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Sports can serve a purpose in times of immense tragedy

In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, I came oh so close to kissing my sportswriting career goodbye. My job back then as a sports columnist for the Democrat and Chronicle suddenly seemed so irrelevant, so trivial. How could I in good conscience write about little-kid games played by adults after 3,000 innocent people had just been killed by terrorists?

I went so far as to meet with Dave Hunke, the paper’s publisher at the time, to see if I could transfer to the news or feature departments. I longed to write about something more meaningful. Hunke, a kind soul who truly cared about his newsroom employees, listened intently, then offered some sage, caring advice: “Everything – not just sports – seems trivial and irrelevant in times like these. Why don’t you give it a few weeks? See if there are some human-interest sports stories that have meaningful connections to 9/11. Then, if you still feel the way you do, you can make the move.”

And so, I did as asked and I’m glad I did because I wound up finding relevance and purpose in the days and weeks following our generation’s version of Pearl Harbor.

I spent an NFL Sunday in a Rochester firehouse rather than a press box in Orchard Park, talking to first responders about what sports meant to them. Each of the firefighters felt the games were important to our mental and emotional well-being and our sense of community. They believed the competitions needed to go on, just as they had during World War II when Franklin Roosevelt greenlighted the continuation of Major League Baseball.

I attended Game Three of the 2001 World Series in New York with my son, just six weeks after those airliners-turned-suicide-bombers reduced the Twin Towers to rubble. We experienced first-hand how the Yankees were helping a wounded city unite behind something that took New Yorkers’ minds off the terrible sorrow of the present. It’s still the most emotional day I’ve ever spent at a ballpark or arena.

I wrote about how Jim Richter, the Bills-guard-turned-commercial-airline pilot, couldn’t wait to return to the skies and, by doing something he truly loved, he would show the terrorists we wouldn’t be intimidated; we would pick up the shattered pieces and carry on with our lives.

I chronicled how Rochester-firefighter Rey Palacios, a former Red Wings catcher, took a leave of absence so he could travel to Ground Zero to search for the remains of first responders who inspired him while growing up in Brooklyn, just across the river from the Twin Towers.  “I refused to stay put and do nothing,’’ he told me of that unforgettable trip. “Those were my boys, my brothers. I had to be there for them and their families the way they had once been there for me.”

I rediscovered meaning in what I covered, that sports still mattered.

Many of those feelings came rushing back two Saturdays ago, following the racist massacre of 10 innocent Black citizens by a deeply disturbed white supremacist at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo. Sports again seemed woefully unimportant until I witnessed prominent athletes, coaches and owners from the City of Good Neighbors rally around the families and friends of the victims last week.

It tugged at the heart-strings to see current Bills Josh Allen and Micah Hyde join alumni Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Jim Kelly, owners Terry and Kim Pegula and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at the grocery store that had been transformed into a memorial. They hugged the friends and relatives of the victims, and handed out free bags of groceries. Some, like Smith, the Hall of Fame defensive end who felt compelled to fly from his Virginia home, sobbed uncontrollably.

“It feels as though someone has just ripped the insides out of me,’’ he told reporters in a wavering voice that Monday afternoon following the murders. “Hurts. Hurts to see the pain and the suffering that has taken place as a result of this evil act. Robbing innocent pillars in the community of their loved ones all because of the color of their skin. It’s just unimaginable and just devastating.”

Smith paused to clear his throat and wipe away tears.

“It’s one thing to see a horrific event like this take place and you don’t have any attachment to it,’’ he continued. “But this is in our front yard. This affects people that you’ve grown up with and you’ve known for 30 years or more, and that’s where it hurts the most. But we will, we will, make this community stronger; hopefully put some more smiles on these folks’ faces and spend some time with them and let them know that we love them. To be here today, passing out food with my brother Thurman and Jim and the Pegulas and Roger and so many others, and then seeing the community. I bet you this racist did not count on this outpouring of love that’s taking place right now.”

In the past 10 days, more than a million dollars have been donated by the Bills, Sabres, NFL and others, including Rochester’s professional sports teams, to aid a primarily Black neighborhood that will be without a grocery store for the foreseeable future. These generous gestures restored some of my faith in humanity, reminded me that sports can have a purpose during moments of unfathomable pain and sadness.

As this latest tragedy underscores, we have a long, long way to go in combatting the racism and hatred that corrodes our nation’s soul. Sports can only do so much. But it can do something. This was a case when teams gave back to a community that has given them so much. And there’s nothing trivial or irrelevant about that.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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