Eighteen years ago this morning I awoke to shouts from the hall of my dorm. “We’re going to war! We’re going to war!” The origin of the shouting was my neighbor Brian, known for his histrionics, so I went back to sleep. But soon after, I received a call from my high school quarterback, Justin, living in New York and telling me to turn on the television. He was standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue looking downtown at the one remaining tower. I turned the TV on and saw it fall.
It was a Tuesday and week three of our 2001 season. I was a senior wide receiver at Division 3 Menlo College in Atherton, Calif.—a few miles from Stanford. You could drive by Menlo on El Camino Real and not know our school was there. Most didn’t. That was part of the charm. Our mascot was the Oak—a tree—and the enrollment was just over 500 students. But 100 of those 500 were on the football team. It was a football school, of sorts.
Southern California has a lot of D3 schools; so does the Pacific Northwest. But Menlo, which had been a junior college in the ‘80s, was the only ticket in town for a Bay Area kid who wanted to play college ball but didn’t get asked to play D1. A lot of us on the team, including me, were D1 rejects. We tried somewhere else first and it didn’t work out, then somehow found ourselves at Menlo. But tuition wasn’t cheap. It was a private business school, but they had a grant program that helped, and my grandpa’s hard work at GE helped, too.
Too slow for receiver and too small for tight end, Cal Poly’s coach had told me when he cut me. I tried bong rips and video games for a while, but my throat got dry and my thumbs got sore and I missed football terribly. So I transferred, and found a bunch of guys just like me—chasing that football feeling. Overlooked, left out in the cold, discouraged, and looking for one more shot.
One of those guys was our quarterback, Zamir Amin, who the year before had set a new all-divisions passing record for yards in a game with 731. He was an American football quarterback who happened to be born in Afghanistan. His parents fled the Soviet occupation when he was an infant and settled in Northern California in Tracy, a town with a large Afghan population. Football became his passion. He, like me, grew up in the Bay Area in the ‘80s, saturated with enough feel-good 49ers football glory to hypnotize any boy who liked it rough. Not that he needed to recount his origin story very often: if you can ball, you can ball, and no one wonders why.
Football is uniquely American, and the fact that it hasn’t really caught on anywhere else makes it even more so. We gather, we drink, we yell, we cry, we praise our homegrown boys who lay it all on the line—a mostly harmless mirror version of the other American pastime, the one that was coming to the fore that week.
Because airplanes were grounded across the country and everyone was fearful of follow-up attacks, traveling for away games became difficult, and so the NFL’s games and many college games were canceled. But as a D3 team, we were out of the spotlight. No one would know if we played or not. And we didn’t have to fly, either. We had a bus ride up through the Mendocino forest to Humboldt State.
Still, those first few days, we were sure we wouldn’t be playing. This was too big. The world might be ending. But the sun kept rising, the birds kept chirping, and the cafeteria kept feeding us, and soon a new discussion started—we wanted to play. Fuck, we needed to play. That was the only way to lift this pall. Coaches left it up to us, and both teams, collectively, decided the best way to honor the victims—and to honor ourselves—was to play ball, and the game was on.
We loaded up the bus and put in our headphones and zoned out—there is nothing as focused as a football player en route to a football game. Zamir and I were roommates at the two-story backwoods motel we were staying at, and after meetings, which proved a welcome distraction from the 9/11 fallout, we laid in adjacent beds and watched the non-stop coverage of the attack. Towers falling in a loop. Osama Bin Laden’s face plastered on the screen. Bloody Vengeance or else. We fell asleep on the wings of our best chance AT a refuge—football.
Zamir’s family restaurant had been vandalized that week, and his little sisters had to be pulled from their school, but none of us knew it at the time. Stoicism was his thing.
The next night, in front of a packed Humboldt crowd, and through the whispers and taunts of a belligerent few—“Where’s your terrorist quarterback?”—Zamir led us out onto the field. If he heard any of the taunts, I couldn’t tell. We were a team a week before and we were still that same team.
But we came out of the gate sloppy. On the first drive, Zamir threw an interception. The crowd went crazy. Then Zamir threw another pick in the second quarter and then, with under a minute before halftime, fumbled on the one-yard line going in.
We went into the half down 19-0. Our offensive coordinator, Dave Muir, came in the locker room, ripped the phone off the wall, kicked over a garbage can and yelled “What the FUCK!”, which echoed through the locker room and bounced around in the concrete showers. Dave had a love/hate relationship with Zamir. Zamir played football with his gut, where as Dave wanted him to play with his head. The two don’t always jibe. And when Zamir did his own thing, Dave would blow a gasket. Thanks to those three first-half turnovers, Dave’s rant was still echoing around in our helmets as we took the field for the second half.
On the second play from scrimmage, Dave called a run off tackle. “Run it no matter what,” Dave said. “Do not change it!” Zamir nodded but got to the line of scrimmage and saw something else, so he audibled to a pass play, which was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
Down 26-0, Dave had had enough of Zamir. But as Dave looked around for the back-up QB, Smitty, Zamir tapped Dave on the shoulder.
“We will win,” Zamir said.
“Win what?!” Dave asked, looking at the unfriendly scoreboard.
Smitty was nowhere to be found so Dave left Zamir in the game, and the comeback was on. Touchdown, touchdown, blocked punt, touchdown. At the end of the game, we found ourselves down by eight with 45 seconds to go, fourth and 15 on our own 30. I was wide left with a corner playing man coverage. My chest was heaving. The corner jammed me on the snap, but I pushed through the release and down the field and looked back to see the ball spiraling towards me, leaping up and catching it, the corner falling at my feet. Right then I was hit by the safety, who instead of wrapping me up, tried to strip the ball, and I turned and raced the remaining 35 yards for the touchdown.
The two-point conversion was good—a classic west-coast play called Sprint Right Option, made famous by Joe Montana and Dwight Clark in an iconic play that Bay Area kids like me and Zamir had grown up being shown on loop.
We scored first in overtime, and on the other end, my merry prankster roommate, Hawaiian safety Kili Hugo, intercepted a Humboldt pass in the end zone and the game was over. We dog-piled on Kili and the crowd fell silent.
36-29, Oaks. Euphoria.
This football fugue has the power to dampen anything billowing in the periphery. Any sadness. Any fear. Any tragedy. In that week of practice, the bus rides, and then this game, we didn’t talk much about what was happening in the world. Not because we were trying not to, but because there was no room for the space it held. When the football is in motion, it takes you with it, no matter how heavy your heart.
Zamir was named an All-American that year.
That night, as the bus rolled through the Mendocino forest, we passed around a stiff screwdriver and talked about the game. And when the bus started smoking and broke down at a pitch-black rest stop, we shrugged our shoulders and decided that would be as good a place to sleep as any.
Nate Jackson played six years in the NFL and has written two books, Slow Getting Up and Fantasy Man. He co-founded Athletes for CARE, a non-profit that advocates for the health and wellness of athletes. He lives in L.A.