MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — It's taken two decades, but finally West Virginians can take some nice memories from 9/11.
Oh, they have won football games on September 11 every time they have played on that date, but this one was different. This one was about a return toward normalcy, even as the COVID-19 numbers skyrocket around them again.
Fans rushed to the stadium, happy to put up with the traffic that awaited them ahead.
At least they would wind up eventually at Mountaineer Field. No thoughts of war in Afghanistan any longer, the war that grew out of the tragedy of 9/11.
It was time for football, West Virginia football in its home. Time for the band and the cheerleaders and the tailgates. A time for beer and burgers, brats and buddies and a 66-0 victory over a dreadful opponent from Long Island University, but no one seemed to care that the game was over on the opening kickoff, which was retuirned 90 yards for a touchdown by Winston Wright Jr.
As it was 20 years earlier, the day dawned with beautifully clear skies, with early spring weather. Like 20 years earlier, no one had a care in the world.
The Big 12 Conference had solidfied itself through expansion, last week's opening loss at Maryland was as distant a memry as 9/11 itself.
Former Mountaineers mingled with fans .. "Hey, isn't that Pac-Man Jones?" "Yeah, and that's Grant Wiley, right? Can I have your autograph."
It had been a rough year but now they were hootin' and hollerin'.
Oh, the shadow of 9/11 lingered over the stadium, over the state, over the nation, but that can't be helped and West Virginia did what it could to take care of it.
Normally, gray uniforms make no sense for a team whose colors are old gold and blue, but this time gray proved to be a fitting tribute to one of their own, a former Mountaineer quarterback, Chris Gray, who would be honored between quarters.
Like so many in New York, the New Jersey native had gone to work that beautiful morning in his office at One World Trade Center and was there when the first airplane flew into it.
It cost him his life. It cost us a lifetime with him, for this was a wonderful young man of 32 then.
He could make people laugh and, when he had to stand up and be counted, as it was when he fumbled against Virginia Tech when in the game as a backup, he stood tall and accepted responsibility.
Now his brother, Tim, and the family were being remembered.
"It's a enormous honor. Thank you; thank you for embarcing Chris. He wasn't a starter but thank you for remembering him," Tim Gray would say.
The crowd roared.
Chris Gray was only part of the aura of this special day.
Before the opening kickoff they honored the Mountain Eagles, those who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam; veterans who were wounded or injured. The honored, too, the first responders, proclaming it Heroes Day in West Virginia, and anyone who has seen what first responders have done in times of trouble ... be it a building collapsing, a hurricane, tornado or rushing to your house for a medical emergency.
And then there was the havoc that COVID-19 had thrust upon us all over the plast year and a half, changing the way we lived and the way we worked.
Football? They somehow kept it going but it was only a shell of itself without fans, without team unity, without knowing from one week to next if you would play, for one day to the next to know if you would practice.
Last year, for example, they had no Senior Day for the seniors, so they honored those seniors who could come back for this home opener.
It wasn't the same, no, but it may have meant more to those who were there for they had a whole lot to be thankful for.
And another tradition finally came back, the Mantrip, last done in 2019. No need to have a Mantrip last year, for there was no crowd to walk through, so this year's took on additional meaning, too.
Most important, they played a football game.
In the past, when you played a game, the most important thing was to win.
On this day, most important was to play the game. They'd waited so long to do it right, so long to get back out in front of their fans.
Winning was a foregone conclusion, but it helped that them that the Mountaineers did so decisively. They needed to play Long Island on this week, to get the young players experience, to work on things that had gone wrong, to feel the thrill of victory again and, as coach Neal Brown would put, "to get that taste out of their mouths."
How long had that bitter taste of defeat lasted for the team and for the fans?
Dr. E. Gordon Gee, the President of West Virginia University, stated it best with an anecdote when he appeared ont the WVU pregame show.
"We are disappointed, no one more so than the coach, no one more so than the players," Dr Gee said. "I ran into a couple of the players in the Mountainlair the other day. They came up and apologized to me."
No apologies necessary this week.