'The skies were empty': How the events of 9/11 resonated at Winter Park

An oral history of how the Vikings reacted to tragedy 20 years ago

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By Sam Ekstrom

EAGAN — Twenty years later, it’s still hard to forget where you were on September 11, 2001.

The nation’s largest city and its capital city were attacked by hijacked passenger planes, leaving nearly 3,000 dead. Millions more watched with horror and confusion.

That included members of the Minnesota Vikings organization, who were planning for a normal day of business at their old practice facility in Eden Prairie. For the 20th anniversary of the national tragedy, Purple Insider spoke with four members of the organization that were around at the time: tight end Byron Chamberlain, equipment manager Dennis Ryan, travel director Luther Hippe and vice president of football and media communications Bob Hagan.

The Vikings had just lost their season opener to the Carolina Panthers and were beginning preparations for a Monday night game at Baltimore.

Dennis Ryan: I remember it was a clear, blue sky, beautiful day, everything seemed so peaceful.

Byron Chamberlain: It was unusual because that was a Tuesday, which is usually the players' day off, so it was unusual that we were in the building, but the reason we were there was because we had a Monday night game the next week. Wednesday was going to be our day off.

Bob Hagan: I know exactly where I was, driving into work and Dave Lee was talking about it on WCCO. ... I remember Dave Lee saying, 'Oh, there's reports of a plane that had crashed and they didn’t know much about it. Then when the second one went in then it was, 'We're going live to national CBS radio.' Then they knew the situation and how big it was.

Ryan: I was in the equipment room when they were reporting on the radio that an airplane had crashed into one of the towers, and not much longer after that they were reporting another one, and you knew something bad was up.

Luther Hippe: I was pulling up to the cloverleaf by Channel 9 just going into Winter Park, so I was just going in a little later that morning. I think that was when I was a KQRS listener, and they said that something had hit the Trade Center, and when I was getting even closer to work they said, 'Here comes another one.'

Chamberlain: We're having meetings, we're in the offensive meeting room. I remember Randy Moss leaking out of the meeting room. We usually get a break halfway through, but Randy had kind of left early and he was in the players' lounge watching TV and watching the news. Later we get a break and they say hey, be back in five or 10 minutes. We're walking down the hall as a group. We see Randy, he's walking back to the meeting room and he yells out, 'Hey man, a plane just hit the World Trade Tower,' and I remember I was like, 'What are you talking about? Like a little plane?' He was like, 'No man, a big ol' plane, a big plane!'

Ryan: We turned on a TV and were just watching the smoke and everything.

Chamberlain: I remember me, Daunte Culpepper, Doug Chapman, all the guys on the offense just sprinting down the hallway to get to the players' lounge to see what was going on, and as we got into that players' lounge, we literally see the next plane hitting the building, the second plane. We're just so confused. We're like, 'What's going on? What's going on?' We don't know.

Without having much information, the Vikings attempted to carry on their normal activities.

Ryan: Everything going on in New York City on the news was just really eerie. I remember going out for practice that day. We didn't have a lot of airplanes in that area, but we always saw airplanes going over our facility at a higher level, and the skies were empty. It was just an eerie sense.

Hippe: We had to talk it over like, 'What's going to happen here?' I was the advanced person, I went out early on road games. I was scheduled to go out to Baltimore either the next day or for sure Thursday morning, so within a day or a day and a half, I was leaving to head right out to the east coast, so that was a nervous time to say the least. I didn't even sleep much that night because I was still scheduled.

Chamberlain: We start operating as if it's business as usual. We go back to the meeting room, eventually put our pads on, go out to practice. We're walking out to practice and Coach Denny Green comes and says, 'Hey men, we've got to go back inside, everybody's got to go back home. Apparently the NFL has called and said we're canceling the day, send everybody back home.' Later on we found out they had canceled the game for that week, but there was a lot of confusion that day. What's going on in our country? Why are they sending us home? What's going on? We didn't know if we were at war or what was going on. It was just a lot of confusion.

Hippe: We were all in a funk. … How do you react? Crisis management, how do we handle this?

