Illinois FCS coaches share their recollections about 9/11

Jared Elliott was a prep quarterback in Franklin, Tenn. Nick Hill was a junior at downstate DuQuoin High School. Adam Cushing was a tight end at the University of Chicago. Brock Spack was defensive coordinator at Purdue.

No matter their age differences or experiences, they join millions of Americans remembering where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the unfolding events of Sept. 11, 2001.

The four Illinois FCS head football coaches share their recollections on the 20th anniversary of that fateful day that shook and changed America. The following is their stories in their words.

Jared Elliott, Western Illinois

“I was in a science class. I still remember our teacher leaving the room and then coming back in and telling us what had happened. He turned on the TV in the room and we sat in the classroom and watched it that morning. Gosh, that will never leave anybody (who saw it). I remember watching all of the horror and emotions that everyone was dealing with on that day as it unfolded in front of our eyes.

“One of the things I’ll always remember is our teacher’s body language, his demeanor, his facial expressions when he walked back in the room. Things like that you never forget.

“You’re listening to it. You’re watching it. There’s the shock of is this really happening? Is this real? That’s what I remember. It was gut-wrenching and horrifying to watch, but I think I was in shock like so many of my other classmates. It was just dead silent. Everyone was just trying to process it.

“We did up playing (our football game) that week. I don’t remember who we played, whether we were home or away, whether we won or lost, but I do know we played. We did not take the week off, but obviously it was an emotional week for everyone.

“As you get older and time goes on, the biggest thing I remember is how it unified our country. The things that we sometimes take for granted, and in that moment as a young (sophomore) in high school and that I really didn’t process at the time how grateful that we all need to be for the men and women that protect and serve our country. For how fragile life is on a day-to-day basis.

“Those are things as you get older and you have your own family, your own children, that you start to realize. You hear the stories of what people went through on that day, many people went to work and never came home. How people’s lives changed forever. Families that had to move on with lost loved ones. Those are the things as you get older that you start to understand. Those are the things for me now that are the things you never want to take for granted — the bond of our loved ones and the appreciation that I have for our country and how we came together through that really rough time. And of course, the brave men and women, so many heroes.

Nick Hill, Southern Illinois

“I remember walking into art class with Mr. Craft, Coach Craft was my teacher. He had a TV up in the corner.

“I remember scrambling around, trying to get to school on time so I didn’t really see anything before I got to school, but I had art (class) first. I can remember who was in my class vividly.

“I remember that we played Anna-Jonesboro that coming week in our football game. I can remember taking the moment of silence and all the things surrounding that.

“It’s crazy to think that it’s been 20 years and that much time has passed. As far as playing in a game ( now), we’ll talk about it this week. We talk about it a lot, to be privileged to play this game. Those are the times you’ve got to just be really thankful for playing a sport. We’re going out to play a game.

“Ultimately you’re playing because you enjoy doing it. It’s fun. I’m coaching in a football game; we’re not in war or some of the things that the people who have sacrificed so we can live in a free country and play football games. We’ll have a team that definitely goes out on the field and is appreciative and understands the sacrifices that some people have made so we can play sports, play football.”

Adam Cushing, Eastern Illinois

“It was my senior year in college. I was in the athletic training room (on that) Tuesday morning getting my body right for the game that weekend when everything broke.

“We were one of the few teams that actually played that weekend. That part of it has always been special to me to say that we still went on and played.

“The terror that was inflicted upon the country, the attack that was inflicted upon the country. Certainly we had to heal from it, but some of that healing comes from saying, ‘you can’t intimidate us and that we’re going to go do what we do’. Coincidentally we won the game too on a pretty big play late.

“It’s really burned into my memory, coinciding with football. Football’s my life and that whole thing.”

“It’s something that we’re going to talk (as a team) about throughout the week. How fortunate we are to be doing what we’re doing. Obviously with everything that’s gone on overseas the last couple of weeks and all that. It’s the ability to put things in perspective is really what I think the honor of that day is and how many people have sacrificed for us to play this wonderful game and have these relationships with other human beings on this football team (and) in this locker room. You have to use their incredible memory; that’s how I believe you honor all those soldiers and all those people that passed on that day.”

Brock Spack, Illinois State

“I know exactly where I was. I can see it vividly, very clear 20 years later. I was in the (Purdue) defensive staff room watching Notre Dame tape. Our secretary came in and said that a plane had crashed into one of the towers in New York City. We turned the TV on and saw the second plane hit and knew something was up. It was very chaotic the rest of the day.

“I remember just being stunned, angry. Our players were angry. Some of them were from the East Coast. I had a kid named Niko Koutouvides, who was from Connecticut. His brother worked downtown in Manhattan. The brother was very close to the towers and Niko couldn’t get ahold of him. He (Niko) was panicked. I said, ‘Niko, there’s no phone service, it’s going to be very difficult to get to him. I’m sure he’s going to be okay.’ Niko called me about nine o’clock that night and told me his brother was safe.

“I know a lot out people out there that lost firefighters and police officers. My mother-in-law is originally from Brooklyn; later in life she lived on Long Island. She had family there and was very concerned.

“Our game with Notre Dame was cancelled and later played in December. The next week we had a home game against Ball State. All of the sideline grass trim was red, white and blue.

“I think about how divided we are right now (as a nation) and how close we became back then from this tragedy. People from different walks of life were helping each other. We were all American, and we were all going to stand up for each other. We weren’t going to let this happen again. We weren’t going to let them (terrorists) get us down. That was what was the positive about it; people rallied behind being American across all socioeconomic and racial barriers. Everybody lost somebody. That was a common bond.

“My daughter (Alicia) was in middle school and my son (Brent) was in grade school; they’re six years apart. Brent kind of remembers it; my daughter definitely remembers it. She’s 33 years old, and Brent’s 27 now. I remember thinking how am I going to explain this to them? It all seems so senseless. Those were tough days. Those were hard days, but nothing like what the people had to do at Ground Zero.

“But it’s about toughness and resiliency. I’m proud to be an American. It was amazing to see people reaching out and helping one another. People who never thought of themselves as heroes became heroes.”

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