among those.
ěIt didnít matter to me (whether the game was played),î said Coastal Carolina coach David Bennett, then the head man at Catawba. ěWe had to do what we were told to do.î
So the 2001 Indians ó who will go down as one of the schoolís best football teams ever ó suited up.
ěIt wasnít our call,î said Bennett. ěI guess it was Wingateís or the conferenceís call. Half the teams played. Half didnít.î

It seemed so appropriate that Catawba and Bennettís new team would hook up Saturday on the tenth anniversary weekend of 9/11. It was a time for old friends to hug and remember a decade earlier when they were on the same field together.
The memories are still vivid of shaken offensive lineman Brock Thom standing in his dorm room trying to get a call through to his northern Virginia home. His father worked at the Pentagon but fortunately, Thom found out, his father was at home when the terrorist attack hit Washington D.C.
Current Catawba head coach Chip Hester, the receivers coach at the time, recalls sitting in an office with another assistant, Jamie Snider, watching the planes hit the Twin Towers on TV.
When the Indians were told they would be playing, it was up to coaches like Bennett, Hester and Snider to nurture the young, shellshocked players through this time and prepare them for a game. They realized what was going through these teen-agersí heads. This was the Pearl Harbor of a new generation.
ěWe talked about the meaning of it,î Hester said. ěCoach Bennett did a great job of making our guys understand that.î
It was quiet on the buses that rode through Monroe on the way to Wingate that day. The players were in a somber mood, to say the least.
ěThey were emotional,î Hester said. ěIt was not an ordinary Saturday.î
Catawba entered the Wingate stadium wearing red, white and blue uniforms.
ěIt was about patriotism,î Hester said. ěOur guys really rallied around it.î
Catawba won the game 12-0 but more was remembered for the red, white and blue. Even today, those players still talk about Jon C. Lakeyís photo in the Post with the American flag flying in the background with Catawba at the line of scrimmage.
ěIt was a close ballgame,î Bennett said. ěBut I donít think either team played really great.î

Catawba was one of the few college teams to play that day because Division I teams fly and most flights were grounded.
Division II teams ride buses. And the silence on the Indiansí charter carried over to the three-hour game.
ěIt was just kind of a calm environment,î Bennett remembers. ěEverybody was still in a little bit of shock that happens in our country. Everybody was still numb that it still went on.î
But the 9/11 game seemed to inspire Catawba, which played with exceptional vigor for the rest of the season. Redshirt freshman quarterback Luke Samples started the next week at No. 22 Presbyterian and led Catawba to a 28-14 win. Catawba made the playoffs and won one of the most exciting games in school history, 35-34, over Central Arkansas. It defeated the No. 1 team in the country, Valdosta State, in Valdosta, 37-34. And eventually the Indians made it within one game of the national championship.
But as much as Central Arkansas and Valdosta stick in the brain, the one victory fans really remember from that season was the 9/11 game. Last nightís contest was another emotional night for Bennett, Hester and all of the Catawba family ó past and present.
ěA lot of people would say you shouldnít play because of what happened,î Bennett said. ěBut some people say in our great country, you should go on business as usual.î
The Catawba Indians did just that and inspired not only their fans but an entire community.

Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or