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Remembering 9/11: When high school football was the only game in town

Dave 'Dino' DeNatale looks back at how two Lorain County high school football rivals got ready to face each other just three days after September 11, 2001.

WELLINGTON, Ohio — Editor's Note: The video in the player above is from our "Remembering 9/11" series featuring Jim Donovan on how the Browns helped the NFL in the days following September 11, 2001.

Like so many, on September 10, 2001, sports were at the center of my world. 

The Cleveland Browns, with new head coach Butch Davis, were getting ready to face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers that Sunday.

Jim Tressel had just started his first year as head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. 

The Cleveland Indians were on a final charge towards another American League Central division title.

On that Monday evening, I was at my alma mater of Bowling Green State University hosting the "Falcon's Nest Coach's Show" with 37-year-old Urban Meyer, who was in his first season as head coach of BGSU. The Falcons had just picked up Meyer's first home win and were 2-0 as they were getting ready to travel to South Carolina that upcoming Saturday. 

I was also the Sports Director at WOBL AM-1320 in Oberlin. We were getting ready to cover what was one of the two biggest high school football games of the year in Lorain County that Friday as Midview would be at Wellington (The other was Avon Lake vs. Amherst). The Middies and the Dukes were the class of the old Lorain County Conference and despite the fact that it was only Week 4 of the season, Friday's game would likely determine who would win the league crown. 

All of that was on my mind as Tuesday, September 11, 2001 began. 

As he was getting ready to start his day of teaching at Wellington's McCormick Middle School, then-Dukes head coach Matt Stoll remembers hearing an odd sound overhead. 

"I was with one of our other science teachers at the time," Stoll recalled during a phone conversation this week. "It was a quiet morning and we actually heard a jet flying over low and making an unusual sound. It turned out to be [United] Flight 93 turning around."

Just north in Oberlin, our morning show host Jeff "Vietz" Vietzen saw and heard that same jet making its turn back east while walking outside during a commercial break.

By that time, both American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. 

"Our principal came in and told us what was going on," Stoll said. "Then we were glued to our televisions."

Just up the road at Wellington High School, then-athletic director Jeff Jump and the rest of the school's administrators would soon get a visit from the village's police chief.

"The chief came into the school and told us to turn on our televisions," Jump recalled. "We were all glued at that point. We went into a lockdown because of how close we were to the FAA installation [Air Traffic Control Center] in Oberlin. You didn’t know if that was a target, too."

Over in Grafton, Bill Albright was watching what was happening in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania while teaching at Midview High School. Albright, then the head coach of the Middies, was in constant communication with his athletic director, Stan Hughes, about how to proceed with practice that day given what was happening. 

Hughes and Jump mutually decided it was best for the two teams to forgo getting on the field to practice.

"I remember talking to Coach Stoll, telling him we weren't practicing," Jump told me. "We just wanted to get everyone home. The game became unimportant that day."

Dan Gundert, who was the quarterback of that Dukes team, remembers that the players were disappointed to not get on the practice field that day.

"At the time, we didn’t understand why we didn’t have practice," Gundert said. "Looking back now, I really do appreciate the leadership we had with Coach Stoll, Mr. Jump, and Mr. King [the principal]. They were top notch. They calmed us and they really were great communicators. It was a great decision." 

Before sending his players home for the day, Albright brought everyone together for a team meeting.

"Everyone understood that it was more important to get away from school, go home, and be with family," he remembered. "Having said that, our team is our extended family, so it was really important for us as coaches to talk to the kids. At times it was so emotional, and really who were were playing at that point didn’t matter.”

As the sun set on the worst day in American history, sports really did cease to matter. The NFL, NCAA, and Major League Baseball all postponed games for the rest of the week. The most important thing was family, reflection, and healing. 

Jump remembers an eeriness in the area as he went home that night.

"There were no planes in the air and traffic was light," he said. "Quietness surrounded our community. There are always planes coming over us making their final approach where we are in Wellington. In fact, I went home to Collins and saw a jet fighter fly over. It really sunk in then." 

Like everyone else, I was in shock at what I'd witnessed on my television that day. My father had been in the air that morning on a flight from Cleveland to the west coast to join my mother, who was on a business trip. He was one of the 4,000 flights ordered to immediately land during the chaos of that Tuesday in the skies over America. For the next few days, I was just in a daze as we worked to get my parents back home while pondering whether there would be a football game for me to broadcast that Friday night. 

That issue was finally decided on Thursday: Wellington and Midview would indeed square off under the lights of Friday night, although Albright remembers that a few Middie parents were hesistant to allow their sons to play amid what had just happened days earlier. 

“I was very fortunate to be in a great community with a great group of parents. We always communicated well," he remarked. "I’m very proud of the way we handled everything and all of our kids did, in fact, play against Wellington."

As the Dukes and Middies began to prepare for their matchup on Friday, things started to feel familiar for both teams. 

"Wellington-Midview was such a big rivalry game," Gundert recalled. "We had had a great year in 2000 [advancing to the regional final] and it was on us seniors to keep things going forward. So we really took that game seriously. Once we knew that it was going to happen, we were so excited to go."