Chamberlain: There was no tuning it out. It was everywhere. I was born in Hawaii. I was born in Honolulu. I had heard all the stories of Pearl Harbor and when America was attacked by Japan, and literally your mind goes to that. Are we being attacked? We didn't know who was flying these planes. Later on we ended up getting the details, but there was no way to divorce yourself from this. It was everywhere.

There had already been a tragic event just six weeks earlier when offensive lineman Korey Stringer died of heatstroke following a training camp practice. Now Dennis Green had to coach through another crisis.

Chamberlain: There was a lot of stress and a lot of strain that year. Losing Korey was an emotional thing. It hit every member of our locker room.

Hagan: [Dennis Green] was the right coach for that type of situation, just being an unbelievable tragedy for the country. Dennis did a great job of just hearing guys' thoughts but keeping the team focused on their jobs too. Obviously just a different time for everybody.

Chamberlain: Coach Green, I just remember him being worried about our safety and our family's safety. That's one of the things that I loved about Coach Green. He really cared about you as a person, not just as a player. ... He did a great job of managing the team.

Hagan: Denny was the coach that would deal with tons of stuff off the field. That's what made him so good in this type of situation. He did so many different things in the community and with the community that he was the right coach to deal with all the players on all the issues that were going on at that point.

On Thursday, Sept. 13, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue canceled the week of games, following suit with Major League Baseball. They were the first canceled NFL games since the 1987 players strike. Even in 1963, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle chose to play following the Kennedy Asssassination, making Tagliabue’s decision even more unprecedented.

Hippe: That game then got pushed to January. The Baltimore game finished up the year.

Hagan: It was something that just hadn't happened, to have games canceled.

Ryan: I don't think anything like that had ever happened with the NFL.

Chamberlain: Without a doubt it was the right move, I think. There was so much uncertainty going on at that time. We didn't know what was going to happen. You've got stadiums with 60, 70, 80,000 people in them. Were there going to be attacks on those? We just didn't know.

Hippe: I don't know how weird or nervous that would've been if they said, hey, the game is on, and we're flying right into BWI right out in that area [of the attacks]. I think your psyche would've been so off. I don't want to speak for the players, but I can't imagine anybody really focused when you've got 3,000 people that just passed away and then the game must go on. How are you going to get this out of your mind?

The league returned to action on Sept. 23 with the Vikings visiting Chicago at Soldier Field. Traveling by air would never be the same.

Ryan: Security definitely changed at airports after 9/11. Prior to that, we'd just pull up to a gate in the equipment truck by ourselves, announce who we were, they'd give us a little badge to put on the dashboard of the truck and we'd drive out and park somewhere near the tarmac, and we'd wait for Northwest Orient to come over and escort us out to the tarmac. That was over at that point. After 9/11 we'd pull up to the airport, call somebody with Northwest or Delta or call the police directly for an escort and the police met you at the gate, and there was no just driving through.

I had been a holdout on the cell phone. I was easy enough to get ahold of at work, and I really didn't want to be 24 hours a day tied to a cell phone. … At that point I really needed to be able to contact people when I got to the airport. I gave in and got my cell phone.

Hippe: Back in those days, we actually did just park in the parking ramp individually and we would go through security and just walk to our gate like anybody else and walk down the jetway and leave. [Flight security] was a lot more intense. We might've upped our time and given us more time to go through the terminal.

The Vikings would lose to the Bears 17-10, but one of the lasting images of the day was the field-sized American flag that was unfurled during the national anthem.

Ryan: I think you definitely remember some of the songs that they would play pregame were definitely patriotic songs, and the fans were definitely into it as well as the teams.

After we went into Afghanistan, we did add an American flag to the back of the helmet, which was kind of a big deal because the NFL really didn't allow decoration going onto helmets. I know at the time their thought was as soon as we were out of there we'd take the flag off. Well, 20 years later that flag will stay on forever.

Chamberlain: It was something that really galvanized our country. It was something where it didn't really matter what part of the country you were, what your political views were, it was something that said, 'Hey, we just got attacked. We're still here, we're still standing, we're still strong.’ It was good to see the flag being flown. I remember that huge flag at Soldier Field, and it was just a great statement about the resiliency of Americans.

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