Games were canceled. Stadiums fell silent, empty of both players and fans. But the athletes whose sporting events were postponed this weekend were far from inactive.

In the Meadowlands 35, members of the New York Giants spent time amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center, shaking hands with and thanking the rescue workers who have tirelessly been removing the rubble since Tuesday. Keyshawn Johnson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers donated one week of his yearly salary to the relief efforts. And for perhaps the first time ever, George Steinbrenner was praised for his free-spending tendencies, giving $1 million dollars to the Twin Towers Foundation. The Yankees even went so far as to donate the tarp their field, which is being used as covering near the disaster area.

In a time when many felt so helpless, the nation’s professional athletes did what they could to help with relief efforts, donating money and blood in the wake of last week’s attacks.

“I sort of feel a little more useful,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said after he and his team visited the armory, where victims’ families had gathered to await word of their missing loved ones. “We went there not knowing how we would be received. We left there knowing it was a very important step for us.”

While many of present at the armory were awed by the presence of the Yankees, shortstop Derek Jeter was just as awed by meeting the rescue workers. “You go and see all the firemen and rescue workers and they ask you for your autograph,” shortstop Derek Jeter said. “You feel like you should be asking them for their autograph. They are the heroes. It’s overwhelming getting that kind of reaction.”

Elsewhere in New York, Shea Stadium was being used as a relief command center, its parking lot a staging area for rescue vehicles. Across the country, the San Francisco 49ers donated a total of 70 pints of blood to the Red Cross. And in an open letter to the nation, Arizona ace pitcher Curt Schilling appealed to players across the country to donate a day’s pay to the relief fund.

From early in life, many boys and girls across the country idolize professional athletes. They idolize them for the way they play the game, the way they capture the crowd. But often have we been warned about extending this idolization outside of the playing arena and modeling our lives after the lives of athletes off the playing surface. It is encouraging to see these athletes taking such a prominent role in the relief efforts and I can’t think of any parent who would not be extraordinarily proud if their children followed the example set by these athletes, donating either money, time, or blood to support those affected by these attacks.

Now that they’ve made their visits and donations, the athletes have another important task ahead of them – to retake the field this week and carry on American life. And that life includes professional sports like baseball and football.

“Maybe we can help in trying to lighten the mood,” Torre said. “We’re not going to make people happy, but maybe we can give people a couple hours away from all of this.”

And in a time like this, maybe that’s all we can hope for.

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