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.

Jeffrey Walz: He was now married with a 3-year-old son, so Jeffrey Walz didn't have the chance to go mountain-biking as often as he would have liked.

The next best thing was the two-hour ride he took to and from work. From his home in Tuckahoe, through Yonkers and the Bronx and into Manhattan, Walz regularly pedaled the 23 miles to his firehouse in the East Village.

His wife thought he was crazy. The guys at the firehouse thought he was crazy. It ate up four hours out of every day, and some of the neighborhoods he passed through were less than desirable. Yet the 37-year-old Walz still savored every minute of those rides.

"I think anybody's nuts to do that, but I just know he really enjoyed it," said Rani, Walz's wife. "You have to. When you have a car and you don't have to do it, you really must enjoy it."

Even when he wasn't riding to work, Walz would hop on the stationary bike or the Stairmaster at the firehouse whenever he had the chance. A firefighter's work is all legs, one of Walz's friends said, and Walz made sure he took care of his.

Even on Sept. 11, that was apparent. When Ladder 9 was called into the World Trade Center, Walz climbed 31 floors of Tower 1 before being told to come back down. The last time he was seen alive, he had made it down to the 11th floor. Eight firefighters from his house went into the tower that day; Walz was one of three who never made it out.

They called Walz the "Guru" because he seemed to know a little about everything. He was studying to be a lieutenant. He did electrical engineering work on the side. He could spout arcane facts about his beloved Mets and Giants.

"He was just an overall smart guy," said Gary Nyboro, a fellow firefighter.

Smart enough, it seemed, to be able to appreciate the simple pleasure of riding his bike to work.

"Between you and me, I thought he was insane," Nyboro said. "But he liked the exercise. When you're going to and from work, it gives you some time to relax."