Quarterback Wayne Madkin stepped into Mississippi State’s weight room as an eerie silence fell over the gym.
The space — usually filled with a combination of clanking weights, pop music and the screaming of strength coaches — grew uncannily quiet as the MSU football team prepared for its early morning lift.
There were no televisions in the weight room at the time. Only a radio. Everyone huddled around it. Madkin can’t remember the news anchor’s name. His message, though, remains crystal clear.
At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and crashed it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City between the 93rd and 99th floors.
The MSU football team huddled around the static, listening in as a second plane hit the South Tower 17 minutes later.
Bulldogs strength coach Mike Grant broke the collective silence.
“We’re going to war, boys,” he said.
Nearly 500 miles east of Starkville, Mississippi, South Carolina quarterback Phil Petty sat in the Gamecocks’ training room. Petty came in to see team physician Dr. Rod Walters after he’d dislocated his finger the week prior.
Hoping to heal enough to play against Bowling Green the following weekend, Petty and Walters watched the television tucked into the training room as the upper portions of the Twin Towers were severed.
“Every year on 9/11 — I mean, I know it’s a saying that we use a lot — but I know I’ll never forget,” Petty told The State. “I’ll never forget seeing it live on TV, laying in that training room.”
Within 35 minutes of the attacks on the World Trade Center, another plane is hijacked and crashed into the west side of the Pentagon. A fourth plane authorities largely conclude was headed for the White House or U.S. Capitol also crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m. when passengers stormed the cockpit and overran the hijackers.
Flights across the country were grounded. College football games for the coming weekend were also progressively canceled.
South Carolina shot at an Urban Meyer-led Bowling Green squad was shelved. So too was MSU’s meeting with BYU.
Next up was a primetime Thursday, Sept. 20 showdown between the No. 16 Bulldogs and No. 20 Gamecocks in Starkville. It’d be the first nationally televised college football game after the attacks.
“You were there, but a part of you wasn’t there,” Madkin said of the game. “Because it was still that not knowing, that feeling that something bad was going to happen.”
Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11. South Carolina is on the road for a date at East Carolina. MSU will welcome North Carolina State to Davis Wade Stadium.
Despite residing four states apart, the programs remain inextricably linked. Two decades on, those who were there look back on that stirring night in Starkville.
“Years later, and certainly now reflecting back, it was more than an honor,” MSU head coach Jackie Sherrill told The State. “Because you were helping bring solidarity and feelings back to the American people.”
Scheduling games after the 9/11 attacks
Senior leadership within the Southeastern Conference, led by Commissioner Roy Kramer, canceled the coming weekend’s games shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Priorities promptly shifted to the Sept 20-22 slate.
“Somehow, Roy Kramer talked to the White House,” former MSU athletic director Larry Templeton told The State. “And they said, ‘Yes, we want y’all to play that game.’ ”
There wasn’t exactly a direct line from the SEC’s headquarters to the Oval Office, Kramer explains, but a game of telephone that meandered from the conference offices and campuses, up to Capitol Hill and over to the White House ensued.
Kramer said he and university presidents within the SEC remained in contact with federal lawmakers, who, in turn, spoke with White House officials. A growing sentiment from top to bottom supported the league moving forward with its games the week of Sept. 20.
“It was certainly, I think, a statement that gradually became more and more evident that weekend that the country was returning to normalcy,” Kramer told The State of the MSU-South Carolina game. “That the culture of various events — sporting and otherwise — were going to continue and that the country was going to certainly move forward in a very positive way.”
With the Thursday night game set, Sherrill and South Carolina head coach Lou Holtz began preparations for their Top-25 matchup.
Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove orchestrated a gameday plan of his own in conjunction with South Carolina athletic director Mike McGee, Templeton, local and state law enforcement and federal agencies.
The government enforced a no-fly zone over Davis Wade Stadium that night. Purses were the only bags allowed into the stadium. Even the famed cowbells that clink and chime in organized chaos at MSU home games were temporarily banned.
Musgrove can’t put an exact figure on the number of security personnel on site, but he said it included city, county and state law enforcement, along with the National Guard.
“The placement of the security, the amount of security was all very important, but we didn’t want it to look like a military presence,” Musgrove told The State. “We wanted the fans to enjoy the game and we wanted the nation through TV and other means to enjoy the game.”
Tension oozed from the Gamecock football players standing on the tarmac at Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
Rather than make the roughly eight-hour drive or spend the night before the game in Starkville — as was customary — South Carolina boarded a plane the morning of Sept. 20 after mechanical issues stopped USC from leaving the night before.
A handful of South Carolina players had never set foot on an airplane. Even the more seasoned travelers felt a general uneasiness when the captain called over the loudspeaker and asked that everyone fasten their seatbelts.
“There were nerves,” receiver Ryan Brewer recalled. “I could feel it.”
‘It brought tears to your eyes’
A swath of red, white and blue enveloped Davis Wade Stadium the night of Sept. 20, 2001.
