Friday September 10, 20109/11 Still A Day And A Journey Donovan Will Never Forget
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com senior writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The early morning flight from Detroit to Boston was supposed to last around two hours. The time in the air would allow Florida men’s basketball coach Billy Donovan to review his meeting with Anthony Roberson and prepare for the one scheduled later that day with Boston-area recruit Rashid Al-Kaleem.
But before Donovan could make it to Boston, the world changed. That day turned out unlike any other in American history, a day that will be forever known as 9/11.
On Saturday afternoon at The Swamp, more than 90,000 football fans will jam inside for the Gators’ first meeting with the University of South Florida. The game is on the nine-year anniversary of 9/11 and will be played with Gainesville having been a focal point in the national news this week for reasons far removed from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Sept. 11 resonates in some way with all of us. For Donovan and his wife Christine – both native New Yorkers – the day their beloved city lost a towering part of its identity comes rushing back on each anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“Being from New York, it really hit us hard,’’ Christine said earlier this week.
“I saw so many buddies and friends who had people
affected by it and people I knew who basically died,’’ Billy said. “That was
very, very difficult.’’
Somewhere 35,000 feet above the ground between Detroit and Boston, Donovan recalls the pilot breaking the news that something terrible had happened.
The moment remains as surreal today as it was then to Donovan.
“The captain came on the PA (system) and said that there was a terrorist attack and that the FAA [Federal Aviation Authority] was requiring all planes to land immediately,’’ Donovan said. “I’m kind of thinking, ‘Terrorist attack? What does this have to do with us being up in the air?’
“I had no idea.’’
Ordered out of the sky, the plane landed in Buffalo.
More than 1,100 miles away in Gainesville, Christine had just returned home from the grocery store, nearly eight months pregnant with daughter Connor. As she put away groceries, Christine happened to glance at “The Today Show’’ on the TV in the kitchen.
She froze, watching in horror as the World Trade Centers fell to the ground. She immediately feared the worst as the details started to emerge. She knew Billy was flying into Boston – two of the four planes involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks originated from Boston – and that her father worked in lower Manhattan.
“Of course, my heart dropped and I wondered where they were,’’ she said. “Once [Billy] called and I knew he was on the ground, I stopped worrying as much.’’
Her father, Anthony D’Auria,
worked only a few blocks from the twin towers. She eventually made contact with
her family, learning that in the aftermath of the attacks, her father was
forced to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to get out of Manhattan.
Once across the bridge, Christine said her dad was picked up by a complete stranger and driven to an exit near his Long Island home where he was picked up by Christine’s mom.
“When something bad happens, the good comes out of New Yorkers,’’ Christine said.
Meanwhile, once on the ground in Buffalo, Billy started making phone calls to learn more about what happened and to let everyone know he was all right.
“When I got off the plane,
it was like complete pandemonium in the terminal,’’ he said. “Everyone was
around restaurants and stuff just trying to watch TV. I saw that obviously both
the World Trade Centers had been hit.
“I couldn’t believe it. And then I was concerned because I’m from New York. I’ve got a lot of friends and people I know who work down on Wall Street.’’
Uncertain of how long planes would be grounded, Donovan quickly made his way to the rental car counter in the Buffalo airport. The visit with Al-Kaleem was off, so Donovan figured he would start driving south toward Philadelphia for a home visit he had scheduled with recruit Matt Walsh the following day.
But before arriving in Philadelphia, Donovan wanted to stop to visit his parents in the New York area. That was until he made a phone call to his dad.
“Billy, you’ve got no chance of getting into New York right now,’’ his dad told him. “They are shutting down bridges and everything.’’
Taking his father’s advice, Donovan drove 400 miles from
Buffalo to Philadelphia to meet with Walsh and his family the next day.
The Long Road Home
During the visit with Walsh, Donovan met up with former assistant John Pelphrey, who was also in the Philadelphia area on a recruiting trip.
With the airline industry still grounded due to the terrorist attacks, Donovan and Pelphrey decided to continue on a recruiting odyssey that eventually took Donovan through more than a dozen states and included 2,000 miles in that rental car from Buffalo.
The two left Philadelphia to
drive part of the way on another 400-mile journey to the Raleigh, N.C., area.
While there, they had visits set up with Mario Boggan, who eventually signed
with the Gators, and Shavlik Randolph, who ended up at Duke.
Following the stop in North Carolina, Donovan fully expected the air-travel ban to be lifted and to finally catch a flight home to Gainesville. Instead, he kept racking up highway miles through the Deep South as the air-travel industry remained in chaos 72 hours after the terrorist attacks.
Donovan’s next destination was Dallas, where a prep star named Chris Bosh was a primary recruiting target 1,200 miles away.
“You would think he would just drive home, but not him,’’ Christine said. “He still went out there recruiting.’’
How did the visit go with Bosh, who made waves this summer by signing with the Miami Heat along with LeBron James?
“He never visited our campus and he ended up signing at Georgia Tech,’’ Donovan said. “Great visit, though.’’
When Donovan wrapped up the meeting with Bosh, he finally made his way back to Gainesville when athletic director Jeremy Foley arrived on a private jet to pick him up. Years later, Donovan is left shaking his head when recalling what an emotional and heartfelt stretch it was for his country and his family.
“It was a scary, scary time,’’ he said. “In terms of country, it obviously had an incredible impact. But I also think for people that grew up in New York and were born and raised on Wall Street, lower Manhattan, it’s something that will always be with us.’’
Only a couple of months after Ground Zero became a permanent part of the American vernacular, the Gators opened the 2001-02 season in New York at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Former New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, who grew up in the same Long Island neighborhood that Donovan did, invited the Gators to visit the site.
The pile of debris remained high, with a constant stream of dump trucks carrying the mangled mess away. As players such as Matt Bonner, Udonis Haslem and David Lee took in the scene, listening to a New York policeman talk about what it was like there on the day the towers came down, Donovan felt a tremendous sense of loss.
“When you think of lower Manhattan, if you are from New York, the two things you think of are the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center,’’ he said. “It’s amazing, even now when you fly by lower Manhattan, they are no longer there.’’
A few days ago, Donovan and his family were at their beach condo watching TV. As they flipped through the channels, a 9/11 documentary was playing.
The Donovans couldn’t stop watching.