Maryland football wide receiver Nick DeGennaro first visited Ground Zero about four years after the Sept. 11 attacks. He remembers standing with his extended family, pointing out American flags and looking at photos of those who lost their lives.
“I think I was like four or five when I first went to that scene,” DeGennaro told Testudo Times. “I went to that scene multiple times and it’s huge. I mean when you’re a little kid, I mean I already knew about it, but you see it, I mean, I don’t care how old you are, you see that scene and it’s like, ‘Woah’… and then you learn about it and it’s huge.”
Maryland football punter Anthony Pecorella also remembers visiting Ground Zero growing up and continuing to visit with family through the unveiling of the One World Trade Center in the fall of 2014.
“It was just such a surreal experience when you walk up for the first time and you see the two wake pools that they have. And the way it’s built, there’s the North Tower, the South Tower and then the Freedom Tower is built right between them,” Pecorella said.
“So, it’s almost like a middle finger to the rest of the world as the architect said, because, and it is taller than the Twin Towers ever were, and it’s kind of like as hard as you hit us, we’re gonna hit back harder.”
DeGennaro and Pecorella are the sole two players on Maryland football’s roster who grew up in New York. DeGennaro is originally from Staten Island and his mother worked in the World Trade Center for some time before 2001. Pecorella is from Long Island and his father would stop through the towers to pick up a bagel and coffee before heading to Wall Street.
DeGennaro eventually moved to Old Bridge, New Jersey, right over the George Washington Bridge however, both his and Pecorella’s family expressed the significance and the weight of Sept. 11 to each of them, respectively.
Now this year, 20 years after the attacks, the Maryland football team will face Howard at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 11.
“[My family] taught us to appreciate the freedoms that we have in this great place with this great country that we live in,” DeGennaro said. “And, to also, you know, to have a lot of gratitude for the people who on short notice showed up to that military recruiter and went over there and fight for our freedom to live, fight for our freedom to complain and fight for our freedom to just experience all these great things, you know, such as playing football in college on scholarship.”
Ahead of Maryland’s matchup with Howard on Sept. 11, head coach Michael Locksley sat the team down to discuss the significance of the date as members of the team were no older than three at the time and some are not from any of the geographic areas directly impacted by the attacks.
Locksley walked the players through his day back in 2001 when he was an assistant coach for the program at the time. The Terps were preparing for a matchup against West Virginia that was later rescheduled for Sept. 29.
After the planes hit the North and South Towers followed by a third hitting the Pentagon, Karyl Henry, the administrative assistant at the time, alerted the coaching staff of what had just happened.
“That’s when we all as a staff kind of left the meeting rooms because we were in our preparation for the game and went check on our families first,” Locksley said. “And then, you know, we had a staff meeting to try to bring everything together to kind of make sure that the players we had that were on our team from the New York area, that we tried to get ahold of them to make sure that their parents were okay.”
Locksley also explained to the team that although they’ll be focused on the game during warmups on Saturday, to keep those people close to them in the attacks in the back of their heads and in their hearts.
“Coach Locks, obviously, being from the D.C. metro area, he respects and he knows this event, like, you know, like anybody else who experienced it,” DeGennaro said. “And I think it strikes a chord to people who, who are probably from very far away because, you know, they got to hear from firsthand account. So, I think, you know, a lot of guys understand, and they respect it.”
Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is from Ewi Beach, Hawaii, approximately 4,965 miles away from One World Trade Center.
“When Coach told the story, I mean I just have a million questions about how everything happened…I know 9/11 is a big thing, even big in Hawaii too and so I heard about it [growing up],” Tagovailoa said. “But for me to be [near] the state that a plane actually hit, that’s just crazy to me.”
Locksley also shared with the team during that meeting that they will be wearing decals on their helmets to commemorate 20 years since the attacks to pay their respects as a team.
These helmet decals were created and designed by Pecorella and offensive lineman Marcus Finger. Pecorella was speaking with his father earlier this year trying to brainstorm a way in which he could honor on the field those who lost their lives in the attacks. Pecorella’s father gave him the idea to create a sticker that everyone on the team could place on their helmet.
Pecorella approached Finger, his roommate at the time, and asked if he could help create the design. Together, the two of them created the emblem that the team will be sporting against Howard during the game.
