The memory is fairly vivid for New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton.
On this morning 15 years ago, he was the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants, fresh off a season-opening road game in Denver, a 31-20 loss to the Broncos at Denver's new stadium, Invesco Field.
Likely, that was the last bit of normalcy about that morning. Because shortly after the Giants landed back home, the Sept. 11 attacks were launched. The series of four attacks coordinated by Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda targeted, in part, the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Now, with the 50th season in Saints franchise history set to begin today against the Raiders in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Payton said that the date, naturally, continues to be a significant one for him personally.
"We played Monday night at Denver, traveled through the night and whenever you're coming back West to East – I'm going to say we got into Newark (N.J.) airport 6:30, 7 a.m.," he said. "And the plane that went down in Pittsburgh (a thwarted attack; the plane was overtaken by passengers and crashed without striking its intended target) was gated right next to our plane we later found out.
"Typically, our itinerary in New York would take us from the airport on buses to Giants Stadium, the players would go home and the coaches kind of went in, got coffee and we would start on the next week's gameplan. We were preparing to play Green Bay. Those games would be canceled later in the week.
"I don't know how far Giants Stadium is from where the buildings were – I want to say probably seven or eight miles, maybe less. So we were game-planning and saw it a lot like everyone else, on TV. You could go up to the top of Giants Stadium and kind of look out across the river and see the smoke. My recollection, I'm going to say for a good month, is as we practiced we saw smoke from that area."
There are more indelible images for Payton, who spent four seasons (1999-2002) with the Giants.
"That evening, which was Tuesday, Giants Stadium had a park-and-ride parking lot, so a lot of commuters from Jersey would park there and get on a bus and go into Manhattan," he said. "And I remember leaving that night, 10:30, and just seeing a ton more cars than you normally would see in that parking lot, and a lot of people right on the highway coming out of the city on foot, walking.
"I would say that that, obviously, hit all of us. There wasn't someone we didn't know or lived in a neighborhood that wasn't directly affected somehow by that. When you really understand the amount of people that worked in those two towers – those were like cities. So on that day many people weren't in the city that normally would be, and there were a number of people that would never be there, but were that day. That was, regrettably, a moment you remember. That was, when you say 'close to home,' it was right there for all of us.
"Those type of events change you forever. It was tough because you were so surprised and so shocked by the planning and the timing of it all. You felt somewhat vulnerable. That brought that team closer together, I remember."
The Giants finished 7-9 that season, 5-3 at home. Their first victory of the season – their second consecutive road game – was significant because it was the first game they played after the attacks, on Sept. 23.
"The games were canceled later in the week and the following week, we played at Kansas City, which was kind of a focal point for the league that weekend," Payton said. "And it's one few times, if ever, you play at Kansas City where the crowd actually cheered when you were introduced. It just touched so many people there."
The collaboration of the recollection of the attacks, reconstruction and patriotism give Payton a special feeling prior to games, during the national anthem.
"I think (the national anthem) means something every time, and yet, I always reflect back on that weekend and a handful of different events that took place," he said. "I can recall a season ticket holder that left a voicemail on (Giants general manager) Ernie Accorsi's line.
"He worked in the buildings and his wife had gotten him tickets to the Broncos game, and only because he was a Giants fan, he wasn't at work that next Tuesday. He was getting ready to fly back from Denver. On that team, in that neighborhood, in that city, in that region, I think everyone was affected one way or another.
"Being there four years and working there, there's always a spot in your heart for not only that organization, but that city.
"It's an event that changed our country in a lot of ways."