Glauber: Ex-Giants coach Fassel was leader in aftermath of 9/11

It was the cars that haunted him most.

Jim Fassel would arrive early to his office at Giants Stadium, and the cars were there. After he left, they were still there.

They never moved.

“Giants Stadium, you park your car and get on a bus to go to New York/Manhattan,” Fassel said in a 2016 interview with the Talk of Fame Network. “For about 10 days, there were a whole bunch of cars left there. And I can only picture the fact that those people parked their cars, got on the bus, and went over there, and they perished.”

This was in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, which destroyed the World Trade Center and left untold damage in their wake. From where he worked at Giants Stadium, Fassel could still see the smoke smoldering from the gigantic hole in the ground in lower Manhattan. It was a day no one could ever forget, yet an event that helped turned Fassel into an unlikely and unexpected beacon of hope for people struggling to find meaning after the devastating attacks.

“It was tough on your stomach every morning when you went to work,” he said, “and saw all those cars sitting there.”

Fassel’s Giants had just returned from Denver, where they’d been beaten by the Broncos, 31-20, when American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 struck the North and South towers to begin the worst terrorist attack on the United States. Football suddenly became meaningless in a world torn apart.

But Fassel didn’t shrink from the burden of leading a team and a city needing to find hope somewhere, anywhere, after what had just happened. And in many ways, it’s what he did in the aftermath that shaped his legacy as the Giants’ coach.

It’s therefore as fitting a way as any to remember Fassel, who died of a heart attack Monday in Las Vegas at the age of 71. He didn’t win a Super Bowl championship when he led the Giants to the brink of a title just months before 9/11, but he burnished his legacy by how he handled himself and those around him in the days and months after the attacks.

“[Former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani’s office asked me if I would come over and just walk around and shake the hands and tell them that we’re supporting all these guys,” Fassel said. “I went over there three or four days afterward and it was unbelievable. You’re standing there and this space is just wide open. I asked them, ‘What am I going to do?’ They said, ‘You can cheer them up. People recognize you, you can just support them.’ So I did.”

Fassel became a hero to the community of heroic firefighters, as he met with them on the steaming, stinking pile of rubble that had once been two gleaming buildings at the financial center of the world.

“Even the ones from out of state, mainly some from California, recognized me and I stopped and talked to them,” Fassel said. “Those guys looked like they hadn’t slept in days, they were dirty. I was just saying, ‘Thanks guys for what you’re doing here.’ You try to do a little something for them.”

The Giants faced Kansas City on the road in their first game after 9/11, and it was as emotional a game as you’ll ever witness. They won, 13-3, as more than 70,000 fans passed around firefighters’ boots, stuffing them with cash that would go toward helping the families of the heroes struck down in the tragedy.

“It is probably the most indelible in my mind of all the games, of all the things that went on in my career,” Fassel said. “Because it was hard to get the players back and focused a little bit. That’s why I told the coaches, ‘No yelling, no screaming; everybody’s got a little bit of a story going on.’ That whole season after that happened was something where we had to refocus ourselves.”

Fassel did solid work with the Giants after being hired in 1997, when he was selected as the NFL’s Coach of the Year for leading the team to the playoffs with a 10-5-1 record. He helped Kerry Collins rehabilitate his image and his game and authored a 12-4 season in 2000, leading the Giants to a dominant 41-0 win over the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game at Giants Stadium.

The Giants didn’t have enough to contend with the Ravens’ historically good defense in Super Bowl XXXV two weeks later, and Fassel couldn’t join Bill Parcells as a winner of the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But he left a lasting imprint on his team by showing compassion and leadership when it was needed most.

RIP to a good man.