“Suddenly you felt like you were back where you belong," Albright added. "You start counting down the hours until practice starts during the day. As we got back to work, we told the players that we’re going to remember that day [9/11], you’re going to remember that day. This is going to help you as players, us as a team, and everyone watching to cope and focus on something else for a while.”

"I really think we as a team got closer that week," Stoll said. "We had a lot of good kids on that team that cared about each other. You had a feeling that we were all in this together. We were all Americans, and we needed each other."

As Friday night approached, spirits in the village of Wellington started to pick up.

"I think at some point in the community, the mood started to change and there was a sense of excitement," Jump told me. "A feeling that we weren’t going to let the terrorists stop what we do on Friday. We’re going to come together and do what we do best. There’s just something about being in a small town and playing under the 'Friday Night Lights.' I can’t describe the bond that takes place between the team and the community, and it was there that night."

As the two teams settled in the locker room and prepared to face off, Gundert remembers Stoll giving an impassioned pregame speech.

"I’ll always remember Coach Stoll’s speech before the game," the quarterback said. "He talked passionately about 9/11 and what tonight would mean for all of us. We were ready."

Normally, Wellington would wait in the locker room until after the national anthem was played before taking the field. This night was different. 

"That night, we made it a point to come out and be there for it (the anthem)," Gundert reminisced. "We ran out there to the field with the American flag. At the time, that wasn’t really something you would ever see at any level. I still get chills thinking about it."

"We were very focused on making sure that we honored the victims of 9/11 the right way," Stoll added. "I can remember how very quiet it was during the moment of silence. For 30 seconds, you could have heard a pin drop at that stadium."

As I was standing for the moment of silence and the national anthem that followed, I closed my eyes. I thought about the 2,997 victims of 9/11, I thought about how terrible the images of the last few days had been. Then, I heard the band play "The Star-Spangled Banner" and tears were in my eyes. For the first time that week, I felt a sense of normalcy. A sense of continuity. 'We were going to play high school football, and we were doing it together as a nation.'

Game on.

As expected, Wellington and Midview played a close, entertaining game. 

“You figured it was going to be a typical Wellington-Midview game," Albright said. "It's two Wing-T teams, you know what they’re going to do and they know what you’re going to do. It's the first league game and more than likely, it's going to end up deciding the conference title. In thinking about it now, you were reminded that kids really are resilient and they do bounce back, better than adults actually.”

The game turned on a gadget play from Wellington as they scored on a halfback option. 

"It was huge and helped us win the game, but I still give Coach Stoll a hard time all these years later," Gundert said, with a laugh. "I think I maybe threw an average of four passes a game, and on a third-and-long, we pull out a gadget."

The final score was Wellington 21, Midview 14.

The two fierce rivals met together for the postgame handshake at the 50-yard-line.

"I just remember how tired everyone was at the end of the game," Albright recalled. "You were just exhausted after a long week. There was a lot of emotion from our guys, and not just because we lost the game, but because of our loss as a nation. It was like the dam broke for players and coaches on both teams."

"I think Bill and I both felt the same way," Stoll added. "At the end of the night, I was emotionally drained. I felt relieved. I knew what we had gone through that week, but I also knew that we would have to push on as a team and as a country."

"As a kid, you're just excited and living in the moment," Gundert stated. "You're thinking, 'We won, we beat our rivals.' Thinking about it now as an adult and as a coach, I can only imagine what Coaches Stoll and Albright were going through all week. They both kept our heads and hearts where they needed to be as football players. I think about how special it was that we were able to play and really how lucky we were."

"Our country had a kink in the armor,"Jump said. "Pride and banding together became the theme. I remember playing on that Friday night and feeling this is more than a football game. This was more than just Wellington vs. Midview. This was for America. We were playing for freedom, pride, and a sense of toughness. All I could think of then (and now) is, 'I don't want to ever experience something like that again.'"

Where are they now?

Dan Gundert went on to play basketball at Baldwin-Wallace University and is now the head basketball coach at his alma mater of Wellington High School.

Jeff Jump is now the athletic director at Columbia High School.

Matt Stoll stepped down as head coach of Wellington in 2013 after 24 seasons. His 2001 team did win the Lorain County Conference and advanced to the Division V playoffs for the second straight season. He is enjoying his retirement, which includes occasionally playing golf with Gundert. 

Bill Albright also retired at the end of the 2013 season after 28 years at the helm of the Middies. The 2001 Midview team reeled off six straight wins after the loss to Wellington, but missed out on a postseason berth. In June of 2021, Albright was inducted into the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He is currently working as an assistant coach at Columbia High School under Jason Ward, who played for Albright at Midview.

Editor's Note: We were not able to find any photos of the Midview-Wellington 2001 game for this story. If you have any to share, please email ddenatale@wkyc.com.

Editor's Note, Part II: Jim Donovan and Dave 'Dino' DeNatale talked about covering sports after 9/11 during a previous episode of the "Donovan Live Postgame Show." Watch below:

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