|Wednesday, September 11
The heart of a Giant
By Greg Garber
NEW YORK -- Running to the top of Giants Stadium, Jim Fassel could see the smoke billowing from the World Trade Center. Some 11 miles away, just across the Hudson River, it seemed so far away, yet so eerily close to home.
After six days of watching round-the-clock replays of the horrifying images of Sept. 11, Fassel felt a calling to make a difference, to do whatever he could. And like so many politicians, like so many of his own players, the New York Giants head coach made a pilgrimage to a smoldering Ground Zero, looking to make some sense of the destruction, hoping to lift spirits amid the despair.
He met with rescue workers who had spent wearying hours that had turned into days sifting through mounds of ashen mortar, jagged metal and shards of glass in search of survivors. John McAleese, a firefighter with Brooklyn Engine Co. 219, and his brother Kevin, a police detective, were digging to find their little brother Brian, a firefighter with Engine Company 226.
"Jim comes to John McAleese, who says, 'My baby brother's in there,' " remembers John Atwell, a lieutenant with Engine 219. "Well, Jim, he welled up. He says, 'Your brother's in there?' He was talking to John and Kevin and a few minutes later I told Jim about Frank. Jim was floored. He squeezed my hand so friggin' hard it hurt.
"He said, 'Give me a call. I want to do something for them.' "
Frank Palombo was one of the seven lost men from Engine 219. He was 41 and he left behind a wife and 10 children, eight boys and two girls.
"I couldn't imagine it," Fassel said. "At the time, it's just a name, but it was touching."
People like to say the right things at the right time. Sometimes, when time passes, their commitments don't always live up to their words. Atwell wasn't sure what to expect from Fassel. Still, he passed along a photo that had been taken at Ground Zero and, a few weeks later, Fassel called to ask about the Palombos.
"He kept contact," Atwell said. "He didn't want any publicity. He didn't want one accolade."
Fassel, in recent years, had rolled around the idea of starting a foundation, a way of helping people less fortunate than he was. The Palombos and the Sept. 11 tragedies gave him a reason.
"Like a lot of people, you want to do something," Fassel said. "You know, 'What can I do?' "
'It'll be all right'
A firefighter since 1979, Frank Palombo and six firefighting brethren were in the South Tower when it collapsed. For the first few weeks, Engine 219 and Ladder 105 had more than 15 men on the site. Even at the end of the cleanup effort, there were at least two men there every day, working without pay.
The family lived in a modest, three-story flat in the Park Slope section of Prospect Park. On Sept. 14, it was Lt. John Atwell's duty to call on the family there.
"Originally, we thought he might be alive, but by the third day we knew," Atwell said. "I walked in the door at Jean's house and all the children are there, sitting on chairs. Frank's parents are there, too. I says, 'Jean, you know, it's not good.' And she hugs me and says, 'No matter what happens, it'll be all right.'
"I had meetings with a number of other families that day and, I'll tell you, that's what carried me through the rest of that day."
The kids, of course, were crushed: Anthony (16), Frank Jr., (14), Joseph (13), Maria (12), Thomas (10), John (8), Patrick (7), Daniel (5), Stephen (3) and Margaret (23 months).
The funeral was on Oct. 20. Jean spoke early, to set the tone.
"I didn't want it to be a sad, let's-all-cry thing," Jean said. "We had already cried for more than a month, now it was time to rejoice in Frank's life and how he gave his life.
"There's a scripture line that goes, 'If you really love me, you'd be happy I'm in heaven,' Well, I'm happy for Frank. He's in heaven, he's with the Father."
Anthony and Frank Jr. walked bravely to the front of the church and offered readings.
"They never broke down," Atwell said. "It was something to see. Now, I've been to 50, 60 funeral masses in the last year, but that one was different. It was the only one where you went out feeling like a million dollars."
The gift of time
"Frank was a very forceful person in that family," Fassel said that day. "Their father is gone. I can't replace their father. Nobody can. But to let them know we care and give them something special that maybe somebody else doesn't have -- like coming to practice, or standing on the sideline with me at a game or coming into the locker room and meeting the players -- those types of things you do for the young people."
"The firemen had spoken to me about Jim," Jean said. "And, honestly, in the beginning, I was very leery of everyone and everything. I was a little standoffish."
