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Ex-Jet Vinny Testaverde recalls 9/11

The debris. The wreckage. The barricades.

Members of the military baring arms. Rescue workers moving as fast as their sleep-deprived bodies could.

Vinny Testaverde, the New York Jets' quarterback in 2001, who visited Ground Zero by himself just a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, aptly described the scene as "a war zone."

"It was a little frightening to be there," Testaverde said Tuesday during a conference call with the media as he attempted to remember the tragedy nearly a decade later. "I handed out water and other things to the rescue workers. They looked exhausted and weren't sleeping very much. It was emotional for all of us."

Kevin Mawae, the team's center that year, and the rest of his teammates made their way to the site exactly a week after the atrocity was committed.

"Touring the site a week after and offering encouragement to the first responders is something that will always be ingrained in me," Mawae said.

The Jets had just lost to the Indianapolis Colts in their season opener on Sept. 9. But just two days later, football was the last thing on their minds.

Wide receiver Wayne Chrebet, who grew up in Garfield, N.J., awoke to the news after receiving a phone call on the morning of 9/11.

"It was surreal," said Chrebet, who turned on the television right before the second plane struck the World Trade Center. "I can't believe that really happened and we went through all that together."

Testaverde was receiving treatment at the team's Long Island practice facility when punter Tom Tupa came in and told him what was happening.

"We thought at first that it was a terrible accident," Testaverde, who grew up on Long Island, said after finding out the first plane had struck the towers. "Then another plane came at the other building. That's when we realized something more serious had taken place. And then they told us it was a terrorist attack."

Head coach Herm Edwards was in his office reviewing game film. From his window, he could see flight patterns of planes. But one plane's pattern didn't seem right to him.

"I turned the television on, and the Trade Center had some smoke coming out of it," Edwards said. "Then I saw the second plane coming through, and I knew something was wrong."

The husband of Chrebet's wife's best friend never made it out alive.

Neither did some members of Testaverde's church. He found out a week later that one of his former high school teammates was killed as well.

"I mean, it was so close to home and we really weren't sure what was happening," said former general manager Terry Bradway, who like Edwards was reviewing game film when he found out what had happened. "That became our total focus. ... I don't remember a whole lot about that day, but I do remember being glued to the television."

The Jets met for practice the day after, on Wednesday, to prepare for their Week 2 matchup in Oakland against the Raiders. But after 45 minutes, Edwards could tell his team's heart just wasn't in it.

"I think you knew emotionally those guys were spent," Edwards said. "Football was the last thing on their minds. ... I told my team, these are the moments in your life where if you have family, you need to hug them and kiss them and pray."

Edwards left it up to his players whether they would play. Testaverde, one of the Jets' veteran leaders, got up in front of the team during a players-only meeting and said he would not.

"After it happened, the commissioner (Paul Tagliabue) wanted us to go about our lives in a normal process," Testaverde said. "To me, a normal process was taking time to grieve if you lost love ones. To me, that meant not playing football that week."

"We didn't feel it was the right thing to do," Chrebet added. "Given the circumstances, we were all kind of shocked still about what happened so we just felt like we shouldn't play."

Mawae decided to hold a vote using secret ballots on Thursday morning. The vote proved to be unanimous. The Jets would not play. They would rather forfeit.

"It was a decision that we felt was right," Mawae said. "We made a conscious decision that we weren't gonna play the game."

Bradway called the commissioner's office and informed them of his team's decision.

"Our players were in no frame of mind to play," Bradway said. "I made that very clear.

"Ultimately, the league made the decision to cancel all the games (and move them to Week 17). I remember because we were practicing at the time."

The Jets played the Patriots in New England on Sept. 23 and won. They finished 10-6 that season before falling to the Raiders in the wild-card round.

Still, they were glad to be a "distraction" -- at least for three hours a week -- for those around the country whose lives were greatly affected by the events that transpired on 9/11.

To this day, Edwards still reflects on what occurred during each and every NFL season opening day.

"It's the 10th year now, and it's a celebration of where we've come from, what we've learned and honoring the people that never came back," Edwards said.

Mawae likened the events of 9/11 to someone who experienced Pearl Harbor or the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

"It's on that magnitude of historical events in our life," Mawae said. "People remember that like it was yesterday.

"And for me, playing for the New York Jets, being in New York, seeing the towers fall, hearing from teammates who were staying in hotels right around that area that day. Kerry Jenkins explained how he watched people jump out of the building from 60-70 stories up to avoid burning to death. Those kind of things you don't forget.

"And every time I've been back to New York City, walked past the World Trade Center site, seen a police officer or fire department personnel from New York, you're always reminded of it, and reminded that you were there and you experienced it first hand."

The Jets will take on the Dallas Cowboys at MetLife Stadium on Sunday night -- the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.

"It's going to be a special night," Bradway said. "It's a time to honor those people who lost their lives and the first responders who were involved. I think it will be a great tribute to all of those people that were part of that tragedy."

Bradway was asked about current Jets head coach Rex Ryan's comments earlier this week when Ryan said he was feeling extra pressure to beat Dallas.

"It didn't surprise me one bit, and I'm sure our players feel the same way," Bradway said. "You'll get their best effort on Sunday night."

Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.