Jim Ross remembers the first SmackDown after 9/11
Sept. 11, 2001, still feels like a blur to me. I wish it were simply a bad, re-occurring dream, but unfortunately it isn’t.
The WWE team was staying in a Houston hotel after Raw in San Antonio and preparing for the taping of SmackDown that evening in H-Town. We had a 7:45 a.m. production meeting scheduled in WWE Chairman Vince McMahon’s suite to finalize our game plan for the SmackDown taping that, in those days, aired on Thursday night. The usual suspects would be in that meeting, including members of the creative team and yours truly.
Everyone was on time — never keep The Chairman waiting — the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and ready to start another long day of TV production. I remember that Vince’s room service cart was sitting in the living room area of his suite and while he was in the bedroom/bathroom area, I snuck a piece of uneaten toast. I had decided to get an extra 30 minutes of sleep after the live Raw the night before instead of ordering breakfast.
Vince, from his bedroom, yelled for us to turn on the television. Someone did and we all started witnessing the most tragic incident affecting our nation any of us could ever imagine. Honestly, it was much worse than I could ever fathom.
As we all sat together in silence, which, for this group, was highly unusual, we saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. My mind wanted me to think it was a replay of the first crash. It wasn’t.
Obviously, we all knew that there would be no SmackDown TV taping that night in Houston as the tragedy presented many more pressing issues, questions and concerns than producing a TV program.
We had members of our team that had family living in and around NYC. We actually had folks working at WWE HQ who had family that worked in the World Trade Center.
My wife had just been in NYC the evening before attending a Michael Jackson concert but was, luckily, back at our home in Connecticut safe and sound while being a short drive from chaos and despair.
That day, I witnessed the most amazing display of leadership by WWE Chairman Vince McMahon that one could imagine. While uncertainty, shock and the unknown engulfed us, Vince McMahon stood strong and tall to rally his troops while emotionally addressing the tragedy of 9/11 and deciding on our plan to help America begin healing.
Mr. McMahon worked the telephones, speaking with everyone from the Governor of Texas to the Mayor of Houston, among many others, with the idea to produce SmackDown live from Houston on Thursday night. It would be the first public assembly of its kind in our country since the tragedy.
“Tonight, the spirit of America lives here in Houston, Texas,” McMahon stated from center ring as he opened the broadcast that was hosted by Paul Heyman and me. It was as emotional and as unique a broadcast as I was ever challenged with in my career and I’ve done a few. Vince McMahon’s leadership was truly an inspiration to me. I think I can speak for Paul Heyman, if I dare, in that regard, as well. At that time, Heyman and I were not a part of the SmackDown broadcast team, so getting the announcing nod that night was an amazing honor and of which I will forever be indebted to WWE’s Chairman of the Board.
I can’t remember a single bout that was held that night.
Here’s what I do recall:
Lilian Garcia’s stirring rendition of our National Anthem. Bone chilling.
Every WWE Superstar — friends and foes alike — coming to the stage at the beginning of the night.
Retired Naval Lt. Commander and Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient Michael Thornton sitting at ringside. It was this American hero who was so instrumental in getting Houston’s city fathers to allow the event to take place.
The amazing fans of Houston for packing the arena with amazing emotion and patriotism.
By the time that we went on the air Thursday night, I think that I can safely say that few of us, if any, had more than a few hours sleep in 72 hours. However, the atmosphere Thursday night, Sept. 13, 2001, in Houston was the most uniquely significant adrenaline rush that I’ve ever experienced.
I was proud to be part of the WWE team — and even prouder to be an American.