The Washington Post
For one Terp, honoring 9/11 victims is personal
Every spring, Anthony Pecorella and his family attended a football game in Brooklyn. A young Pecorella, whose head reached his dad’s hip, wore a jersey that matched his father’s No. 71 and stood with him for the coin toss. For a few years after his dad retired from the semiprofessional team, he still played in this annual game against the New York City Fire Department because of what it meant. The family never missed this game, even once Pecorella’s dad, also named Anthony, migrated to the stands to watch with the small crowd. And as Pecorella grew up, he learned why this game mattered so much to his dad and everyone else.
As a kid on Long Island, Pecorella never needed a formal lesson about what happened close to home Sept. 11, 2001, a few months after he was born. His parents didn’t try to hide it from Pecorella or his twin sister, Alessia. The painful toll of loss touched various aspects of life throughout his community — inside elementary school classrooms, during conversations when his dad talked about the friends who died and always at this charity football game, known as the Daniel Suhr game, which prompted Pecorella to ask about the man whom they gathered to honor each April.
Pecorella remembers his education about 9/11 beginning with his dad explaining that “it was a very bad day, and bad people did a bad thing.” Now, as a 20-year-old punter at the University of Maryland, he can tell the full story: His dad, a former offensive lineman at Hofstra, played for the Brooklyn Mariners for two decades. On that team, he met Suhr, a firefighter who was also a linebacker for the FDNY team, and they became close friends. On 9/11, when his crew reached the World Trade Center, a person who either fell or jumped from the building struck Suhr, and he was the first firefighter to die that day.
So Pecorella grew up hearing about Suhr and Courtney Walcott, another teammate of his dad’s who died. Walcott worked in the twin towers, and according to the stories Pecorella’s dad heard from his friend’s family, Walcott stayed to look for others, and nobody saw him again. Pecorella’s uncle, Joseph, a firefighter, had a plumbing job in the Hamptons that morning. By the time he reached the World Trade Center, the towers had collapsed. He worked on the pile with the rescue and recovery effort for weeks straight, sleeping in nearby churches.
“Everyone in New York, it’s not about if they have a story,” Pecorella said. “It’s how many stories they know.”
Now 250 miles from home and the resident New Yorker in the Terrapins’ football facility, Pecorella wanted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks Saturday when Maryland plays Howard. Pecorella’s idea was to create an original decal, and his roommate at the time, offensive lineman Marcus Finger, has talent in graphic design.
Pecorella approached Kevin Glover, the director of player development, with the idea and received approval from Coach Michael Locksley. Pecorella, Finger and Maryland’s marketing team landed on the final design for the decal that both teams will wear this weekend. Pecorella crafted the written message: “Never forget the bravery & courage of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Finger, who often makes recruiting graphics for fun, spent a few weeks working in a sketchbook before creating the digital image. He wanted to incorporate all of the right pieces — the towers, the Pentagon, the flight numbers, an American flag and the message.
The marketing team had the idea to place the image in the shape of a pentagon, representing the building in Arlington struck by one of the four hijacked planes.
“It was a group effort,” Pecorella said, “and it came out perfect.”
Finger, who grew up in Florida, was roommates with Pecorella last year, and around the Fourth of July, the two players took a train to New York so Finger could see the city for the first time. They ate at Pecorella’s go-to pizza place, John’s of Bleecker Street, and they visited the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which Pecorella calls his “favorite part of Manhattan, and it’s not even close.” It’s a place that reminds him that thousands of others have endured grief like his dad. When Pecorella later asked Finger whether he would design the helmet decal, Finger remembered this trip and knew how much it meant to his teammate.
“It started with an idea, an experience that I had up in New York that really gave me the appreciation for it,” said Finger, who also designed a decal the team wore last season in support of social justice. “That’s just what I love doing — creating an idea, putting it down and making it happen.”
Locksley talked with his players this week about how the Maryland program experienced 9/11. He was a young assistant coach in College Park, and the staff heard the news while preparing for a game against West Virginia, which was eventually postponed. The players on his 2021 team are too young to remember that day. They have heard stories from their parents and learned about the events at school. But Pecorella knows the significance of the anniversary is magnified in New York because many classmates there have stories of loss or thank lucky coincidences that kept loved ones away from the World Trade Center that morning.
Pecorella’s dad worked in Midtown a few miles from the towers, and he had just begun his delayed paternity leave. He watched the New York Giants play the Denver Broncos the night before — a game he says may have spared the lives of some tired, late-arriving New Yorkers — so he was asleep when his wife called Tuesday morning. She had taken the twins to her parents’ house in Connecticut and rushed back to Long Island so they could be together.
That morning, “everybody was calling everybody to see who’s accounted for,” Pecorella’s dad said. He heard of Suhr’s death that day, and he knew Walcott was missing.
For as long as he can remember, Pecorella heard the stories about his dad’s friends, the funerals and his uncle’s work at Ground Zero. He learns more each year. At the 2019 game dedicated to Suhr, the final edition because the Mariners folded, Pecorella suited up with his dad against the FDNY team. Now there’s another picture of the father and son wearing matching jerseys and standing next to each other during the coin toss.
His dad is reading a book about Suhr, and Pecorella wants to borrow it when he’s done. About a week ago, his dad had to put the book down once he reached the part where his friend died. He says he will finish reading it soon.
For kids such as Pecorella who grow up in New York or have family ties to 9/11, the significance of the day is instilled in them early on. Others in this generation of college students don’t have those connections, but they can understand, too. Pecorella’s dad saw how Finger embraced his trip to the memorial, and now his son carries the empathy forward into Maryland’s football program.
“That inspires you,” Pecorella’s dad said. “To see the kids who know, know. The kids who don’t know, they’re willing to learn.”