49ers honored to be part of opener

Like most of us who live west of the New Jersey Meadowlands, San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci spent much of last Sept. 11 glued to his television set.
Two days earlier, the 49ers had opened the 2001 season with a 16-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. That Tuesday was a day off for the players while the coaching staff was to prepare for a road trip to New Orleans.
Those plans were never completed.
"The first plane hit the North Tower about the time I was leaving home," Mariucci recalled. "While I was commuting, I learned about the second plane. We spent the rest of the day watching in disbelief from our office."
Although they are based 3,000 miles away from Manhattan, the 49ers played a role in the post-attack recovery in New York.
Last Oct. 1, San Francisco played the New York Jets in the first NFL game at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands following the terrorist attack. The stadium is several miles across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan and the horror of Ground Zero.
In that Monday night contest televised nationally by ABC, the 49ers upset the Jets, 19-17.
Giants in opener
Thursday, the 49ers will be back at the Meadowlands, opening the 2002 season against the New York Giants. ESPN will provide national coverage of the NFL's first weeknight opener.
According to 49ers owner Dr. John York of Canfield, the NFL wanted the league opener to originate from either New York or Washington. When the NFL was schedule was released last spring, the 49ers-Giants game was selected.
"We are honored to have been picked to play in this opening game," said Mariucci, agreeing that the team's 12-4 record in 2001 has made them ready for prime time.
Last year's win over the Jets launched a streak where the 49ers took eight of nine games, returning them to elite status after two years of missing the postseason.
But concentrating on football proved difficult after the attack that changed the nation.
"It was an extremely emotional experience," Mariucci said of visiting New York about three weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Center. "It was impossible not to see the glare from the spotlights [at Ground Zero]."
The usually talkative Mariucci says he's at a loss for words to explain the emotions he felt that night.
"The mood of the crowd was certainly different," Mariucci said. "I remember the cheers Mayor [Rudy] Guilani and Gov. [George] Pataki received.
"It seemed most of America was anxious to get back on track. On the one hand, it felt good to be back playing," Mariucci said after the NFL shut down for a week, "but that didn't mean we weren't concerned about the real issues of importance."
Kickoff party
Preceding Thursday's game will be a Countdown to Kickoff party in Times Square to celebrate the start of the new NFL season.
A giant-sized football will drop at the same site where the ball comes down each Dec. 31 to ring in the New Year. Bon Jovi will perform (VH-1, 7 p.m.). Party highlights also will be televised Friday at 10 p.m. on CBS.
In order to close off traffic in Times Square, the NFL donated millions of dollars to New York City to help with the relief and rebuilding efforts.
When the NFL's plans were announced in July, some New Yorkers suggested it was inappropriate to stage a party so close to the Sept. 11 anniversary.
New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg dismissed those comments, correctly pointing out that football gets under way every first week of September.
Mariucci said, "it's good that the NFL is celebrating with an opener in New York -- it's America's pastime. Entertainment and sports are part of our culture.
"Whether it helps the healing process, I don't know, but we are honored to go to New York. I think it's OK to show the world that America is alive and well."
XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.

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