- Associated Press - Sunday, September 11, 2011

CHICAGO (AP) - It was always going to be a tough balancing act.

“It’s the little things that remind you what day it is. Like this,” Maribeth Sandford said, tugging at the sleeve of her red, white and blue flag sweater.

She was sitting on a low curb, enjoying a halftime snack at the Bears game on a sun-splashed deck at Soldier Field. A friend, Jennifer Madai, sat next to her wearing a replica jersey.

“Mostly, it feels like another game,” Sandford added. “But then, every couple of minutes, something brings you back.”

As if on cue, the familiar warning _ “If you see something, say something” _ played on a loop over the public-address system. Yet if you looked around at that moment, with fans soaking up a few rays and the soft, end-of-summer breezes rolling in off Lake Michigan, the strangest thing might have been how familiar it all looked and sounded.

Ten years after the attacks of 9/11, the NFL kicked off at noon here and in seven other cities with the kind of precision and showmanship it has perfected in the decade since. Yet who knew a league built on bombast could do discreet this well?

A trumpeter playing “Taps” live in Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed into a field, was simulcast in all those stadiums. A giant American flag was unfurled in Chicago, covering nearly the entire field. Then Blackhawks announcer Jim Cornelison delivered a booming rendition of the national anthem, stirring enough that pregame shows in NFL markets where the local team was out of town used it as a sign off.

It’s impossible to say when pro football eclipsed baseball as the real national pastime, but there’s no question about that now. The premium the game puts on speed and power, the week’s worth of plotting distilled into a few hours of choreographed collisions, the vicarious chills that ripple through a stadium and somehow spill over the boundaries of even the biggest TVs _ there’s something about it Americans find irresistible, even when the most solemn of anniversaries competes for their attention.

“I didn’t even think about it until we were walking in. Then he reminded me,” said Predrag Simovic, motioning toward a friend to his right. “We’re both from Sarajevo.”

Their city was left in ruins after a siege that lasted for the duration of the war in Bosnia some 20 years ago. When someone suggested that the scars left by 9/11 in New York and Washington, D.C., even a decade later, might likewise be more visible than elsewhere, he didn’t disagree.

“I noticed the security once he mentioned it,” Simovic said. “But I wasn’t going to turn around and go home. It’s a fact of life.”

“You show respect for the past,” another friend, Stewart Mann, interjected. “But you can’t let it stop everyday life.”

The roar that accompanied the opening kickoff made that clear enough, and it only grew in volume as Chicago rolled to a 16-3 lead by halftime. Oddly, it might have peaked early in the third quarter, right after the Bears challenged a call that receiver Devin Hester was knocked out of bounds at the 1-yard line.

“There are no shots of the ball crossing the pylon,” referee Ed Hochuli announced to a chorus of boos.

Then he added, “The Bears are charged with a timeout,” and the crowd doubled down.

Booo-OOOO!!!

With the game nearly in hand by that point _ Chicago won handily, 30-12 _ it could be that fans were just letting off steam at the end of an anxious few days. Or else, looking for a more convincing villain than the Atlanta Falcons, who weren’t very good in the role. Either way, by game’s end, nearly everyone on both sides seemed to have something worthwhile to take away from it.

“It just felt like a connection with everybody in that stadium, everybody cheering because we’re all Americans,” Atlanta veteran Tony Gonzalez said. “It was just an unbelievable feeling. Something I will never forget.”

His first NFL game would have been memorable enough for rookie Dane Sanzenbacher. Undrafted out of Ohio State, he’s had to fight for his roster spot, to learn how to make an impact in the few plays that made up his audition. If nothing else, he thinks that preparation made it easier to wall off his emotions on a few occasions throughout the day.

“Nerves are always part of every game. They’re something you learn to control first and if you play long enough, to thrive off,” Sanzenbacher said.

A decade ago, he was a seventh-grader in Toledo who knew nothing about the twin towers that had fallen in New York, nor what came next.

“Lots of guys must have looked at their phones this morning and gone, `It’s been 10 years? Man,” he paused, “it doesn’t feel like that long ago.”

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke.