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Terror hits home for coach
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Unflinching, unbending, always focused, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin was preparing the game plan when the horrific jolt came.
The World Trade Center had been hit by an airplane. His son, Tim, was trying to get out.
For the next 45 minutes, Coughlin was no longer a coach, but just another father, worried about a son who was trying to make his way out of the death trap.
This story had a happy ending. Tim Coughlin made it out alive.
Back to business on Wednesday, the no-nonsense coach tried to make things seem normal again. He marched down the long hallway at Alltel Stadium, made his customary 90-degree turn around the corner and briskly stepped behind the podium from which he addresses reporters three afternoons each week, at 12:15 p.m. sharp.
He didn't want the focus to be on his story, for fear it would overshadow the thousands of tragedies being played out in homes across America.
"Please don't single me out," he said. "How about America? Our country? Our personal story has a happy ending. I wish it could be that way for all Americans."
But the reporters insisted, and Coughlin talked about it the way he talks about most things -- in staccato sentences, short sound bites, his feet rocking back and forth as his hands grip the sides of the podium.
There was no wavering. There were no tears.
As Coughlin tells it, Tuesdays are normally the most important days for NFL coaching staffs. With the players off, these are the days the game plans are installed.
A creature of habit -- like most coaches -- Coughlin arrived at the stadium at the usual time, 5:45 a.m. A few hours later, he was in the coach's meeting room with his assistants, talking about the next opponent, the Chicago Bears.
Then, the routine of a normal Tuesday fell apart.
It began with an urgent call from his daughter, Keli.
"She said, 'Daddy, do you know what's going on?"' Coughlin said.
He didn't, so his daughter spelled it out.
"She said, 'Timmy's in the second tower,"' Coughlin said. "We didn't know anything, except the fact that the second tower hadn't been hit yet."
Tim Coughlin, a bond trader for Morgan Stanley who lives in Hoboken, N.J., began making his way downstairs as soon as the first plane slammed into the neighboring tower. The whole family was trying to contact him on his cell phone.
"At that point, we were extremely confused, and running the gamut of all the emotions that you do go through," Coughlin said.
Keli Coughlin said there were "about a million calls" between the Coughlins and Tim between the time the news hit and the day's end.
"One thing would happen, then another thing would happen, then another," Keli said. "It was hard to be sure whether he was OK."
It was another of Coughlin's sons, Brian, who made first contact with Tim, reaching him on his cell phone after Tim had worked his way down to the 29th floor. By that point, the second tower had been hit, although Tim didn't know it, sequestered in the stairwell.