The kids met Fassel for the first time when the Giants opened up the stadium for the children of Sept. 11. They walked on the field and toured the locker room. Jean left early and the firemen of Engine Co. 219 kept an eye on the kids. They came home jabbering about the experience, carrying handfuls of Giants hats and T-shirts.
They were back at Giants Stadium a few weeks later for a practice and in late fall, Fassel stopped by to visit the firehouse in Brooklyn.
"I was very impressed," Jean said. "He's very sincere. It was like sitting down and speaking to your neighbor. He impressed on the kids, you've got to take care of your responsibilities, hit the books and so on. And that was very helpful.
"When you're a little kid, your dad is big. Really big. Without that presence in our house, it makes a difference. I mean, they don't listen to me the way they listened to Frank. Keeping this family together, there are days when it's really hard. Frank used to say, 'It's you and me against them, we have to stay united.' I'm still united with Frank -- he's just not here anymore."
Fassel's attention has helped Jean, 42, to cope. It has been a long year and she still gets more attention than she would like. When Oprah Winfrey asked her to appear on her show, Jean politely declined. Quiet by nature, she has grown more forceful the past few months. On Sunday night, she spoke at a memorial mass at St. Peter's Cathedral near Ground Zero.
"To me, it's important," she said. "There's so much focus on the negative things, the things that drain me, I feel like there are things we can be doing that are positive. Like Jim, he took all this energy and turned it into a positive thing."
A new year
Before the game, Fassel came out of the locker room and Jean gave him a big kiss.
"He stops and touches my arm and says, 'Are you OK?' " Jean said. "How a coach, before the biggest game of the season, comes over and asks how I'm doing ... how does that happen?"
Fassel, who has been keeping an eye on Frank Jr.'s grades, found time to revisit that delicate subject.
"I'm on your butt," Fassel told him. "Let's get those grades up or I'm not going to keep having you over here."
The kids stood on the sidelines and cheered for the Giants. Jean, her rosary in her pocket, was praying for the Giants but, ultimately, they lost, 16-13. And yet, the kids felt privileged, special.
Fassel admits he has trouble keeping all the names straight.
"Maybe," Jean said, "I should get them shirts like the Giants wear, the ones with the names on the back."
The Fassel Foundation will continue to support the Palombo family financially. Events like Fassel's charity golf tournament at Westchester Country Club help make it possible.
"The event sold out before we even sent out any mailings," Fassel said. "Guys were walking up to me with $5,000 checks. The auction items made tremendous amounts of money. A boat ride with me sold for $12,000, $13,000. Can you believe that?"
And yet, Fassel said, there is more to do.
"I'm not the Red Cross, but my feeling is, the money gets doled out equally -- but Jean's not equal, she's got 10 kids. Think of the magnitude with all those educations."
'We lost the game, they lost their father'
"Kitty and I are empty-nesters," Fassel said.
The Palombos, you can be certain, help to fill the void.
Jean is getting a lot of help from the community of firefighters. The guys at the firehouse cook dinner for the family every Monday and friends have been exceedingly generous. For every good day, there is a bad day -- and more. She recently broke her right wrist when she lost her balance while scolding one of the children.
"He's a man who doesn't have to do it, he's not getting anything back from it," Jean said. "Many people give money and that is a wonderful, wonderful thing. But time, it's a much more difficult thing to give your time, especially when you're as busy as he is."
Said Atwell: "This guy isn't going away. He'll be involved in this family's life forever -- no matter where he goes in his career."
Frank Palombo was a small guy -- too small to play football, so he wound up as a hockey player -- and loved to take the kids down to the park and play football. He taught them the plays and the rules.
This fall, for the first time, a Palombo will be playing football. Joseph is playing in a league in Sheepshead Bay. His coach is a firefighter. Frank would be thrilled.
Fassel keeps the photo with the firemen at Ground Zero on his desk. In his professional life, he is feeling a little heat. The loss to the 49ers left the Giants 0-1 and the explosive St. Louis Rams are next -- on the road. There is talk that Fassel, only a year removed from a Super Bowl appearance, may lose his job if the Giants don't have a winning season.
Compared to Jean Palombo, Fassel said, his life is all peaches in cream.
"It's hard in our job to keep things in perspective," Fassel said. "We lost the game, they lost their father."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com