Golfing near ground zero: Ball State Men’s Golf head coach and former golfers reflect on visiting Manhattan a month after 9/11 attacks

<p>Nathan Vannatter (left), Mike Fleck (middle) and Lance Scholl (right) stand next to a police car near the site of where two planes crashed into the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001. <strong>Nathan Vannatter, provided. <br/></strong><br/></p>

Nathan Vannatter (left), Mike Fleck (middle) and Lance Scholl (right) stand next to a police car near the site of where two planes crashed into the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001. Nathan Vannatter, provided.

It was Tuesday morning. Ball State Men’s Golf head coach Mike Fleck was driving to meet a friend who was doing embroidery work for his team. He was driving to a Hardee’s in Pendleton, Indiana, and he had Q95’s “The Bob & Tom Show” playing on his radio when, all of a sudden, the usual lighthearted show turned serious. 

An airplane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Fleck and his friend sat down to drink coffee, and they both were watching the television inside Hardee’s, shocked by what was on the screen. 

A few minutes passed before another plane hit the south tower. Fleck described what happened as “chaos.”

“That was one of those days where you remember where you were and what you were doing — it was that impactful,” Fleck said. “I just remember how the nature of the show had changed, that's kind of a comedic-type programming, and it got pretty serious and started talking about how the plane went into the tower, and everything was kind of coming in fast.”

One of Fleck’s golfers at the time, then-freshman and 2007 Ball State alumnus Lance Scholl, was in his dorm room in Noyer Complex when he got an email from a friend of his who asked if he saw what was going on. Scholl flipped on the TV.

“I was just in shock,” Scholl said, after the first plane hit. “When the second plane hit, that is when my instincts knew that we were under attack. I knew the chances of that happening were astronomical, but I remember calling my family and making sure everyone was OK. It was all just so shocking. My heart was just broken for those who lost their lives. It was a shocking and sobering day.”

Another one of Fleck’s golfers, then-senior and 2002 Ball State alumnus Nathan Vannatter, was in the Whitinger Business Building attending his trigonometry class. The TVs inside were turned on as everyone sat in shock, not knowing what was happening. Students eventually dispersed from the classroom to try to figure out what was going on — an experience, he said, “he will never forget.”

At the time, Fleck said his golfers were reaching out to him trying to understand what was happening, and he tried to be a good listener as their coach. Ultimately, though, he didn’t have much to say because he was in the same situation as everyone else.

“It was about just being a really good listener, also paying attention to their feelings and what they’re verbalizing to you,” Fleck said. “But, honestly, I was in the same boat as they were. We all wanted to know, ‘What's going on? Why is this happening? Are we going to be OK? Is our safety threatened?’”

About a month after Sept. 11, 2001, Fleck, Scholl and Vannatter were all going to get an opportunity to see ground zero, as they were scheduled to play golf in New York City at St. John’s University at the Quaker Ridge Golf Club. There were some initial feelings of uncertainty, Scholl said, as he and his teammates prepared to fly for the first time since 9/11. 

“There was some initial trepidation, but there was excitement,” Scholl said. “It was almost a privilege to go play in New York almost a month after the worst tragedy of our country’s history. Obviously, we got to play on a first-class golf course, but, of course, go and pay our respects.”

Scholl said everything from the airport experience was different. Airport security conducted full-body scans of passengers flying, and airplanes were almost empty with very little chatter. 

After arriving at the airport, Fleck and his golfers took the subway from White Plains, New York, to lower Manhattan —  an experience Vannatter said was “unique and unforgettable.” 

“Going to New York gave me a different take on things,” Vannatter said. “Landing in New York, there were guys with machine guns standing everywhere. Coming up those stairs, I couldn’t even fathom what it was like being there in the moment or even a few days after. It is something I will never forget, nor should the rest of the world.”

When they walked up the stairs from the subway station to the city streets, there was ash, rubble still on fire, flowers in memory of those who lost their lives, broken glass everywhere and a church still standing less than 100 yards from ground zero that looked as if it wasn’t even touched. 

Scholl, Vannatter and their teammates explored the city for a couple of hours. They could smell the wreckage and even got dust and ash on them from simply walking around. They also talked to some officers who were on the front lines of the attack. 

“They were really kind,” Scholl said. “They knew that we were just college kids viewing ground zero. They took some pictures and were kind of telling us where to go. It was a nice connection point that might have relieved some of their stress. I remember their kindness, but you could also tell how exhausted they were as well.”

Scholl said the exhaustion came from having to find bodies a month after the attack. The officers gave them a detailed account of the events of 9/11, which gave them a new perspective on the severity of the attacks.

“It was just heartbreaking,” Scholl said. “It was also touching, at the same time. It was probably the last time our country was so unified. It was unfortunate because it was the most massive tragedy our country experienced, but it was also awesome seeing the outpouring of support, the work [of] the police and firemen and others helping sort out the wreckage.”

The Cardinals still had a tournament to play, and despite having to lock in and focus, Vannatter said, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

“You still have to focus,” Vannatter said. “At that point, we were trained enough to go out and do what we do. It [was] just, at that point, there were a lot bigger things going on in the world than golf.”

Contact Ian Hansen with comments at or on Twitter @ianh_2.


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