More than 15 years ago, like many around the nation, Joe Whalen was in shock, watching the Twin Towers in New York become a target of terrorism. He watched along with the nation as those buildings faltered and collapsed, causing indescribable pain and anguish amidst the loss of many lives.
But unlike most people Whalen could have easily been in the midst of that chaos. His story is one of a moment in time changing the arc of his career, sending him on a new path away from the catastrophe that claimed so many lives that day.
Whalen lost many dear friends on that day, and it is something he has had to live with ever since.
“It’s something I’ll never get over,” Whalen said of the terrorist attack that struck New York’s Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. “There were times when I thought about it every day. Now I don’t think about it as much as I used to, but it is still a part of me.”
That was more than 15 years ago, and yet those memories are firmly entrenched in his memories, although he wishes they were not.
He said he had trouble attending memorials of people he knew, people whose remains were never found in the rubble. He noted that he had two friends, and when the all-clear sign was given, one chose to go back upstairs while the other did not. That friend who went back up perished that day.
Another friend volunteered to go down to let a visitor into building number two moments before the attack because he didn’t want his nine-month pregnant secretary to have to go downstairs to do it. He lived while the secretary did not.
For a long time Whalen had trouble watching airplanes come in and bank as pictures of the plane ramming the building haunted him.
Whalen doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it and said there are countless stories like his, plus many more stories of incredible inspiration and self-sacrifice that are far greater than his story. Yet at the same time he admits that the calamity of Sept. 11, 2001, will forever be a part of his life, whether he wants it to be or not.
The question of “why me?” is one that has crossed his mind many times. He has wondered why he was spared while many of his friends perished in that terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. What has made his life so worthy of living while his friends’ lives ended on that rueful day?
How does one deal with the aftermath of such a horrifying disaster, one that is filled with doubt and conflict?
“It’s a tough thing, and something you can never prepare for,” Whalen said of the calamity of 9-11. “There is no grief counseling that can do justice to that. I literally had a phone book that I had to throw out because of all of the friends I had lost whose names were in it. You watch on TV, and guys you know are jumping out of buildings. Those guys had to decide, do they burn or do they jump? I couldn’t imagine.”
Yet here is Whalen today, still alive after having left his job in the Twin Towers as a commodities broker just a few short weeks before the attacks took place.
And his reason for leaving his commodities job was an article written by Gary Smith for Sports Illustrated: the story of Perry Reese, Jr., a square peg in a round hole who ultimately became a perfect fit.
Whalen said his passion for coaching full-time was rekindled by the story of Amish Country’s black coach who had worked hard to overcome racial prejudice, a man who had somehow managed to endear himself to a community when many thought he would never be accepted, a coach who brought passion and conviction to a basketball program and made a team that, much like their head coach, overcame a great deal to win a state championship.
Reese’s journey and ultimately his death from a brain tumor in 2000 wrote a script that helped Whalen realize that his passion was for coaching and teaching young people that value and hard work through basketball is what he wanted in life. The story of coach Reese had literally saved Whalen’s life.
Whalen said that after reading the story and getting back into basketball, he desired the opportunity to coach some day at Classic in the Country, a high school girls basketball showcase that took place in the gymnasium named after Reese.
A chance meeting with Hiland Lady Hawks assistant coach David Borter at the “Best of Maryland” tournament created a bond, and his relationship with Borter and Hiland head coach Dave Schlabach grew into something special because of the connection with Reese.
That wish came to fruition this year when his St. Rose Purple Roses from New Jersey played and lost to Ohio powerhouse Lakota West in this year’s CitC. While he hated losing, Whalen said the experience was everything he thought it would be.
It was another moment in the healing process of dealing with the ongoing aftermath of catastrophe.
Every day the horror of that day grows faintly dimmer, although it will never disappear.
Whalen said he gradually began to hear other stories of people who had been fortunate enough to miss the horror of the attacks by far less time than he had. A missed flight, a canceled trip due to illness or any other number of stories about people who would have and should have been in those buildings on that fateful day showed him that he wasn’t alone in his grief and guilt. Others also were dealing with those same emotions.
“It’s not just me that has to deal with those feelings. It is a lot of other people,” Whalen said. “It’s tough. You wonder why sometimes that your friends were taken.”
One way Whalen has dealt with the death of friends and colleagues over the years is to turn to his faith. A devout Roman Catholic, Whalen said relying on God has helped him move beyond the grief in ways that people can’t.
“I leaned heavily on my faith, and my family was a crucial part of my willingness to get past it,” Whalen said. “It never challenged my faith.”
Whalen added that in a somewhat ironic twist of fate, his son Tim served in the military and actually guarded terrorists at Guantanamo Bay who had links with those who helped perpetrate that infamous day of attacks.
For people here in Ohio who are far removed from the burning embers, the clouds of smoke and the destruction that came as a result of the 9-11 attacks, it is easy to say that they sympathize and empathize with those who were there and those who lost friends and loved ones. But to have been so closely intertwined with the events of that day and to be connected to so many who were directly affected by the heinous attacks, that is something that most people can never truly understand, having not lived through the horror.
For Joe Whalen, a story of hope, a timely move and a game have brought him through the fire to where he is today.