The Zak Zone

On the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on America, I found myself doing the same thing I have done so many days since then to take my mind off the tragedies of the world: Watching sports.

It didn't hurt that the anniversary also happened to fall on the first Sunday of the NFL season, but most weekends this time of year, one could find me planted in front of my television watching some type of sport — if, that is, I'm not at the field watching.

In the aftermath of the attacks on our nation, I recall president Bush calling for a "return to normalcy," and that phrase has stayed with me over all these years.

The truth is, 9/11 did two things for my view on sports.

First, it helped me put sports into perspective when it comes to how important they are in the big picture.

But it also helped me realize just how important sports is to those of us who cling to every home run in October and every snap through January.

The entire sporting calendar shut down for a time following that grave day in 2001, but slowly, and surely, sports started to come back.

Baseball gave us something to watch and something to bring us all together, as the Mets and Yankees paid tribute to the heroes of their city in the aftermath.

The New York Jets' head coach Herm Edwards went on record saying that the week immediately following 9/11, his team would have rather forfeited than play, given the trauma of the event, but in the following weeks, the Jets and every other football team helped a nation in need of healing return to its normalcy.

Like Edwards, in the moments, days and weeks after 9/11, I felt no need or desire to watch sports.

I was in a period of disbelief and mourning for those who lost someone or were more directly affected that day.

But with time, I started to need my own return to normalcy.

My normalcy was coming home from class (as a college freshman) and watching the Pirates, Penguins, Steelers or whatever team was on ESPN that night.

In realizing just how little sports actually meant in the "big picture," I realized just how much sports meant to me.

For the first time in my life, I cheered for the New York Yankees to win the World Series — a feat they nearly accomplished — so the city of New York could celebrate.

Each week, I cheered for the Jets and Giants, teams I have never really been very fond of.

But my recovery from the trauma I experienced that day didn't end with watching these events unfold on television.

In 2001, my family had purchased tickets to NASCAR's MBNA/Cal Ripken 400 at Dover Downs Speedway, the first race that took place after 9/11 — and the largest gathering of people in one place since the tragedy.

Dover was the beginning of my return to normalcy.

I was anxious all weekend, fearing the worst and run-ning through every possible scenario.

Security was tight, and we weren't allowed to take our own coolers in, forcing us to wait in line an extra long time to get in and to spend extra cash on drinks, as Dover that time of year can be quite hot.

Yet, it was in that hot, jam-packed grandstand that I was able to take part in the most beautiful rendition of the national anthem I've ever heard.

I can never remember a time I heard the anthem sang so loud or so proud. As everyone sang, there were tears rolling down people's faces, and thousands — all coming together rooting for different drivers — were united in one thing: We were proud to be Americans.

We were still afraid, and I wasn't the only one concerned that day.

I prayed constantly for safety for myself, my family and the thousands of people gathered with us, just as I prayed for safety for all attending sporting events Sunday on the tenth anniversary, but we made it through unscathed.

We persevered, faced our own fears and started our return to normalcy that day: Sept. 23, 2001.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., America's favorite driver today, won that race, defeat- ing my favorite driver — and America's favorite at that time — Bill Elliott and a field of 41 other drivers, but in our own minds, we were the real winners that day.

We got to be a part of the nation's return to normalcy through that sporting event.

Some, I know, would say that I watch sports too much or care too much about the latest Steelers' loss (which was an embarrassing one I'd like to soon forget).

But anyone who says that just doesn't understand the role sports plays in my own return to normalcy.

I'm thankful for sports helping me keep things in perspective and bringing me a sense of "return to normalcy" every day.