They returned to America’s stadiums and arenas, playing the same games they did just a week before, but it was different. American flags, moments of silence and stirring renditions of “God Bless America” were evident everywhere, and the players themselves were changed, having become all too aware of how insignificant their games are in the grand scheme of things.

Little may they realize how important the games are to the therapy of a grieving nation that continues to bury its dead, heal its wounded and come to terms with a tragedy on American soil not seen since the Civil War. Athletes have always been among the heroes of American society, and although they’ve been replaced in our collective conscience by firefighters, doctors and military personnel, they continue to be a beacon of the strength of the U.S.

Providing a diversion for everyone as we prepare for an upcoming war, the scope of which is impossible to comprehend at this time, sports are a valuable outlet. How can one root against the Mets, a symbol of battered but defiant New York City, taking the field with `FDNY’ on their uniforms and fighting their way into playoff contention through sheer heart. How can one root against New England Patriot Joe Andruzzi, a football player in a family of firefighters that almost lost one of his three FDNY brothers in the World Trade Center collapse.

As the dust settled on New York and Washington and the nation was left to contemplate a day that will define a generation, the commissioners of the sports world, most notably NFL commissioner (and Georgetown graduate) Paul Tagliabue, took the right stand. The major events of last weekend were cancelled, complementing the national period of mourning, before athletes returned to action these past few days before red, white and blue-clad crowds.

As important as it was for the nation to return to normal as much as is humanly possible and not let the actions of terrorists dictate our lives, it was more important to mourn the dead and missing and celebrate our nation. The games will always be there, as they were when a unified nation was once again ready to embrace its athletic heroes.

The shutdown allowed us as a people to mourn, then chip in, while those who are heroes on the field of play did their best to help, visiting victims of the attack (like the Mets and football Giants did) and giving blood, like hundreds of pro and college athletes did.

Communities came together, as did an entire nation, and when the NFL took the field on Sunday, it was a battle among friends and peers, not a battle against the enemy. The ubiquitous American flags were a reminder that we are all on the same team, from the tiny ones painted onto children’s cheeks to the giant flag that covered the field in Big D before the Cowboys-Chargers game.

More than anything, though, it was the preseason hockey game between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers that was indicative of the attitude that has swept this country and the sporting world. It started with the Rangers being cheered before the game, probably the first time in history that anything New York-related has ever been celebrated within the city walls of Philadelphia, but that was just the beginning.

During George W. Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress and the entire nation, the speech was put on the JumboTron between the second and third periods of play. When the speech was turned off to resume play, the 19,000 strong Flyers crowd began to boo mercilessly and chant `Leave it on.’

And they left it on.

The game was halted after two periods as a 2-2 tie, “out of respect for where the United States was headed in the near future,” according to an announcement. Instead of a huge group of hockey fans sitting around to watch the third period of a tight game between bitter rivals (albeit a preseason game), they stood at attention and watched the presidential address, giving roars of approval at times, breaking out into U.S.A. chants at others.

Instead of battling along the boards for loose pucks, the Flyers and Rangers players knelt side by side and watched the address from the ice with rapt attention, made all too aware that although heroes to many, they are but grown men paid to play a game.

Whether they can provide us with any escape at all, be it a minute, an hour or an afternoon, the athletes of this nation can proudly carry on knowing they represent the indomitable American spirit that no terrorist can take away.

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