EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The morning had dawned with somber stares and silence, church bells and bagpipes ringing through lower Manhattan.
That was the painful and purposeful remembrance of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was heartbreaking to witness, so many people clutching pictures of the dead, so many shared hugs among this awful fraternity.
A dozen hours and a half dozen miles away, over here in Jersey, this was the bookend to the day.
The National Football League is America's most popular entertainment. As vapid and meaningless as sports can be, it remains the place where Americans gather in their greatest numbers. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" was the highest-rated show of the fall season a year ago.
This was the Dallas Cowboys at the New York Jets, America's Team against the rising New York entry, capping a day of pain.
It worked. After remembering everything that was lost, of acknowledging the struggles the country still very much endures, it was time for some frivolity to go with the memories.
The attacks dominated the pregame scene.
A solo trumpet played with the New York skyline in the background. Football players took the field waving American flags. There was Robert De Niro, live on the Jumbotron and on NBC, speaking from Ground Zero.
They unfurled a 100-yard American flag on the field, and players stood side-by-side with local police and firefighters. President George W. Bush flipped the coin. The crowd chanted "USA, USA" almost as often as "J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets Jets."
This was a night to celebrate what wasn't taken, what still remains. It was a time to enjoy America's most popular game and the promise of a fresh season. It was time, for a couple hours anyway, to get lost in something else.
It was a job, an honor even, that wasn't lost on the participants.
"The significance of it, it's stronger than any game I've ever felt," Jets coach Rex Ryan said earlier this week. Ryan won a Super Bowl as a defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens. The past two years he led the Jets to the AFC Championship Game.
It was no match for this. Not here in New York.
"I feel more pressure on this game for whatever reason than any game I've ever coached," Ryan continued. "… I feel, I don't know, it's different, like a responsibility."
Balancing September 11 is a challenge for all Americans, but it's most acute here, where survivor's guilt still lingers and nearly everyone has a personal link to that day. A football game doesn't bring back the lost. A victory means nothing in the face of ruthless terrorism.
"Never forget" isn't just a motto on a T-shirt here; it's a way of life for many.
Yet so is this, not merely the game of football but the life that comes along with it.
If there was a shared lesson so many took from that awful morning 10 years ago, it's that time is precious. Nearly 3,000 fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, brothers and sisters were taken in an instant.
And so, as kids threw footballs around the parking lots surrounding MetLife Stadium, as steaks got grilled and beers got cracked and, most importantly, time got spent among families and friends, yes, in its own way, this was a September 11 memorial, too.
A decade later, this was normalcy. Football night in America. New Yorkers enjoying a brilliant moment of a life worth living.