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Archive for Sunday, September 16, 2001

It’s already been a long, hard season

September 16, 2001

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— The decision to call off today's games would have been disruption enough for the NFL unlike anything since the 1987 players' strike.

This year, it's merely the latest in a series of setbacks and events, none on the scale of Korey Stringer's death.

None, that is, until Tuesday.

"We have a lot of issues to address," said Greg Aiello, the NFL's chief spokesman. "But the terrorist attack and the postponement go way beyond anything that's happened to us. That's a whole country affected."

The badly patched turf in Philadelphia that cost the Eagles and Ravens an exhibition game now seems so trivial it's hardly remembered. That officials are locked out is practically forgotten.

To be sure, Stringer's death from heatstroke on Aug. 1 still casts a sadness over the league. When the season opened last Sunday, his Minnesota Vikings teammates wore a No. 77 patch in his honor. Stringer's jersey will be retired during a Monday night game against the New York Giants in November.

"It's tough because I think the Korey issue is still hanging over the team's head," Cris Carter said. "We have been through an awful lot. Nothing can prepare you for everything. You just try to stick together and try to keep moving."

A Pro Bowl offensive tackle, Stringer died about 18 hours after he walked off the practice field on a hot and humid morning in Mankato, Minn., complaining of dizziness. He collapsed in a nearby medical aid station and never regained consciousness.

It shocked every player in the NFL. In Green Bay, coach Mike Sherman ordered the Packers out of pads; players stopped working out at the first sign of dehydration.

Twelve days later, while the league was still grieving, the exhibition schedule was disrupted by what officials deemed to be an unsafe playing field at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.

Several hours before the Ravens were to play the Eagles, Baltimore coach Brian Billick strode onto the field and found dangerous, uneven cutouts around the basepaths used for Phillies games.

Both sides agreed, conferred with the league and the game was canceled, only the second time the NFL has done so because of an unsafe field. In retrospect, that hardly matters.

Perhaps the same should be said about the years of labor peace enjoyed by the NFL that were brought to a halt by the labor dispute with the NFL Referees Association.

The refs had been negotiating a new contract since March, when the current one ran out. The NFL offered a 40 percent raise immediately, doubling salaries in 2003, then upped it to 60 percent immediately.

The NFLRA, part-timers seeking parity with full-timers in other sports, said no. The league, fearing that officials might walk off the field at the start of a game, locked them out.

The NFL turned to replacements, who came from the ranks of colleges, the Arena League and, in a few cases, high schools, for the final preseason games and the first regular-season weekend.

When the regulars said they would work with a no-strike clause, the league said: too late.

There were no egregious slipups, and when there was no indication of progress last Monday, the NFL said the replacements would work again for Week Two.

On Monday, there still was a Week Two.

On Tuesday, hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue consulted owners, players, politicians and even fans in trying to decide whether games should be played this weekend.

No, he decided Thursday, it wouldn't be appropriate, especially after the NFL Players Association board of representatives voted against it. Many players flat out admitted they didn't want to fly or play in stadiums that could be potential targets. Some lost friends and relatives in the attacks.

The Giants could see the smoke from the rubble clear across the Hudson River from their New Jersey training field.

Tagliabue felt the Jets, Giants and Redskins, in particular, had no stomach for football this Sunday. Players on those teams said they wouldn't have participated anyway.

The playoffs are a season away. Everyone seems to have forgotten the officials. They've certainly forgotten the pothole in Philly.

Stringer, though, and the events of Tuesday, Sept. 11, will forever be etched on the 2001 season.

And they've only played one week of real football.

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