Player’s father responded to ground zero 20 years ago

Twenty years after 9/11, East Carolina University’s home opener in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will bring extra significance for offensive lineman Sean Bailey.

Bailey’s dad Steve, whom ECU teammates call Big Steve, was a New York firefighter who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’m one of the fortunate ones. My hero came back to me,” Bailey said Tuesday after the Pirates’ weekly press conference in TowneBank Tower.

Bailey’s dad, mom and several friends will be at the ECU-South Carolina game on Saturday, soaking up the atmosphere and electricity of the first home game this season, providing an escape from the gravity of the day.

“I know it’s always a tough day for him, so to get the opportunity to kind of take his mind off it, I always try to take advantage of that,” Sean said. “I’m excited for him to get to be out here and watch some football, which is a huge connection we share.”

Steve also played college football — and right guard — at Kent State University.

ECU head football coach Mike Houston talks at the Pirates’ weekly press conference.

“My dad’s always been super supportive. I don’t think he’s missed a game in my six years here or any of my high school games.”

Sean’s playing in a final year of eligibility that was approved due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following a redshirt freshman year in 2016, Sean has started at right guard in three seasons. He has helped open running lanes for nine 100-yard rushing performances and has been in 13 contests with 400-plus yards of total offense, according to his Pirate football bio. He graduated in May with a health fitness specialist degree.

While every game is important, Saturday will be special, Sean said.

“Getting to play on September 11th is important to me. It’s nice to be able to kind of distract my dad from the past events of that day, with it being the 20th anniversary this year, it’s a really big deal to me personally, to my family, and I’m sure other first responders are looking forward to maybe being able to find an escape after paying their remembrance in the morning,” he said. “It’s nice being able to see a happy occasion, people coming together and enjoying themselves, and getting to express the freedoms that were under attack 20 years ago that we’re now able to hold so dear to our heart.”

It will be the second time that Sean has played on 9/11. The first was his senior year at Lambert High School, about an hour north of Atlanta, where Sean’s family moved in 2004 after his father retired.

While Sean was in high school, his father was diagnosed with cancer. Sean channeled the anger he felt from that diagnosis into working out in the gym every day “to put in the extra work to help me get to where I am.”

Looking back, 9/11 changed Sean’s entire life, he said.

“I don’t know if my family would have moved to Georgia if that day hadn’t happened, so that kind of shaped my life,” Sean said. “I probably wouldn’t have been as into football if I had stayed up north, where down south it’s more of a religion. I got bought in pretty early.”

Just being able to play football is a freedom that can’t be overlooked, said head football coach Mike Houston.

“I remind the kids constantly that this is something that we shouldn’t take for granted because there are so many places across the world where they don’t have the freedoms we have here in the United States,” Houston said. “To be able to play the sport, to be on the field in our stadium Saturday, it’s a blessing to be able to have fans back in the stands. It’s going to be a special day.”

Houston was a young high school coach and teacher on 9/11. He remembers a student coming into his classroom saying a plane hit one of the twin towers. The entire class watched the tragedy unfold on TV.

“It’s just one of the darkest days in the history of this country with so many innocent lives lost. So many heroes came out of that day, and the story of Sean’s dad being one of the first responders at ground zero, those are the heroes,” Houston said. “It’s a special day to remember those who lost their lives and those who sacrificed so much not only on that day but moving forward to give us the ability to play this game.”

Houston said he would talk with his players about the significance and history of 9/11, but his team will prepare for their opponent like they usually do. “I’ve got some inspiring stories from around that time that I’ve shared with teams over the years, so we’ll incorporate that,” Houston said. “At the end of the day, the focus for our kids has to be the game and the competition against South Carolina.”

Related: Never Forget

Game Day

Saturday’s football game will include special recognition of first responders and a halftime “Salute to Our Local Heroes” show by the Marching Pirates. Bill Clark Homes donated 6,000 game tickets to first responders. ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers will throw the coin toss before kickoff.

Workers prepare Dowdy-Ficklen’s field for Saturday’s home opener.