Since 2001, September 11 has become a day that will be remembered by Americans for many decades to come. The horrific terrorist attacks using airliners hijacked by Islamic extremists killed thousands of United States citizens and brought down both towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, crippled the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. and killed the passengers aboard Flight 93 in rural Pennsylvania.
To Tampa Bay middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, it is a day he has remembered practically since he was born. You see, Quarles was born on September 11, 1971, so that day each year has usually been one of celebration for the Buccaneers defender who will turn 34 on Sunday.
But since the tragedies that befell America just four years ago, Quarles' birthday has never been the same.
"It used to be a really important day for me, but now I think it's gained even more importance because of the tragedy of everything that happened during that day," Quarles said. "It's still sad to me in certain regards. Now my birthday is just another day."
Birthdays typically don't mean as much to adults as they do to children. Some people actually dread them once they reach the age of 30 and would rather not have any more birthdays to celebrate.
But four years ago, September 11 fell on a Tuesday, which is the NFL-mandated players' day off. Quarles' wife, Damaris, had a big day planned for their family that included a birthday celebration. But once Quarles turned on the television that morning and heard the news of the terrorist attacks, there was certainly not going to be any celebrating on that day.
"It ruined it," Quarles said of his birthday. "My wife had big plans for us to hang out and do a bunch of stuff that day. Of course, when that happened, things got prioritized. The priority at that time wasn't my birthday. She wanted to do a lot of stuff for me, but at the time, it didn't mean anything to me. It was more about making sure everybody was alright and take the importance off of me and putting it on others."
The shock and horror of watching the smoldering Twin Towers quickly grew to concern as the World Trade Center buildings toppled to the ground, killing thousands of people in the process. Quarles' sister-in-law worked in New York City and his thoughts immediately turned towards his family.
"It was personal to me," Quarles said of the terrorist attacks. "We had family who worked in Manhattan. To see that happen and not be able to get in touch with your family, you get worried. My wife's sister was pregnant and she had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with her husband.
"Also, her husband worked right next to one of the buildings that fell. One of the buildings actually fell on his building and took a big hole out of it. It looked like King Kong had come through and ripped it away with his paw. I had the opportunity after the fact to go down there and actually stand on the roof that the building crashed into. By that time, the biohazard team had already come in and cleaned up most of the stuff, but to hear him tell how there was body parts and blood all over that building, it was just unbelievable."
Quarles' birthday quickly turned into a full day of sitting on the edge of his seat like many Americans, mesmerized and astonished by the grisly scenes of the terrorist attacks on live television. Playing football was the furthest thing from his mind at the time, and heading in to One Buccaneer Place the next day proved difficult following the tragedy.
"I was definitely glued to the TV," Quarles said. "I couldn't take my eyes off it. I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know what was going to go on with football, but I think we definitely did the right thing by not playing the games that weekend."
The NFL wisely postponed the start of the 2001 regular season, and had fitting tributes to those Americans who had died and survived the day that had scarred this country during opening weekend and at the Super Bowl that year. The NFL has also continued the process of honoring the memory of September 11 ever since 2001, and will once again memorialize the day this Sunday as a full slate of opening week games will actually take place on 9/11.
Like all Americans and NFL players, Quarles will remember one of the saddest days in this nation's history. But he will also have reason to celebrate, especially if the Buccaneers can deliver the best birthday gift he could ask for - a victory at Minnesota.
"It definitely would be (a great present), and we're planning on it," Quarles said. "We're going to prepare ourselves to do what we can to get a win this week. I'm reading a book on leadership by John Wooden. It's not what you do on the field on Sunday that helps you out as far as winning is concerned. It's about what you do and how you prepare that week leading into the game that matters."
As time has helped heal the nation's wounds from September 11, 2001, Quarles can smile and celebrate a little more on his birthday with each passing year. But like many others, he will always remember that day meaning so much more than just a cake and a bunch of candles.
"You've got to look at the big picture," Quarles said. "The big picture is not about one person, it's about many. A lot of people lost their lives that day. It will be a day I'll never forget."
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