Former New York Giants Coach Jim Fassel, Current Coach Tom Coughlin Reflect on 9/11 Impact

NY Daily News - May 03, 2011

by Gary Myers

Jim Fassel stayed up all night Sunday, unable to turn off the television, after news broke that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by the Navy SEALs.

"Now we got that bastard," he said Monday.

Fassel was the Giants coach on Sept. 11, 2001, and has been as involved with charitable endeavors since the terrorist attacks as any New York sports personality. That didn't change when the Giants fired him after the 2003 season after seven years as head coach.

Shortly after the attacks, he established the Jim Fassel Foundation to support the FDNY, NYPD, Port Authority police, first responders and the families affected by 9/11. In the last 10 years, the foundation has donated about $1 million. The money is raised through golf tournaments and donations and "we still have money in the bank," Fassel said. "We will never forget those people."

He has been particularly close to the FDNY. "I've become friends with a lot of them," he said. They gave him an American flag in a glass case that was flown at Ground Zero. His charity, and all the good things it has done, "has been a joy of my life," he said.

Fassel was speaking Monday from his office in Las Vegas, where he is the president/coach/GM of the two-time champion Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League. Although he is thousands of miles away, so much of his heart is still in New York. The events of 9/11 had "a big impact on my life," he said. He was back here a couple of months ago for the fire commissioner's dinner, and a few years ago received an award at that dinner.

The Giants played a Monday night game in Denver on Sept. 10, 2001, and when their United Airlines charter parked at the gate at Newark Airport around 6 the next morning, United Flight 93 was a gate or two away. It was a scheduled 8 a.m. flight to San Francisco.

A bus pulled up on the tarmac to take the players back to their cars at Giants Stadium. But many of the front office executives had their cars at the airport and exited through the terminal. They may have passed some of the passengers who would board the flight that would be hijacked, crashing in a field in Pennsylvania when passengers stormed the cockpit, preventing the plane from reaching its target in the Washington area.

Fassel went right to his office from the airport and had his television on as background noise as he started to review tape and get a game plan ready for the Packers. He heard about the first plane hitting the north tower. "Holy crap," he said. "I thought it was an accident at first."

Then the south tower was hit.

Fassel went with a member of the Giants camera crew with a high-powered lens to the roof of the stadium to see what was going on. He had his boat docked at Chelsea Piers and received a call asking for his approval to use his boat as a water taxi to get people from Manhattan to Long Island. "I remember driving out of the parking lot of Giants Stadium that night," he said. "There were quite a few cars there."

There was a park-and-ride on the west side of the stadium adjacent to the Giants' practice bubble. "I was wondering how many of those cars would be there in the morning," Fassel said. "There were a significant number of cars." The presumption is many of those people died.

Fassel visited Ground Zero a few days later to lend his support to the search and recovery. "I just came to tell you all of America is behind you," he said.

Fassel had another connection to 9/11: Charles (Chic) Burlingame was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, a Dulles-to-Los Angeles flight. It was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. Burlingame was Fassel's classmate at Anaheim HS in California. They are both in the school's Hall of Fame.

Tom Coughlin, who succeeded Fassel, was coaching the Jaguars in 2001. His son Tim worked on the 60th floor of the south tower. Once the Coughlin family heard of the attack, there was a 45-minute period when they could not make contact with Tim. "My son Brian in law school at the University of Florida gets him on the phone when he's on the 29th floor going down," Coughlin told me a few months after the Giants hired him in 2004. "Then Tim finally called me back on the first floor. I can remember he said, 'Dad, it looks like Beirut.' I said, 'Get away from there as fast as you can.'"

Coughlin, who Monday declined to speak further about what his family went through that day, did say in that 2004 interview, "Almost immediately when you thank God that your son is safe, you right away reflect on all the tragedy that is taking place. There's different emotional windows that open and close for you."

The NFL canceled games the next weekend. The Giants resumed with a win in Kansas City on Sept. 23. After the game, Fassel had the players and coaches get together for a team picture in the locker room. On the sidelines during the game, they wore FDNY, NYPD and Port Authority police hats. They put on the hats for the team picture. The picture is on display in Fassel's office at home. "It's a forever lifetime picture," he said.