It was eighth grade math class and Muhammad Wilkerson remembers that Tuesday morning 10 years ago all too well. It was a typical class for Wilkerson until an announcement was made over the loudspeakers.
Wilkerson was learning for the first time about the terrorist attacks taking place on that day, Sept. 11.
His hometown in Union County, N.J. is located 20 odd miles from the site where the World Trade Center towers used to stand and Wilkerson remembers sitting at his desk, watching on television as the devastation unfolded. Three members of the Jets lived in New Jersey at that time and Wilkerson was the closest of them all. He didn’t lose any family or friends on that day, but the senselessness of it all is still something the defensive end can’t wrap his arms around.
“Just being here, near New York, I mean, Jersey is close, it just really sort of shook you,” Wilkerson told Metro. “It was really disturbing news. It didn’t make sense then; it doesn’t make any more sense now to tell you the truth.”
Wilkerson sat in school, watching the events unfold. On the cusp of being a teenager, it didn’t make sense what he was seeing and like the rest of the nation, he wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. Parents were rushing to school to pick up classmates as everyone cautiously waited to see what was the next piece of news to break.
Later that night, Wilkerson drew strength from his parents after the confusion of the day.
“My parents were talking to me, telling me to have faith, to keep my faith central and strong,” Wilkerson said. “It saddened me that day, to see so many people go to work and lose their lives, to see all the devastation.”
To the south, one of Wilkerson’s future teammates was going through similar emotions.
In Camden County, in the tiny town of Sicklerville, N.J., Shonn Greene was then a sophomore in high school as he too watched the aftermath of the attacks from school. Teachers rolled televisions to the front of the classroom for the students to watch and Greene sat there, transfixed as smoke poured from buildings and eventually, he saw the Twin Towers fall.
Greene remembers the thoughts and his emotions of fear to this day. Being in South Jersey, he didn’t know much about the Twin Towers at the time, but was still shocked at what he was watching.
“I didn’t understand it, why people would do that to other people but as I watched, I learned more about it,” Greene said. “It was sad to see so many people die there that day and it is something I still just can’t fully understand.”
It is a somber mood that translates to the rest of the team as the team works its way towards Sunday’s home opener against the Cowboys, played on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Last week, the Jets visited Ground Zero following an event in New York City, and the players had the chance to absorb the site and the monumental loss of life.
“It was special, because I think for a guy like me who was on the West Coast at the time, I really didn’t get a chance to see it up close. When you go there, there’s a certain aura that you have when you stand there and you just imagine that day and just the chaos and everything that so many families and people went through,” running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. “It just gave you that feeling that you’re special. You’re lucky to be standing on that spot but at the same time you’re special because you get a chance to do something that a lot of people don’t get to do. But it’s very humbling at the same time.”
Tomlinson’s remarks echo a similar sentiment to what his teammates have been saying, but Sunday means a bit more for the Jersey boys on the Jets.
After all, in the days and weeks following the attacks, the region was transfixed by the search and recovery efforts at Ground Zero. Headlines every day provided updated death tolls and stories of lives found and those lost. Wilkerson said his aunt, who works in New York City, lost friends in the terrorist attack.
Much like his head coach, who on Monday said the significance of the game “is stronger than any game I’ve ever felt,” Wilkerson will play with some extra motivation on Sunday night.
“For me, I just want to go out there and play – play as if I was playing for all the people who lost loved ones that day,” Wilkerson said. “That’s how I want to play.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.