Twenty Years Later
September 11, 2021
Lou Pickney, DraftKing.com
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I nearly called out sick from work the night before 9/11.
At the time I was employed as a morning news producer at WTSP-TV 10 News, the CBS affiliate in the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida market, where I had debuted less than six months prior.
Improbably, I somehow landed a producing gig in a Top 20 market less than two years out of college. Hired at age 23, I was the youngest full-fledged producer on the 10 News staff for the duration of my run there.
The weekend before 9/11, I nearly ended up in an Ybor City street fight. Five years living there and that was the closest I ever came to getting into a fistfight in Tampa, despite being out in the madness most weekends and seeing plenty of wild brawls on the reg.
Words are my usual weapon of choice.
Then Sunday hit and I was hurting. Not a hangover, as I had consumed minimal alcohol. But I had been beset with some sort of unpleasant illness.
When you produce a morning newscast and call out sick, you cause a lot of problems. Either the midday producer has to cover your shift on short notice or an associate producer has to fill-in, and there's a domino effect.
You end up disrupting things for a lot of co-workers no matter what.
Sunday afternoon, 9/9/2001, I called out sick.
Monday rolled around. 9/10/2001. I bought a round-trip ticket from Southwest Airlines to go to Indiana for the wedding of my Phi Kappa Tau fraternity brother Joe Pacheco, who was my roommate from when I graduated from the University of Evansville until I left for Huntington, WV at the end of 1999.
I was there when Joe and his future wife first started dating. And ultimately I ended up attending their wedding, as air travel was back up and going before the end of the month.
Joe died early last year from brain cancer. Life isn't fair.
On the afternoon of 9/10/2001, I had to decide whether to call out again. While I was loopy, in part because of the DayQuil I took that put me in a bit of a haze, I felt marginally better. Enough to be able to make it to work late Monday night.
Sometimes when you go in for your shift as a morning news producer, you have no idea what your reporter will cover. But on that morning, there was no question about it.
We were covering President Bush's visit to Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. It's part of the Tampa television market.
I never watched my 5-6 a.m. newscast back after the fact. As I recall, the aircheck tapes (yes, we still had actual BetaCam tapes at that point) for those 9/11 newscasts disappeared, never to be seen again.
My shift was eight hours, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Eastern Time. I mention this because it's relevant when you think about the timetable of that morning.
After gutting through the hour I produced on the morning of 9/11, I headed home right when my shift ended.
I didn't know it, but my world (and everyone else's) was about to change forever.
Madden 2002 had just come out recently for the PlayStation 2, and my expectation was to play that a bit while I waited for the NyQuil I took after I got home to kick in, and then get some sleep.
I turned on the radio, ironically listening to a show on 98 Rock that I'd later end up working for after my time at 10 News ended. And it was from there that I initially heard the news about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center.
At that point I didn't own a cell phone, if you can believe it. 2001 was a different time in some significant ways.
From my land line, I called my buddy Brook in New York City, at the time in law school at NYU. Brook had heard the first plane fly over, which he said was very unusual. But Brook didn't know what had happened, as he was watching SportsCenter and they hadn't broken into programming yet.
We hung up. Not too long after that, I saw the second plane hit the other WTC tower live on television on ABC 28. That was the last channel I watched before work the night prior, as I checked out some of the Giants/Broncos game on Monday Night Football before heading out.
What happened next was a blur. I tried calling Brook again, but the line cut out right as he said hello. After that, my calls to New York City quit going through for the rest of the day. Fast busy signal.
My next instinct was to see if they needed me back at 10 News.
Just getting someone from management on the phone proved tricky, understandably so. But finally I got through and was told to sleep as best I could and then come in early that evening.
There was a feeling of helplessness watching TV and seeing the terrible things that happened over the next few hours.
Eventually, I finally did get some sleep. Years later, someone posted a video on YouTube showing one of the cut-ins. My colleagues worked hard under some exceptionally challenging circumstances that afternoon.
There was a profound collective shock that set in, just as you'd imagine. I remember fueling up at a gas station near 10 News in St. Pete and sensing this overwhelming feeling of disbelief and sadness from everyone.
The next several days were very difficult. Crazy long shifts producing commercial-free news coverage. No time to process your own emotions; that gets checked at the door, at least as much as possible.
Compounding the problem locally was that Tropical Storm Gabrielle hit Sarasota that week. We had to abruptly shift course in the middle of covering 9/11.
As it turned out, I attended one of the first NFL games after 9/11, Oakland Raiders at Miami Dolphins. It's the only Dolphins game I've ever seen in person.
I sunburn very easily, and I vividly recall the security guy at the stadium in Miami making me actually squeeze out some of the sunscreen I brought with me to prove it was real.
In some ways, certain things never truly got back to normal. If you were around to experience air travel pre-9/11, you know what I'm talking about.
Sports eventually got going again, and I field produced the WTSP post-game show for the Steelers/Buccaneers game in that 2001 season. CBS didn't get many Bucs games in that era, so we did our best with the opportunity.
It was the one time I got to work in the field with Reggie and Sue, our nightside anchors.
Unfortunately, before the end of the year there was a wholesale change in management, and suddenly my considerable sports producing background was moved to the Pay No Mind list.
But, at least on some level, the frustrations of 2002 led to me finding new creative outlets in 2003. And that includes the 2003 NFL Mock Draft which led to the eventual creation of this website.
There was a saying in the months after 9/11: Never Forget. And for those who experienced the horror of the day, forgetting isn't an option. Even when they might want it to be.
But here we are now 20 years removed. The college players I'm evaluating now were mostly either born after 9/11 or were so young that they don't remember it.
That's the way it works in life. The clock only moves in one direction.
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