Just about every one of the 43,579 people in the stands held a miniature version of the star-spangled banner. Fans draped flags from the overhangs of skyboxes.
Undergrads standing in the first row of the MSU student section painted their chests in Old Glory’s famed colors. The lettering on their backs spelled out “God Bless America.”
Standing oppossit one another, South Carolina and MSU players walked in unison as they unfurled a massive, 25-yard tall American flag that stretched sideline-to-sideline.
Together, the Gamecocks and Bulldogs held the flag as a chorus of “U-S-A!” chants erupted around the stadium. A moment of silence was called.
For 22 seconds, a deafening hush fell over Davis Wade Stadium. It broke in an instant.
“GO TO HELL, BIN LADEN! GO TO HELL!” a deep Southern drawl wailed.
The fans heard it. Sherrill heard it. South Carolina and MSU’s sidelines heard it. The television cameras broadcast it. The crowd roared in approval once more.
“I get chills thinking about it now,” Brewer said. “It’s one of those deals like, ‘OK, we’re here. Let’s get this game going.’ ”
As the crowd simmered, Bonnie Bishop stepped to midfield.
Bishop, the daughter of Sherrill and a professionally trained singer, had just graduated from Texas when the World Trade Center collapsed. With a dash of unbeknownst politicking from her father, Templeton agreed to invite her to sing the national anthem.
Bishop concedes she’d never even had a gig of her own before Sept. 20, 2001. But there she stood, staring into the sea of maroon, garnet and American flags with a microphone clutched in her right hand.
“That was my first major appearance,” said Bishop, who’s since spent 20 years touring and won a Grammy in 2013. “I was not ready for that, but that’s typical of my dad. He’d throw you the ball to find out what you were made of.”
Touching each note over the one and a half octaves the ballad calls for, her voice ebbed and flowed as she balanced the second-plus delay from her microphone to the speakers in the stadium.
Bishop says she blacked out for the bulk of her performance. The one piece she remembers? The high-note on “free.”
“It brought tears to your eyes,” Sherrill said, his voice growing increasingly somber with each word. “Because you were representing something a lot bigger than just holding the flag or a football game. … You were representing the USA.”
Standing along the MSU sideline, ESPN reporter Jimmy Dykes collected his thoughts.
Dykes, who spent the better part of his adult life as a college basketball coach, had primarily been a basketball reporter for ESPN. Living in Fayetteville, Arkansas at the time, network higher-ups thought him a versatile broadcaster and asked if he’d join the crew in Starkville for the game.
“When they played the national anthem, it felt like everything was OK again,” Dykes said solemnly. “It was the most impactful national anthem I have ever been a part of and probably ever will be a part of.
“I can’t even tell you who won,” he continued. “I just remember that moment, standing on the sideline, looking around that stadium and thinking, ‘OK. We’re going to be OK.’ ”
A Gamecocks win in Bulldog country and 20 years of memories
As the fervor of the national anthem eased and the American flags came to rest, the players locked in.
For the first time since the United States stood still, football returned.
“The statement being made that night was a statement that there was a strength in this country, that terrorists were not going to change the entire culture of the country, so to speak,” Kramer said. “These events, as horrendous as they were, this country was stronger than that, was able to recover from that in a very positive way and that we were moving forward.”
The contest flowed with as much grace as a rock fight.
South Carolina rumbled and stumbled to 238 yards on 46 carries. Some of that was by design as Petty completed his evening 7-for-14 for just 60 yards through the air.
Holtz insinuated before the contest backup quarterback Corey Jenkins might be unleashed at some point that weekend.
Jenkins — a hulking 6-foot-1, 220-pound signal-caller — spent the previous season guiding Garden City Junior College to a No. 1 ranking and a 10-0 campaign. More recently, South Carolina used him as a change of pace under center.
Midway through the third quarter, Holtz turned to Jenkins and glared.
“Hey, let’s go,” Holtz said. “You’re in. You’re up.”
“I was like, ‘Oh s—. Let’s go,’ ” Jenkins recalled through a laugh.
First was a quarterback power toward the right side of the line. Next was a handoff to running back Andrew Pinnock. Jenkins lumbered for three more yards on another quarterback run. Then came a veer option. He picked up 9 yards and a first down.
Jenkins recorded 11 carries that night. Seventy-five yards and a third-quarter field goal that capped his drive pushed South Carolina’s edge to nine points. It was just enough for the Gamecocks to eke out a 16-14 win.
“(The offensive line) did their job,” Jenkins said. “The White House did their job and, fortunate enough for me, I was able to do what I know how to do and it turned out pretty well.”
Said Petty: “We were fortunate enough to go get that win on the road. But there was such a bigger picture and there were greater events that were going on in our country that it really put everything in perspective.”
As the years wear on, the memories of the Sept. 11 attacks grow fainter. Kindergartners then are now in their mid-20s. Kramer, who was 71 when the game occurred, is in his early 90s.
That one night in Starkville, though, remains seared into the minds of those that were there. Those folks will never forget.