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The rookie mom: Reflection and gratitude in watching Eli's first NFL game

Eli Apple's mom reflects on the experience of watching her son play on the solemn anniversary of 9/11.

What if I told you that a little boy who was in first grade at P.S. 20 in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn on September 11, 2001, during the most tragic attack on U.S. soil, would be drafted 15 years later in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft by the New York Giants. That he would be playing for the Giants on the 15th anniversary of that horrible day. That he would be playing in Dallas, Texas where former president George W. Bush would participate in the coin toss.

It's amazing how life comes full circle.

Fifteen years ago on the morning of September 11, we had gotten up to run the kids across the street to school so I could take the subway to work. I was working at NBC News at 30 Rock and was rushing to get there before 9 a.m. for our 9:30 NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw morning meeting. My husband would then take out our six-month old daughter to a doctor’s appointment in the city. In our haste to rush out of the door, my mom, a Ghanaian immigrant and missionary, insisted we “have a word of prayer”. She'd been visiting us for a few days but now she was standing in the way of our busy schedules. "Mom I really have to go. I'll pray on my way to the train," I said without persuasion. The problem wasn't praying. I love to pray. The problem is my mom's “quick word of prayer" usually lasts about three days. We knew there was no talking mom out of it. So we gathered as a family and my mom prayed. She prayed a prayer about safety and strength that would help me in a way I never knew I'd need on the day we never dreamed would happen in our country. 

As my F train came out of the tunnel, I saw smoke coming out of what used to be the Twin Towers. Cell phones were not as common so no one knew what was happening. When I got to work, that day changed all of our lives. The amazing team at NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, including Jonathan Wald and current president of Disney-ABC Ben Sherwood, were the best I’d ever seen in the news business. I was pulled to AP (associate produce) for the late David Bloom and his brilliant producer Roxanne Garcia. We worked nonstop around the clock. We were put into hotel rooms and worked into the following day. I didn't make it home but was able to assure my family I was okay.

Fifteen years later, on Saturday, September 10, 2016, we flew into Dallas, as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” played at the airport. As parents of a rookie, we're still learning the ropes and routines. When you’re the away team, you get crappy seats; so it’s best to buy tickets from someone you know on the opposing team. I’d hoped to buy tickets from the Elliotts but that didn’t pan out. So we were stuck with nosebleed seats. Not to fear, we were just excited about seeing our youngest son playing in his first NFL game

On our way to the hotel we had dinner and brought Eli some food. We got to the third floor of the team hotel where we were allowed to meet him. As we sat in the hall while Eli picked away at his calamari and onion rings, his teammates and coaches walked by. Their meeting started in 12 minutes and being late to meetings in the NFL is costly. This gave us an opportunity to chat with some of the coaches and hug a couple of his teammates. All the coaches say the same thing about Eli: he's a student of the game and soaks up everything he's told.

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The last time we were in Dallas, the Ohio State Buckeyes played in the first College Football Playoff national championship game and beat Oregon. The last pass of Marcus Mariota’s college football career was intercepted by Eli Apple. Now, we’re back in Dallas and Eli and Ezekiel are on opposing teams. It was so surreal.

We arrived at AT&T stadium two hours before kickoff. I know there are wonderful people in Dallas. I happen to be friends with a few of them. Texans are usually very hospitable but no matter where we went Sunday, we seemed to only run into the really awful, rude ones, with one guy yelling in my face "get out of here, girl" while holding the hand of his pleased girlfriend. I reminded him that he was an idiot as he kept walking. I tried to stay focused on the significance of the day and not allow ignorance to rob me of my joy and excitement. I reminded myself that today was a day of reflection and celebration.

But the day just seemed off. Everything was a battle. The weather was hot and I just kept declining misery's invite for company. After walking around the entire stadium for post-game passes and a meeting location with the Elliotts, I felt the sting of the Texas heat. Then, as we walked what seemed like fifty ramps up to get to our seats. I started to feel the significance of the day. I stopped and told my friend Kirsten Fleming that I needed to pause for a few minutes. I just needed to have a cry. I didn’t cry during the draft, but now all the tears were here. Like Tom Brokaw 15 years earlier, I broke down. September 11 hit me all over again, along with my son making his first NFL game appearance and remembering the struggles and sacrifices of being a young mom. I became overwhelmed with gratitude for life.

When we got to our seats, they were so high I felt like I was going to fall off. Last time we sat this high up was when we traveled to Penn State and they sat the families on top of Beaver Stadium. I couldn't even see or dance for fear of landing on the 50-yard line. They said it was for our protection; so fans don't throw things on top of us. Unfortunately, crazy fans are a part of football, and the more they drink, the more ridiculous they get. Beer plus ignorance is a toxic combination.  But the key is to always maintain the right focus even when the awful actions of others try to distract or discourage.

As the video of the events of 9/11 began to play, it took me back to a time of real tragedy and helped remind me how miniscule my frustrations were. When the entire stadium stood up for the national anthem, there was such a powerful unity. This wonderful moment removed the angst and frustrations from the events of the day. America is bigger than one guy or a million guys who anger or insult you. America is a canvas and it’s up to me, to us, to make our mark, a mark of forgiveness and togetherness. That’s the only way we can make America better, by being better and doing better. As long as I looked at the Jumbotron and not down on the field, I could do this. Everything seemed small when the flag was draped over the field and President George W. Bush and Laura Bush (who was rocking Giants blue) walked onto the field. The anthem. The moment. The memory outweighed the tyranny of hecklers.

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Watching your kid on such a large scale was amazing. By halftime, a friend of mine whose husband had a suite texted and asked us to join them. We took the elevator to a whole new world. It was quiet and people were civil. No noises, profanity or drunk screaming walkers. Just people gathered together in a room filled with all good things to watch their team. I’d never seen this side of football. But I liked it. I vowed to make more rich friends. When we walked in, there was food and drinks everywhere. Shrimp cocktail, catfish, steak, red and white wine, fruit trays. They were definitely enjoying a totally different football experience than the rest of us. I quickly said my greetings and perched to see the Giants handle business. For me, football isn’t a social event. I’m not here to hear about your day or your job. I am here for the game, and this game did not disappoint.

The best part of the action was when Black Eli tackled future Hall of Famer Jason Witten, especially as I cheered in a suite filled with lifelong Cowboys fans. But they understood it was a mom thing. My other favorite moment was Victor Cruz’s touchdown and salsa. Watching Cruz freely dance in the end zone on 9/11 was a wonderful reminder of the beauty and resilience of life: It goes on. So you might as well dance.

Annie Apple will write weekly for Sports Illustrated during the NFL season, as well as contribute to ESPN's Sunday Countdown. She is the founder of Survivin America, where she frequently blogs on an array of topics ranging from sports to politics to lifestyle.