Eric Olsen was so immediately impacted by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City that the term ground zero had not yet taken hold. That morning, it was known in his house simply as “the fire.”
A decade later, he wears on his left biceps a reminder of how that day shaped his life. He has a massive tattoo of the twin towers soaking in rays of sunshine — how he still imagines them. A banner flowing between them displays the script: “New York State of Mind.”
Olsen’s father was a New York City firefighter, who, as fate would have it, could not get to the fire until after it became ground zero. Andy Olsen lived, but their family lost dozens of friends and acquaintances.
Eric, an offensive lineman on the Washington Redskins’ practice squad, will mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks on Sunday at what promises to be an emotionally charged ceremony before the Redskins kick off their season against the New York Giants.
“I remember all the friends my dad had and the family friends I had and the kids I grew up with that lost their dads,” Olsen said Friday, his shirt sleeve pulled up and tattoo showing. “I’m proud of America for bouncing back and New York for rebuilding.”
The NFL’s mega-marketing machine matched up the teams from the attacked cities and will televise Sunday’s game nationally. Approximately 150 family members affected by the attack on the Pentagon will be honored on the field before the game. General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, will serve as the Redskins’ honorary captain.
This week Redskins players and coaches took turns sharing their experiences and memories of Sept. 11. Some, such as Olsen, were in school. Some were already in the NFL. Of course, everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett had just started his second season as coach of the New Orleans Saints.
“I was in New Orleans game planning for San Francisco. We were 2-0. I was watching the TV and they showed the tower and showed the second one.
“The next week we had to play the Giants up in New York, which was a heck of a site. We didn’t have a chance to win that game because it was the most emotional I’ve ever seen a football game.”
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was a student at the University of Texas.
“I was oversleeping for a class — definitely trying to miss it — and someone banged on my door and woke me up,” he said. “I came in and saw it — it was crazy. I didn’t even think of terrorists at the time. I thought it was a bad accident. I was about to go back to sleep, and then another plane hit. It was pretty shocking.”
Fullback Darrel Young was in ninth grade in Amityville, N.Y., a town on Long Island only 50 minutes from Manhattan. From there he could see smoke rising from the scene.
His friend’s dad was one of the 343 firefighters killed.
“Someone I was close to lost their father because he was trying to save other lives,” Young said. “There was nothing you could do to help the situation except try to support him.
Young’s other lasting memory centered on the tension involving Muslims in the months that followed.
“Certain people were targeted,” he said. “There was a lot of hatred going around, a lot of misunderstanding about why it happened. A lot of anger.”
For Olsen, it’s hard to believe 10 years have passed since he returned home early from his Staten Island middle school and heard his mother, Joanne, say that dad was going downtown to the fire.
Andy Olsen almost certainly would have been in harm’s way, but he was promoted to lieutenant on Sept. 8, 2001. He began the week at officer’s training in Queens. After the call went out for all hands to get to the towers, he had to go get his gear and fight the chaos on the way to the fire. The towers came down before he arrived.
“Ultimately that kind of saved his life,” Olsen said.
The Olsen family wasn’t always sure of his safety, though. Andy didn’t contact his wife and kids for 30 hours after he reported to the scene.
“I don’t want to seem super dramatic and say we were fearing the worst, but that was always in our mind,” Eric said. “We were trying to stay positive.”
When Andy did come home, he was deeply affected. He had witnessed the gruesome manifestation of hatred. Co-workers and friends with whom he played softball were gone.
In the weeks after the attacks, he attended more than 50 funerals.
“He had survivor’s guilt for a little while — why did he get to survive?” Olsen said. “These guys have sons just like he does. It’s such similar families. To see that kind of thing happen was crazy.”
The pain caused by the attacks has lost its sharp edge over time. Not that Eric Olsen wants to completely forget.
It’s part of who he is and where he came from.
“When I bring friends that it’s their first time in New York, I say, ‘Listen when I tell you that these buildings used to be double the size of all these buildings down here,’” he said. “They were so big.”