Because of Osama bin Laden — the guy who was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on America a decade ago and then this past Sunday was killed in Pakistan by a team of Navy SEALs — several things (both big and small) in the world of sports have been changed very much.
There now are security checks of your bags and your person to get into stadiums and arenas at every major sporting event. There’s the ever-popular, bring-the-crowd-to-its-feet singing of God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch at many big league ball games.
And at Bellbrook High football games, a tradition was born after those Sept. 11 attacks of 2001.
Just a few days after the twin towers of the World Trade Center were felled, the Pentagon was left with a gaping hole and a fourth airliner was crashed into a Pennsylvania farm field before hijackers could pilot it into another high-profile Washington D.C. target, Golden Eagles football player Charlie O’Dell picked up an American flag and led his team onto the field for its first game of the post 9/11 era.
After that — season after season — Bellbrook players have on many occasions reenacted that run before home games.
It has become maybe the most heartwarming, nation-reaffirming local sports tradition carried over from those dark September days of a decade past.
After Bin Laden was killed, there were scenes from around the nation of folks waving flags and showing their national pride and that reminded me of O’Dell’s unscripted Stars and Stripes sprint.
Back in 2001 the moment was captured by Bellbrook photographer Nick Falzerano. Sports Illustrated saw his picture and ran it in its next edition.
“Nick’s photograph captured the essence of what we were looking for” said SI photo editor Jim Colton. “It was very poignant and colorful and the kid carrying the flag had a great expression on his face. It showed these kids weren’t ruffled. And the background — with the scoreboard reading 1st-and-10 — very subtly expressed the challenge ahead.”
O’Dell is now a social studies teacher at Bellbrook Middle School. He also helps coach the varsity football team.
Here’s a story I wrote a few years ago remembering the night Charlie led his team onto the field and how that moment is recalled today.
It is a tradition — born from sadness and fear — that quickly turned into a pronouncement of pride and perseverance, thanks to a bunch of teenage football players and their attentive coaches seven years ago.
When the Bellbrook High Golden Eagles first take to the field Friday night, Sept. 12, to play visiting Monroe, they’ll follow one of their veteran players who’ll be hoisting the American flag as he crashes through the big banner held by the cheerleaders and leads his teammates into a swell of hometown cheers.
“Running in behind the flag is something we still feel is pretty important,” Bellbrook head coach Kevin Basinger said. “But truthfully, I don’t know if people still know why we do it.” To understand that you only need to keep an eye on the stadium scoreboard’s ever-changing video screen and catch the stirring image — shot by trumpeted local photographer, Nick Falzerano, who runs Nicholas Studios — of that first time the Eagles followed this very same flag into a Friday night football game . Then again, you could just go to the Bellbrook sidelines and ask first-year Eagles assistant coach Charlie O’Dell about the whole flag deal.
Seven years ago — just three days after the deadly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the airliner that crashed in a Pennsylvania field — O’Dell was the centerpiece figure in a commemorative act that not only was immortalized in a two-page Sports Illustrated photo, but was forever seared into the hearts of anyone who was there that emotional night in 2001 when Bellbrook played Northridge.
With so many people sad and suffering and afraid, no one was sure it was even time for games that night. The NFL and major college football teams had called off their weekend games, but Miami Valley high schools had decided to play on.
“September 11th that year was on a Tuesday, and then everything had been shut down Wednesday,” Basinger said. “I remember we had a light practice Thursday, but nobody was sure how the kids would respond Friday night.
“I remember we talked to the team about being American and the freedom and privileges we had, and then Todd Paul, one of our coaches, took out the flag he’d brought along and asked if someone wanted to carry it onto the field. And that’s when Charlie — he was our most vocal captain — stepped up.”
O’Dell — a beefy, burr-headed, senior lineman — had spent three years paying his dues as a junior varsity and backup player. He’d never given up on football, worked hard in his final prep off-season and became a team leader who’d eventually go on to play football at Wittenberg University.
He was the epitome of standing tall in tough times when he volunteered to lead the team onto the field for what always was high theater at Bellbrook games.
Back then, the purple gates in front of the goal post would open and the team would come charging through a magical blanket of smoke provided by parents with fire extinguishers. And on this night, here came Charlie — American flag held high in his left hand, teammates rumbling in right behind him on both sides — as the band played the school fight song and many in the stands began to weep.
On the field to shoot the entrance, Falzerano began back-pedaling and managed to fire off just four frames of film. But one held that classic image — “one of my most memorable shots ever,” Falzerano still calls it — which he sent to SI on speculation.
“Nick’s photograph captured the essence of what we were looking for,” Sports was very poignant and colorful and the kid carrying the flag had a great expression on his face. It showed these kids weren’t ruffled. And the background — with the scoreboard reading 1st-and-10 — very subtly expressed the challenge ahead.” Sports Illustrated picture editor Jim Colton said.
The picture was published in the front of the Sept. 24, 2001, issue and throughout Southwest Ohio it — along with the “United We Stand” poster Falzerano made with the same image — became a prized totem of the time.
“It’s something we’re all very proud of,” said Basinger, who has a framed copy of the photo and the SI cover hanging behind his desk in his classroom. “But its not so much that we were in Sports Illustrated as the fact that we could be the picture of the nation that night. That’s what was so humbling.”
As for the now 25-year-old O’Dell, it wasn’t until he started teaching seventh-grade history at Bellbrook last winter — and noticed the previous teacher, like so many others in the building, had the poster up on the wall of his classroom — that he began to realize the true impact of that September night in 2001:
“Sure, back when it happened it had been kind shocking to see the picture in Sports Illustrated, but then or now I never really looked at it as my picture. I just happened to be the guy who volunteered — just a guy in the right place at the right time — but what made the photo special was all of us being in that picture together.”
While 9/11 is downplayed or forgotten by many these days for a variety of reasons — from short attention spans and no sense of history to the avoidance of some of the most disturbing and painful images in this nation’s history — O’Dell said there’s “not a September that goes by that I don’t think of it.”
It strikes a chord with him, he said, not only because he’s a history teacher, but because “we’re part of the 9/11 generation.
“We were seniors in high school — 18 years old — and we’d be the youngest ones to answer the call right away, the youngest who could enlist in the service to protect our country. And I believe this is a war that’s going to go on for years and one our generation will have to face and fight — so, yeah, it means a lot to me.”
But his remembrance has little to do with that flag picture, he said: “That probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind if you hadn’t brought it up. I don’t talk about it. I even get a little embarrassed when that picture pops up on our scoreboard.
“I just want to be known as a good teacher and a good coach, not necessarily some guy who got his picture in a magazine carrying a flag.”
And yet, he is a good teacher not just because of what he does in the classroom now, but because of what he did that night seven years ago when he not only lifted a flag, but a lot of people who watched him or later saw his image and found themselves being pulled up by a bunch of kids charging ahead, unbowed.Tweet