“We just wanted to make sure that it hit home with everybody and not just one specific group of people kind of thing,” Pecorella told Testudo Times.
“So, then that’s the biggest thing we have the Pentagon included, the Twin Towers included the American flag because it wasn’t just, it was a tragedy mainly for New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania, but in reality, it was the first time that there was a terror strike that huge on American soil that kind of brought everyone to the realization like we need to get this locked down.”
As Saturday’s game approaches, the players are looking forward to the opportunity to show their solidarity with the decals.
“The families that have lost their loved ones in something like that, you know, for us to go out there and have the opportunity to play for them,” Tagovailoa said. “I mean, it’s just a blessing for me now representing with that sticker on our helmet.”
On gameday, Pecorella will be wearing his red bandana tie to honor Welles Crowther, a volunteer firefighter who always carried a red bandana with him and is estimated to have saved as many as 18 people before losing his life as the towers collapsed.
Pecorella lost two people close to him on that day: Daniel Suhr, the first firefighter killed on Sept. 11, 2001 and Courtney Walcott who worked in one of the towers. Both men were Pecorella’s father’s semi-professional football teammates and they helped people out of the buildings.
Pecorella’s father who worked on Wall Street, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center decided to take Sept. 11 off after a late night of watching the New York Giants and Denver Broncos play on Monday Night Football.
“My dad still had [paternity] leave and the Giants were playing on Monday Night Football. So, he went out to watch the game and just said ‘I’ll take Tuesday off, like it’s no big deal, it’s just a Tuesday,’” Pecorella told Testudo Times.
Pecorella, his sister and mother were all in Connecticut visiting his grandparents but quickly headed back to New York to all be together after turning on the news.
DeGennaro’s uncle and cousin are both first responders and his aunt was in New York City when the planes hit the buildings. At the time, DeGennaro said they were staying with family in Brooklyn. Now, every year to pay a tribute to those who lost their lives in the attacks, DeGennaro’s uncle runs through the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel to the Twin Towers—a path taken by the first responders coming from Staten Island and Brooklyn.
“When it comes to 9/11 and the attacks that happened, for me, personally, for my family, it’s huge,” DeGennaro said. “You know, I have family in the military, I have family who served on Ground Zero as firemen. My mom worked at the Trade Center before the attacks. I had family members in the city at the time, obviously, we lived there. So, the impact on my family, from that standpoint of the actual event is huge.”
The thread that runs through both Pecorella and DeGennaro’s upbringings it is family and strength. Now, as they take the field on Saturday in their Maryland uniforms, they will be surrounded by family in the stands.
DeGennaro’s mother, grandmother, father and brother will all be in attendance while Pecorella’s mother, father and sister will be as well.
Pecorella’s family is planning on wearing hats with “FDNY” written across them since his uncle was a fireman. On Sept. 11, 2001, Pecorella’s uncle was working his second job in Suffolk County, Long Island but he arrived at the scene as soon as he could. His uncle eventually developed Parkinson’s that Pecorella attributed to breathing in the toxins from working at the site during the following months.
DeGennaro expressed that before and after the game he will have his emotions about the day as he does every year but when it comes time to take the field, he’ll be locked in. Pecorella prays before each game and on Saturday he plans to pray not only for his family but for all the families who lost someone in the attacks and anyone who was affected on that day.
For DeGennaro and Pecorella, as another year passes by since Sept. 11, 2001, it is another reason to continue to remember and listen to others’ stories while sharing their own.
“[Being from the New York area], it’s about bouncing back, it’s about grit, it’s about being tough,” DeGennaro said. “It’s about coming back from a lot of adversity and showing the world as city, that nothing can take us down… that’s what a lot of us learn a lot of as kids growing up who didn’t necessarily experience in person, we learn from people in the older generation.”
Neither DeGennaro nor Pecorella have ever played in a football game on Sept. 11 but are ready to take the field alongside their teammates to honor those whose lives were affected 20 years ago.
“Some people will just be like ‘another day’ as we get further and further along from the day,” Pecorella told Testudo Times. “But that day, every time someone says ‘September 11,’ that shakes me to my core.”