Locos coach Fassel helped N.Y. heal in tragedy’s wake

He had seen the destruction up close, and it forever changed Jim Fassel’s outlook on life.

Ten years ago today, airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa. Fassel, who was coach of the New York Giants on that fateful day, was shocked, bitter and angry over what had happened to his country. But it took a special visit to Lower Manhattan for Fassel to get true perspective.

“I gained an appreciation for how precious life truly is,” said Fassel, who has spent the past three years in Las Vegas, coaching the Locomotives of the United Football League. “But I never forget what happened that day. I’m still angry at what they did. That will never leave me.”

To make sure he remembers, Fassel has a slide show on his laptop computer that shows the horrific images of Sept. 11, 2001 — and the lingering aftermath.

“You have to remember,” Fassel said, his voice trailing off as he looked at the images on the screen.

Fassel was at his office at the old Giants Stadium when the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. Like many who initially heard the news, Fassel thought it was a freak accident. But when a second plane hit the South Tower 17 minutes later, Fassel knew it was no accident. America was under attack.

“You couldn’t concentrate on football at that point,” Fassel said. “I could not not watch the television.”

The Giants were scheduled to play their home opener against Green Bay the following weekend, but the NFL postponed that week’s games as the country tried to recover from the tragedies.

Four days after the attack, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office invited Fassel down to what had become the world’s biggest crime scene — now called ground zero — and, amid the smoldering ruins, he saw firsthand what had happened.

“I remember seeing it and saying, ‘My God, it’s like a bomb went off,’ ” Fassel said.

Amid the death and destruction, Fassel saw the grim faces of those who were working to recover bodies. He saw the buckets being passed down the line, some containing a finger, a toe, a credit card, a driver’s license.

Emotionally, it was almost too much to bear. He was ready to bail out from the scene when one of the recovery workers recognized him and shouted out to him, “Hey, Coach Fassel.”

The guy wanted to talk football. So did a fireman. And a cop. Suddenly, the coach of the New York Giants became one of the most popular people at ground zero. His mere presence lifted the spirits of those dealing in the recovery effort.

“It made me aware of my stature, and it showed me how fortunate I was to be in the position I was at that moment,” Fassel said. “From that point on, I knew I had to get involved.”

Fassel already had a foundation to help charitable causes. But suddenly the focus shifted. He began raising money for those who had to rebuild their shattered lives. Through his foundation, Fassel essentially adopted the 10 children left behind by New York City fireman Frank Palombo and made sure there would be money to see all 10 kids through high school.

He helped raise money to purchase vehicles for the New York Fire Department to replace those that were destroyed. He got involved in the Wall of Remembrance at MCU Park in Brooklyn where the firemen, policemen and Port Authority officers from that borough who died on Sept. 11 are honored.

Fassel’s efforts have raised more than $1 million.

“I did charity work before, but not to this level,” he said. “I became emotionally involved with the firemen, the cops and their families. I’m still involved to this day.”

As Fassel left the World Trade Center site that day, he had a new outlook.

“It really puts life into perspective,” he said. “We all get caught up in the things we do. We think it’s so important. In New York, the Giants are the biggest thing. People wrap their lives up in the Giants. Then you think about the bravery of those firemen and cops who went into those towers that morning and never returned. You think about the thousands of innocent lives that were lost. Suddenly, football isn’t that important.

“The people who died in the World Trade Center that day did nothing wrong. They were just going to work. What it did was make me think about how precious life is and how we should embrace life.”

Fassel might also have saved lives. On Sept. 10, 2001, the Giants lost to the Denver Broncos 31-20 to open the season in a “Monday Night Football” game that didn’t end until well after midnight on the East Coast.

“I’ve had letters from fans thanking me for losing that game,” he said. “By being on ‘Monday Night Football,’ people stayed up late. And after we lost, some were so sad they decided they didn’t want to go to work the next day. If we’re not in the Super Bowl (on Jan. 28, 2001), we’re probably not on ‘Monday Night Football,’ and we may have lost thousands of more people who would have gone to work at the usual time.”

This morning, millions of Americans will attend church to reflect, remember and pray for the souls of the dead. Fassel will be one of them, attending services at Green Valley Baptist Church in Henderson. But unlike most of the attendees, Fassel will address the assembled. He’ll tell the stories of his experiences of Sept. 11, 2001. He won’t be at a loss for words.

“Sometimes when you speak,” Fassel said, “you have to listen to yourself.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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