White ash and smoke. Those are the details that San Diego Chargers nose tackle Sean Lissemore remembers most vividly.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Lissemore, a graduate of William & Mary, was a freshman in high school. He was in gym class at New Jersey’s Dumont High School when news of the worst terrorist attack on American soil began to circulate. It seemed like a nightmare, a bizarre prank or a vicious rumor.
Something so awful couldn’t happen on a day so special — it was Lissemore’s 14th birthday.
“It wasn’t until I got to home room and my history teacher turned on the radio,” Lissemore said. “After that, it sunk in that it was definitely real.”
Birthday forgotten, Lissemore anxiously waited until lunchtime, when he was able to go home. His father William was in Manhattan that day.
“A lot of people were really concerned about family members because we were so close to New York City,” said Lissemore, whose high school was located across the Hudson River, a mere 20 miles from the southern tip of Manhattan Island. “I got a hold of my Dad and he was doing OK, but wasn’t too far from Ground Zero. But he told me he was getting out of there.”
Lissemore returned to school and went to the strangest football practice he can remember — punctuated by fighter jets flying overhead. His dad didn’t return home until after 9 p.m. and though Lissemore’s family briefly celebrated his birthday, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, had a profound effect.
“It’s a tough situation, you know, you want to celebrate your birthday,” said Lissemore, who will do just that with a quiet meal with family and friends on Friday, “but you don’t want to be selfish. There’s a bigger thing going on there. But as an American, I don’t want to let these terrorists take away things that belong to me. I still celebrate my birthday, but it’s not the same.”
As the days after that fateful Sept. 11 unfolded, there were constant reminders of the horror. William, who worked in telecommunications, toiled with his company at the crash site, which was under a foot of white ash at the outset. William’s group set up the first, and for weeks, only, phone lines in and out of the World Trade Center site.
The experience led William to join a local volunteer fire department. And though he didn’t share many of the details of his experience during that time with his family, he came home with white ash on his boots day after day and that, Lissemore said, “kind of stuck with me.”
Around New York and New Jersey, the World Trade Center Towers were familiar landmarks. Lissemore remembers visiting the towers as a kid and being awed at their size. In the year following the attack, he was awed instead by the constant stream of smoke visible miles from the site.
Lissemore has since been back to Ground Zero.
“I remember the last time I was in the World Trade Center and being amazed at how big the place was,” he said. “And being back there and seeing what it was reduced to. It’s like people who grew up with Pearl Harbor, you have a different perspective if you experienced it.”
In 2011, on his 24th birthday, Lissemore, then with the Dallas Cowboys, played in a game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The game honored the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with remembrances, including the playing of Taps before kickoff, a bagpipe tribute and the unfurling of a flag that covered the entire field.
“It was one of my first real active games for the Cowboys,” Lissemore said. “It was pretty cool, with (military) jets flying overhead. It was a pretty emotional experience.”
This Sept. 11 will be Lissemore’s sixth as a professional football player after being drafted in the seventh round by the Cowboys in 2010. He played three seasons for Dallas before it switched to a 4-3 defense and sent him to the Chargers for a draft pick.
At William & Mary, Lissemore was voted team captain his senior season. He also made the all-Colonial Athletic Association’s first team and was selected an All-American by multiple organizations.
Fourteen years after the attacks, every birthday is a mess of emotions. It is, he said, as much about being grateful for life in general as celebrating his life in particular.
“It’s a day to reflect on what you have and being lucky to be an American,” Lissemore said. “When I show my I.D. to someone, they are like, ‘Jesus, what a day to be born.’ It’s a day when I always reflect on that day.
“That day felt just like any other day and then you realize how lucky you are to be alive and go to work. That’s what I always think of on this day.”