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Sep 11, 2006

In remembrance of Sept. 11

On Sept. 29, 2001, the MetroStars suffered one of the more heartbreaking defeats in MLS playoff history. Playing with a man advantage against the Los Angeles Galaxy, and with eight minutes elapsed in the series deciding minigame, a free kick from L.A. midfielder Mauricio Cienfuegos deflected off the head of Mark Chung and past a stranded Tim Howard, giving the Galaxy an improbable series victory. As such, you would think that such a crushing defeat would linger long in the players' memories. Or would it?

Five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, ESPN.com examines how those who lost the most have turned grief into giving.

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"It's such a blur I don't even remember," says Mike Petke, who suited up for the Metros that day and now plays for the Colorado Rapids. "Nothing at all."

Ditto for then-teammate Steve Jolley, who says, "I don't remember the playoffs."

Their amnesia is understandable. National tragedies have a way of dominating the collective memory in a way that pushes everything else into the background. And as the country observes the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, what emerges for both players is the usual brew of pain, sadness and hope -- and also a realization that the healing process occurs in fits and starts, and can accelerate when one least expects it.

The stories of Petke and Jolley from that day are typical of many New Yorkers. There was the initial shock at the scale of the attacks, the frantic attempts to make contact with friends and family, and the grief at the realization that someone they knew had died.

For Petke, a native of the Long Island town of Bohemia, it centered on the death of New York City police officer Glen Pettit, whose brother Neil was a youth soccer teammate of Petke's.

In Jolley's case, the links were even closer. Robert Vicario, Jolley's next-door neighbor in the town of Weehawken, N.J., had spent the last year at home tending to his newborn baby, Savannah. A contractor by trade, Vicario's first day back at work was on Sept. 11, at the World Trade Center.

"[Vicario] and his wife were in their early 40s, so you can understand how excited they were to actually have a kid at that age," Jolley says. "It's kind of a gut-wrenching story to think of how unlucky this poor man was."

Greg Trost, a close friend and fraternity brother of Jolley's at William & Mary, also perished. Yet for Jolley, the enormity of the tragedy didn't hit home until he arrived back at his house, which he and his wife had purchased just 12 days earlier.

"We had the most phenomenal view of downtown from the master bedroom, so you pretty much woke up every morning to a view of downtown New York," Jolley says. "I remember literally waking up and seeing the clouds just billowing in our direction. It just left a visual stain in my mind, that smoke that came up from all of the ashes and everything. So it was just a constant reminder of what happened that day, right when you woke up."

In the days that followed, both Petke and Jolley threw themselves into charity work, raising money and making donations of their own to help support their friends as well as strangers affected by the attacks. There was the Concert For New York City, where Petke represented the MetroStars and appeared with the likes of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Knicks guard Allan Houston. After taking the stage, Petke made a public acknowledgement of his friend's loss.

"It was the one thing I could think of," Petke recalls. "It's easy to say to everybody, 'It's a horrible time and God bless everybody,' but this is someone who I could reach out to that I knew and let them know that even though I haven't seen them in 10 or 15 years, that I'm thinking about them."

The two childhood friends were reunited two months later at the Unity Games, a pair of doubleheaders organized by MLS and the WUSA, which pitted the MetroStars against D.C. United and the New York Power against the Washington Freedom. The games raised nearly $250,000 for the Soccer United Relief Fund that benefited various Sept. 11 charities; Petke later presented Pettit a check on his brother's behalf in New York. Unlike the previous month's playoff series, the memories for Petke are crystal clear, and the fact that his own brother, Ed, is a former NYPD officer made the moment even more poignant.

"I remember it vividly," Petke says of the benefit games. "We all wore NYPD hats, and they lined the field with cops, and it was great. It was a great memorial, and I'm glad we did it."

Jolley and his wife, Pilar, were no less active, raising money any way they could, whether it was auctioning off jerseys or making donations of their own. In the immediate aftermath, the two were able to raise $11,000, but Jolley adds that the timing of the donations gave them an even greater impact.

"You knew that [the victims' families] were going to be taken care of, which is wonderful," Jolley recalls. "But what a lot of people were forgetting in the meantime was that people weren't able to handle their immediate bills, like the phone bill that just came up, or their grocery money, that kind of stuff."

Of course, the games, and by extension the jobs of Petke and Jolley, eventually went on. The league canceled the last two games of the regular season, opting not to reschedule them as other sports leagues did. The fact that the playoff participants, if not the seedings, had already been determined made the decision easier. But the normal adrenalin jolt that accompanies the postseason was absent.

"I just remember going back to practice, and even for a while after that, not being completely concentrated on soccer," Petke recalls. "It really put in perspective that yes, I do this for a living, and I go out, and I give my all, all the time. But just for all those days that followed, all of those people who were possibly alive, the people who died, to go out there and put that much emphasis in a game was very tough.

"Time heals, and in time my competitiveness came back. But for a short while afterwards, I was not into it."

Time may heal, but there are some hurts that never go away, and what is healing for one person can be agony for someone else. Case in point is the release of the movie "World Trade Center," directed by Oliver Stone, which will recall for many all the emotions connected with the tragedy. For Petke, those feelings are often conflicting.

"I don't think it's too therapeutic for me," Petke says. "Every time these new movies are coming out -- which I'm glad they are because they are telling good stories -- even just watching the coming attractions is difficult for me and my wife."

Petke would often change the channel the moment anything related to Sept. 11 came on television. Yet there was one occasion when he decided to tune in. After returning from a home game one night, Petke was flipping channels and happened across the movie "Flight 93."

"It took me about 30 seconds to realize what it was," Petke says. "I thought it was just a movie about a plane, but I was already into it, and I just decided to watch the rest of it. It was tough, and to be honest with you, I'm glad I did [watch]. We'll see the new movie that's out. We won't see it in theaters. We'll wait until it comes out on video, and my wife and I will rent it and watch it."

The film will no doubt be inspirational, as were many other stories to come out of the tragedy. The way the people of the city came together and supported one another is perhaps its most enduring legacy, one that both Petke and Jolley are continuing through their charitable works; Petke with his Kick The Violence Foundation and Jolley with his organization called Just Jolley.

But as the nation gathers itself this Sept. 11, it will be about recollecting those events, even if after five years some of the raw emotion has evaporated a bit. A moment of silence was observed at the past weekend's MLS matches, allowing fans an opportunity to reflect. Jolley needs no such impetus.

"The lesson learned for me during September 11 was that you can't control everything in your life," he says. "Maybe you can't explain that they happened for a reason per se, but at least you can look at it and say, 'Bad things happen to good people, too.' You don't necessarily move on, but you hope that people will at least take that day to think about what that day represents, for themselves, maybe for the country, maybe for their family. It's always been the day for me to think about my friend."

And as with all of the victims, that is something worth remembering.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.