When the national anthem plays before Sunday’s season opener between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, offensive lineman Eric Olsen, whom the Redskins signed to the practice squad this week, expects to get choked up.
He always does. For the last 10 years, every time Olsen has heard the national anthem, his mind takes him back to 9/11, and the memories of how close he came to losing his father on that day.
Andy Olsen was a New York City firefighter, and responded to Ground Zero shortly after the second tower fell.
“Yeah, my dad actually responded,” says the 6-foot-4, 306-pound Olsen. “On Sept. 8th, he was promoted and the way it works in FDNY, you have two weeks of officer training, so he was out at Fort Totten in Queens. When the towers got hit, they called everybody in, all hands on deck. He got the call, and he had to head all the way to Staten Island to get his equipment.
“Basically, it saved his life, him having to make that drive. Queens to Staten Island is pretty far, and then having to make that drive back to Manhattan. He got in after the second tower fell, but yeah, after that, it was crazy for our family.”
Olsen remembers getting pulled out of school, and his grandmother was there to pick him up. She told him that his mother, Joanne -- an emergency room nurse -- had been called into work, and that his father was headed to what she called, “the fires at the Twin Towers.”
The Olsens endured a stressful next day-and-a-half. Joanne Olsen came home from work, but the family had no idea about Andy Olsen’s status.
“We were hearing about cops and firefighters getting trapped, cell phones weren’t working,” Eric Olsen said. “We didn’t know what was going on. He came home like 36 hours later.
“It was real tough for our family and for him,” recalls Olsen, whose father learned that the firefighter that took his place following his promotion was killed during one of the tower collapses. “He saw crazy, crazy stuff. He lost a lot of friends, probably went to about 50 funerals: people he grew up with, guys from our neighborhood, guys he played softball with, guys he worked in the firehouse with. It was crazy. He had a lot of survivors guilt, and he’s been through a lot of post-traumatic stress and stuff.
“He uncovered one of his old firetrucks while he was digging,” Olsen continued. “A lot of guys didn’t survive, and the stuff he saw, it was like a war zone down there. Now the 10th anniversary and all the images are starting to come out on TV again.”
Wanting to display the permanent marks that the terrorist attacks left on him internally, Olsen in 2008 got a large tattoo with the image of the Twin Towers that begins at his left shoulder and stretches to just above his elbow. On the other arm, in addition to his family crest and Notre Dame’s mascot, Olsen has an image of a firefighter with an angel crying on his shoulder.
“I never forget where I came from,” Olsen said when asked what motivated him to get his tattoo.
Olsen played center at Notre Dame and served as team captain for the Fighting Irish. He was drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 draft by Denver, but got released this preseason.
Still bursting with pride for his father, Olsen is now hoping to return the favor and establish himself in the NFL.
“Unfortunately Denver released me and went another direction,” Olsen said. “For some reason, I got another chance. The Redskins signed me and I’m on practice squad, but I’m happy to have a job and I’m just trying to take it one day at a time, show them I belong in this league and work my way back up to the 53-man roster.”
As a practice squad player, Olsen won’t play or even dress for Sunday’s game. He’ll instead watch the game from a suite. But he’ll still count the national anthem as a special moment, just as he always does.
“I always get choked up and it brings tears to my eyes,” Olsen said. “This time it’s going to be Sept. 11th, so it’ll be mixed emotions thinking of the loss that friends and their families suffered. And thinking of New York City, it’s still going strong, and the guys that were able to survive are still going strong.”