The 49ers, coming off a season-opening overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons, were turning their focus to the New Orleans Saints. That's when everyone’s attention shifted to something of much greater national importance.
Team leader Bryant Young remembers laying in bed two days after the 49ers’ first game of the 2001 season. It was the morning of a day off. He answered a phone call from teammate Anthony Peterson.
“We’re at war,” Peterson told Young. “Turn on the TV.”
Young watched as the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan burned after a terrorist flew a hijacked commercial airliner into the north tower.
Then, the south tower was struck.
“I started watching the rest of the news,” Young said. “It was chaos.”
When the team gathered on Wednesday, one day after the towers collapsed, the thought on everyone’s mind was whether they should be there at all.
Soon, word came from then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue that the Week 2 games would be postponed and played after the final week on the original schedule. The playoffs were pushed back one week, and the Super Bowl would take place the week following the AFC and NFC championship games.
"I think it was the right choice to do that, I think for a lot of reasons,” Young said. “I do remember the conversations that were being had. The commissioner at the time was trying to make those big decisions.
“I remember it being just the right thing to do, not to play because of where our minds were as players and, then, just making through the process of not putting ourselves or other people at jeopardy.”
The 49ers returned to action on Sunday, Sept. 23, against the St. Louis Rams. The details of the team’s 30-26 loss remain hazy.
But Young said he vividly recalls players from both teams gathering on the field to hold the edges of the large flag that covered most of the field at Candlestick Park for the playing of the national anthem. Teammate Ray Brown gave a prayer that was broadcasted in stadiums throughout the league.
A week later, the 9/11 terror attacks became even more relatable when the 49ers traveled to the New York area to face the New York Jets in a Monday night game.
Young had an opportunity to visit lower Manhattan before the game.
“It was very strange to now be in this area where all this took place,” he said. “I just remember thinking, as a city and how it impacted our nation, what were they really going through? The people who were here in this city, they felt the magnitude of this and they came together as a city and embraced, and tried to help one another to cope and move forward.”
Before the game, security unlike anything ever before seen was outside the Meadowlands, including military members with assault rifles and police with dogs used for explosive detection.
The 49ers defeated the New York Jets, 19-17, in front of a still-grieving national television audience as some sense of normalcy returned.
“Man, time flies,” Young said. “It seems not very long ago. It doesn’t seem like 20 years, I could tell you that. So much time has passed, and it’s still very fresh to me in terms of all the emotions, and impact, and how it changed our country.
“Twenty years don’t seem that long ago, but boy has it changed us.”