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The Life

'Land that I love'
ESPN The Magazine

Wednesday at just after 7 p.m., John Amirante crossed himself, kissed a picture of his late daughter, took his place next to the American flag, and made thousands of grown men cry.

Amirante has sung the national anthem hundreds of times here in Madison Square Garden over the past 21 years -- but never on an occasion quite like this.

This suddenly meaningful preseason Rangers game is the first major sports event in Manhattan since the World Trade Center disaster last Tuesday. "A lot of people aren't here for the game," Amirante said after handing over the microphone and watching the puck drop. "They're here for the anthem."

And Amirante is here because of a job he held more than two decades ago -- on the 30th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Back in the mid-1970s, Amirante watched the twin towers get built from his office at a naval architecture firm on West Street at the southern tip of Manhattan. He brought his binoculars to work every day so he could marvel at the construction workers traipsing back and forth on I-beams scores of stories high. His firm moved into Tower 1 even before construction was completed. "It was scary going into the building at first," Amirante says. "We could hear it creaking every day. We just thought it was too tall." Amirante remembers fearing for his life when he stepped into an elevator, watched the doors close, and plummeted 15 floors until an emergency cord pulled taut. Amirante smiles sadly at the memory. He worked in Tower 1 for 13 years.

Amirante's boss, John McMullen, purchased the Astros in 1979. When the Houston club travelled to Shea Stadium to play the Mets, some guys on the 30th floor prodded Amirante to try out to sing the national anthem. Amirante's buddies knew the Bronx native moonlighted as a singer (he sang at Rod Gilbert's wedding). Amirante sent a tape. Weeks later, he was crooning behind home plate at Shea. Less than a year after that, Amirante was belting out the anthem in the home building of his beloved Rangers.

In 1982, McMullen bought the Devils, who opposed the Rangers on Wednesday. Amirante sang the first-ever anthem at a Devils game, but when a contract offer followed, Amirante said no. Amirante told the franchise across the river: "I have to stay with my team."

Amirante, 66, has sung heart-wrenching anthems before -- after President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, and during the early days of the Gulf War a decade later -- but he will remember this one as his most emotional evening in the Garden because of the memory of the place where he once worked, and because of the daughter he lost. In 1985, Janice Marie Arimante, at age 18 John's youngest, accepted a ride from a picnic from a stranger. She never made it home. Her parents reported her missing and waited for three days before learning she had been murdered. "I've been there," Amirante says now. "I know what those families are going through."

Wednesday afternoon, Amirante drove in from his home on Long Island and made a stop at St. Francis of Assisi Church. There he prayed for the families of those missing since last Tuesday. He prayed for New York City Fire Department Chaplain Mychal Judge, a friend of his who died last Tuesday giving last rites to a fallen firefighter while Tower 1 creaked. He prayed for Janice. And he prayed for the strength to perform.

Amirante began with "God Bless America." The first three words came out clear and true. But Amirante welled up with tears when he got to his favorite line: "Land that I love." Still, his voice rang louder amid a building swell of applause and whistles and chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" By the end of the last stanza, Madison Square Garden vibrated with noise. Amirante wiped his eyes, exhaled in relief, and raised his hand to his brow in a mournful salute to his audience.

In the press room, minutes later, Amirante smiled and trembled and said: "My prayers were answered."

Eric Adelson is an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail

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