This article was originally published on Sept. 11, 2011.
SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — The day the world changed, their tiny corner of it shook.
The dozen or so Shanksville-Stonycreek High students who now play football for a combined-school team were first and second graders when, on 9/11/01, United Flight 93 ended at an abandoned strip mine just two miles away.
"We were there in Mrs. Dunn's room," said junior tackle Ben Duppstadt, gesturing to a point down the long highway at his school, which then as now houses kindergartners through 12th graders. "We could hear an explosion. The whole room shook. We weren't really sure what it was. Mrs. Dunn said if it happened again we should all get beneath our desks. "
They didn't have to hide then, and they haven't hid from the reality since. These Shanksville teenagers have grown up facing the concept — though perhaps never quite comprehending it — that good and evil collided in their backyard.
"People always ask me if 9/11 changed this town, this school," said principal Sam Romesberg. "And I tell them it really hasn't. These are the children of resilient farm people. They're very aware that death is a part of life. "
Duppstadt and his teammates are upperclassmen now. In some ways, the terrible day that put this farm town on the map was an eternity ago. And yet, on days like Friday, when the grandparents of one of the doomed passengers visited, the wound still seems fresh and raw.
America's great tragedy will be linked forever to their hometown, diminishing and enhancing its reputation.
Junior Cody Brant, a lineman, said outsiders often react oddly when he mentions where he's from.
"You mention Shanksville and some people, their eyes get real wide," he said. "But others, unless you remind them about what happened here, never heard of the place. "
Because of the constant consolidations necessary to prop up these fading districts of rural Pennsylvania, the footballers from Shanksville-Stonycreek, which has 31 seniors, play for the neighboring Shade-Central City Panthers.
Their other-school teammates, they said, know exactly where they're from but never raise the subject of 9/11.
"We're just kids," said fullback Dylan Glessnar. "We've got all kinds of other things on our minds. "
But 9/11 is never far away. Duppstadt's mother sells memorabilia of the event in her grocery store a few blocks from the school. American flag banners bearing the town's name wave from telephone poles. Street signs are red, white and blue. And a flag-draped cross forged from World Trade Center girders stands proudly and solemnly outside the firehouse.
"We wish it never happened," said Duppstadt, "but it did put Shanksville on the map. "
For these small-town athletes, the last day of school before President Obama was to visit the nearby crash site on the 10th anniversary of that national tragedy would be a long one.
It would also be a wet one. A persistent misty rain fell like unstoppable tears. At some points along Route 160 water bubbled out of the roadways and tumbled down the hillsides like miniature Niagara Falls.
For the Shanksville players, the school day had begun like every other in their young lives. En route to the building — a patchwork of structures dating back to 1929 — they walked or rode beside the swollen Stony Creek.
A Pittsburgh TV station's satellite truck clogged Main Street, just across from Ida's General Store. Around the corner, homeowners had commemorated the awful anniversary with rows of American flags in their compact front yards.
Arriving at school, they were met by more TV trucks, some parked near the band shell in an adjacent picnic grove.
In that grove stood a totem, a post-9/11 gift from a tribe of native Hawaiians who, like so many Americans, wanted to reach out to Shanksville's children. The wooden statue depicts a bear protectively shielding two small children from a danger that, in this place, is no mere abstraction.
They passed a 9/11 memorial rock garden. A fence behind the school was decorated with gold stars bearing the names of each perished passenger. Scattered among them were flags that bore the outlines of Shanksville students' hands instead of stars and stripes.
Once inside, the uniform-clad football players were surrounded by fellow students wearing combinations of red, white, and blue to celebrate what their principal had designated as Patriot Day.
The day before, some players had participated in a Discovery Channel-sponsored teleconference with 9/11 family members and others with connections to the event.
"We've been swamped this week," said Tom McInroy, superintendent of the Shanksville-Stonycreek district. "After Osama bin Laden was killed we had crews here from Sweden, Brazil, all over the world. "
As on every Friday during football season, the players wore their blue-and-gold jerseys to school. It's not easy wearing the colors of a rival like Shade.
"We'd be a better team if some of the basketball players at the two schools would play football," said Duppstadt. "But we're such rivals with Shade in basketball that the guys won't play with each other. "
Shanksville combines with other schools for other sports. It hosts the rifle, tennis, and golf teams. And a few teams, boys' and girls' soccer, for example, are able to stand alone.
"But I'm afraid that, if anything, we're going to see more consolidation in the future," said Romesberg.
When the game began, the two teams, undersized and undermanned (Shade has 31 players on its roster), played as sloppily as the conditions. Except for a pregame moment of silence to honor Flight 93's 37 victims, the contest, which Shade-Central City won, 28-21, passed without mention of the tragedy.
The home team's band performed a medley of nearly unrecognizable tunes at halftime. Umbrella-topped parents watched the action intently. Teenaged spectators congregated near the snack bar, apparently uninterested in what was happening on the field at Panther Stadium.
Football wins are rare for the two-school team, stocked from a combined pool of barely 200 sophomores, juniors, and seniors. They were 2-7 a year ago and lost their 2011 opener, 38-0. Still, the victorious players were surprisingly subdued as they slopped through the mud afterward en route to the locker room. Perhaps Frank Guerra's words were still fresh in their heads.
On Friday morning, the school's 400 students had assembled to hear Guerra and his wife, Linda, visitors from North Carolina whose granddaughter, Deora Bodley, 20, had been the youngest of Flight 93's victims.
"She would have been a junior at Santa Clara [University]," Frank Guerra reminded them. "There was a grade school near the campus, and she would often go there to help the kids with their homework. They always wanted her to stay a little longer. "
The easily bored, tough-to-impress football players listened in rapt silence.
"Stuff like that," said Brant, the junior lineman, "is just so interesting to hear. "
When the dismissal bell finally rang, the Shanksville players gathered together in a hallway near the trophy case. Soon, they made their way up Route 160 to the soggy football field in Cairnbrook, 10 miles away.
They bowed their helmetless heads during the moment of silence. They played hard. They prodded their teammates. Some made eyes at the cheerleaders wearing old-style letter-sweaters.
Afterward, as they journeyed back to their homes in the rural darkness, they passed a herd of bison as well as several signs directing weekend visitors to the Flight 93 memorial.
None of them planned to attend.
"But that day," said Glessnar, "it's with us all the time. "
The rest of this football season will be played out. The school year will end and a new one will begin. Soon the students at Shanksville-Stonybrook High will have only second-hand memories of the day Flight 93 changed the town, changed the world.
And life will go on as it always has here.