Many of those who died Sept. 11 were amateur athletes

(Original publication: Oct. 15, 2001)

A sentiment sometimes heard these days is that sports have become irrelevant. You can't take games too seriously when so many people have been forced to confront the realities of death.

But if you listened to the eulogies and read the obituaries in the weeks following Sept. 11, you would have found many examples of victims who weren't simply firefighters and financial analysts, mothers and fathers. They also were left wings and defensive backs, scratch golfers and cyclists.

Sometimes it's easy to forget they were not brittle figures, but often vibrant people in the prime of their lives. One day they were shooting even-par or scoring a goal, the next they were gone.

How people lived is ultimately more important than how they died. For many of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorism, athletics helped define their lives. To them, and so many others, sports were never irrelevant.

Tom Foley:

It was too difficult not to bust his chops. Some people may have congratulated Tom Foley when he was included among People magazine's 100 Most Eligible Bachelors in July 2000. His teammates on the New York Fire Department football team only roasted him.

"Are you kidding me?" former teammate Neil Walsh said of Foley, a West Nyack native. "He took a beating on all that."

Behind every joke, though, was a hint of envy. The 32-year-old Foley, who worked out of Rescue 3 in the Bronx, never lacked female admirers, and he never had to worry about earning the respect of his fellow firefighters.

"If he wasn't playing softball or football, he was hunting or fishing or riding (mechanical) bulls," said George Drescher, who served alongside Foley in the West Nyack Volunteer Fire Department. "And he did all of it well."

The 5-foot-9 Foley played football at Clarkstown South and Westchester Community College, then continued as a defensive back with the FDNY team, which played games all over the country. It was there, despite his relatively small frame, that he made a lasting impression on his teammates.

"He wasn't a big guy, but he played like he was 6-foot-7, 300 pounds," Walsh said. "He brought everything that he had. We were just all shocked by the way he could hit."

On the night of Sept. 10, Foley and Walsh saw each other at a fire and talked about planning a trip to go hunting upstate in Delaware County. The next day, Foley was one of seven FDNY football players killed at the World Trade Center.

"He said he was going to call me in the morning," Walsh said. "But that morning turned out to be one of the worst days of all of our lives."