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Steelers Prayer service for the victims of attack moves Steelers family

Saturday, September 15, 2001

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

SOMERSET, Pa. -- Gov. Ridge stood on the steps of the Somerset County Courthouse, a giant American flag draped across the concrete columns above him, 45 white luminaria representing the victims of United Airlines Flight 93 on the steps below him, and talked passionately about the one intangible terrorists can never destroy -- the American spirit.

Steelers Coach Bill Cowher and wife, Kaye, at the Somerset Community Candleight Prayer and Memorial service last night at the county courthouse. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

To his left, seated among the crowd of thousands who turned out last night for a candlelight vigil and prayer service in the small Pennsylvania mountain village, Steelers Coach Bill Cowher sat with his wife, Kaye, and listened intently to the speech, his eyes focused on the governor, his heart with the grief-stricken families seated in the front row, his mind a long way from football.

"We all felt a little helpless, like what could we do," Cowher said. "We wanted to be a part of it. We wanted to come up and show our support."

Then Cowher paused and added, "I'll remember this the rest of my life."

Cowher was one of nearly 50 members of the Steelers' organization who wanted to show their support to the families of victims of United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed Tuesday in nearby Shanksville, part of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Team president Dan Rooney and his wife, Pat; vice-president Art Rooney II, director of football operations Kevin Colbert and nearly 25 players -- among them quarterback Kordell Stewart, running back Jerome Bettis, tight end Mark Bruener and tackle Wayne Gandy -- attended the service to honor the victims whom Ridge referred to as "true American heroes."

"I think it's something our players wanted to do," Rooney said. "We all wanted to do it. The only purpose was to show our support for the families involved."

None of the Steelers spoke at the 75-minute service, nor were any of them mentioned in the program or during the ceremony. They filed in quietly, almost without attention, several minutes before the service began. And they stayed to the end, joining the thousands who turned out on a cool, clear night to sing, pray, honor and remember.

Afterward, in a poignant scene behind the courthouse, Cowher, Rooney, Stewart, Bettis and Bruener met with several of the victims' family members, talking to them, hugging them. Bettis and Stewart even escorted several of them on to the bus to meet some of their teammates.

"It's hard to put into words," Cowher said. "You feel for them. There's nothing more you can do but let them know you support them."

The Steelers chartered two buses to make the 80-mile drive on what would have been the final day of practice for what was supposed to be their first home game of the 2001 season, the official grand opening of Heinz Field.

But National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue postponed this weekend's 15-game schedule out of respect for the families and friends of those who died or are missing in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

After attending the candlelight service, everyone realized it was the right decision.

"This is another example of why we shouldn't have played the games," said Bruener, the team's player representative.

"Coming here, really, let us know that playing two days from now wasn't right," Gandy said. "People's minds should be on [the victims' families]."

"We're about the people," said guard Rich Tylski. "The games can be played later. America needed to take this weekend, reflect, give respect and just come together."

Nobody emphasized that more dramatically, yet more touchingly, than Ridge, who talked of the goodness of the American people, the compassion and generosity of Pennsylvanians and the unwavering strength of the American spirit.

He began by calling the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon not just an attack on "New York and Washington alone. This was an attack on America. This was an attack on all of us."

But, looking at the families seated below him, then out to the candle-holding, flag-waving crowd that ringed the courthouse, Ridge said: "The one target the terrorists missed was America herself. Destroying those landmarks won't make us less free. Their mission has failed. They don't understand America. They truly don't understand who we are.

"They didn't destroy our spirit -- they rekindled it. They will not drive us apart -- we have come together. And we did not, and we won't let them, take away our way of life.

"America is not a piece of ground or a place on the map. It's an idea, a hope and a way of life. As long as we remain Americans, they will never win."

Then, talking about United Airlines Flight 93, Ridge praised the passengers who decided to "fight back" and struggled with the hijackers who took over the plane, perhaps saving hundreds of lives in the process.

"What appears to be a hole in the ground is truly a monument of heroism," he said.

Ridge was given a standing ovation, even from the Steelers.

"Unbelievable," Rooney said of Ridge's speech.

Afterward, as they filed back to the bus, several of the players spoke softly of what they had seen, what they had felt.

"I think it's important not only for us, for America," said Tylski. "I think we should have one of these in every state."

But perhaps nobody was more moved than Gandy, a 300-pound left tackle who took a deep breath and said, "It's a feeling I don't think I've ever had in my 30 years of living."

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