My PR protégé and good friend Shaun Clair was a member of Fordham’s football team in 2001, and recalls the inaugural Liberty Cup against Columbia played in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. We are privileged to share his story. – John Cirillo
By Shaun Clair
On Saturday afternoon, the Fordham Rams and Columbia Lions met on Jack Coffey Field for the Liberty Cup. Below is my first-hand account of the game’s origin: Fordham and Columbia were scheduled to play on September 15, 2001 – a football game postponed due to the September 11th tragedy.
I was a junior linebacker on the Fordham team that was preparing to play Columbia that weekend. The Liberty Cup now stands for the perseverance of American values, namely our enduring appreciation for human life and freedom. A clash between New York City’s two top college institutions is a fitting symbol of what our city and country overcame that day. Playing the Liberty Cup feels right now, but it originated out of a time that was confusing, scary and conflicting. In 2001, no one was sure that a football game should be played at all.
Once news of the attacks occurred, classes were cancelled – leaving the student body to congregate in McGinley Center to talk about it over lunch or huddle in their rooms to watch the news. Like the rest of the country, the football players talked mostly about how crazy and tragic the situation was but we had other questions on our mind, “Are we practicing? Is there still a game this week?”
As we asked the question ourselves at the lunch tables in the McGinley, our coaches were anguishing over whether to practice in the football office. Until told otherwise, they had to prepare us for a game. The coaches decided to have the captains pose the question to the team. As we headed to the team meeting that would decide this, a rumor began circulating amongst our ranks.
Nick Brandemarti, who had graduated last year, worked in the World Trade Center and his closest friends on the team hadn’t heard from him yet. Brando, as everyone called him, was easily among the most popular players on the team – he was a guy that connected with everyone in the locker room, regardless of age, position, race, religion or background. Except for the new batch of freshmen that didn’t know him, each player considered him a friend, because his personality held that power. This rumor only added to the day’s confusion and shock, but we were optimistic that good news of his safety would soon reach us.
Though we needed more time to process the enormity of the day’s events, we instead gathered in our football meeting room to vote on whether we should practice. Our head coach said some remarks and then left the room as our captains spoke. They reminded us that we needed to get better and practicing today was another opportunity to meet our team’s goals.
The captains were greeted by silence. No one knew what to say and think – the situation was as unique as it was tragic. As players, no one had ever given us a choice to practice or not. And our silence was revealing the truth. Practicing didn’t feel right. Remember, our heads weren’t just filled with the heart-crushing images that we’d all seen on TV all morning. By this time, the inferno’s odor was wafting over our Bronx campus, as were the sounds of aircraft continuously passing overhead. And we were all thinking about Brando.
Yet, no one said anything until a junior running back, Aseer Clay, stood up. He said he would not practice on a day when thousands were dying in buildings nearby. His voice was firm with a good touch of righteous anger. The captains implored Aseer to reconsider, but his mind was set and he walked out.
We wished that we had all followed his lead. Instead, we practiced. Except for Aseer, everyone else was too stunned or uncomfortable to voice an objection. So we went through the motions during a practice that few remembered. We would actually practice all week for a game that never happened. On Friday, Fordham and Columbia agreed to postpone Saturday’s game — days after nearly every other collegiate and pro games had already been cancelled.
We were football players, but our thoughts were on Brando, our city and our country, not on a football game hanging in the balance. On Wednesday and Thursday, we still held out hope for Brando. Perhaps he was unconscious and unidentified in a hospital; physically unable to give word of his safety. But as the weekend approached, we began bracing for the alternate scenario that seemed increasingly likely.
Weeks later, our team boarded buses to attend a memorial service in his honor. The Columbia-Fordham game was rescheduled for November 22nd, 2001. Hardly any of us remember the final score of our rescheduled matchup with Columbia that year, other than it was an odd game that was played on Thanksgiving Day morning to finish each team’s seasons. A year later, our annual match-up was named the Liberty Cup.
I wish I acted as Aseer Clay did and refused to practice. No one should have been playing football in New York City on that day. A football game between Fordham and Columbia seemed so meaningless then, in the face of that tragedy.
But for the players on that Fordham team, our lasting memory of that awful week is our friend Brando. Our teammate’s memory ultimately gave us purpose and brought us closer. In 2002, a year after his passing, our underdog team won the Patriot League title. We still talk about Brando and trade stories. We post about him on Facebook for others to see.
He was the real deal – an unforgettable teammate. It’s people like Brando that made the Liberty Cup such a meaningful football game –because it was born out of a week when football didn’t matter.