Players, coaches reflect on impact of epic Canton-Harrison game played 3 days after 9/11 attacks

 Players, coaches reflect on impact of epic Canton-Harrison game played 3 days after 9/11 attacks

Pictured (clockwise from top left) Chris Smilo, David Smilo, Tim Baechler, Brendan Murphy and Billy Gazsi.

Top-10 showdown provided slice of normalcy in wake of tragedy

Canton High School’s football team was riding a wave of adrenaline on Monday, Sept. 10, 2001 — the world’s last normal day for quite some time.

Fresh off its first football district championship in school history in 2000, the Chiefs were scheduled in four days to host Farmington Hills Harrison, widely regarded as one of the best prep teams in Michigan gridiron history.

“Harrison is the reason we worked so hard all summer in the weight room,” reflected Billy Gazsi, a senior captain on the Chiefs 2001 squad. “Harrison had one of the best teams ever assembled and we were on the way up under Coach (Tim) Baechler. We were so fired up. That was our state championship game.”

The next morning, Baechler, a Canton High School English teacher at the time, heard a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

“When I turned the TV on in my classroom, I had no idea what was going on,” recounted Baechler. “Initially, I thought the pilot of a small plane had made a bad mistake. Once the second plane hit, I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re being attacked’.”

Twenty-one miles north, Harrison High School teacher/football coach John Herrington was also unaware of the enormity of the situation unfolding several states away.

John Herrington is pictured during the 2017 D3 title game Photo courtesy of the MHSAA

“We didn’t have TVs on in the school, so in the beginning we were hearing bits and pieces of information,” Herrington remembered. “Once all the facts started coming in, football became a lot less important, needless to say.”

As uncertainty, shock and sadness swept across the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park campus on 9/11 — and after-school activities on school grounds were canceled — Baechler came up with a plan.

He and his wife Julie and their two young sons had recently moved to Plymouth Township’s Fellows Creek subdivision and their new lot had a sprawling backyard.

“I thought it would be good for us to stay as normal as possible,” Baechler said. “Everybody was freaking out — and for good reason. My backyard was about 70 yards long and 40 yards wide, so I spread the word through our captains that we could hold a little bit of a practice — more like a walk-through than anything. But they had to get the approval of their parents and it was not mandatory.”

Senior quarterback Brendan Murphy, now the head football coach at Salem, said the two-hour gathering was the perfect remedy for a tragedy-marred day.

“For me, and I know for many of my teammates, football was like a sanctuary,” Murphy said. “No matter what was going on in my life, once you get between the white lines, you can focus and have fun.”

“That practice was helpful because it brought us together as a team and that team was like a family,” Gazsi said. “For two hours, it helped us forget about all the chaos that was going on.”

Harrison’s players returned to school and practice Sept. 12, Herrington said.

“The first day back to practice was tough,” Herrington said, “but kids are resilient. Once we were on the field and the whistle blew, we were focusing on playing Canton. It was good to get back to it, get a little normalcy back in our lives.”

Chris Smilo patrols along the banks of the Rio Grande River as a member of the US Border Patrol

Following a lot of contemplation, regional and statewide high school athletic administrators decided the games should be played on Sept. 14 — a life-changing decision for at least one Canton player.

“I didn’t know if I was going to get to play college football heading into that season,” said senior tight end Chris Smilo. “I wasn’t heavily recruited. But there were some college coaches at the (Sept. 14) game to scout some of the Harrison players.”

Smilo caught six passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns. He also did a superb job of blocking Harrison’s collection of Division 1-caliber defenders.

“I was offered a chance to play football at Wayne State, partly because their coach saw me play that night,” Smilo said. “If that game hadn’t been played, who knows what would have happened.”


During the spring of his sophomore year at Wayne State, Smilo heard that the United States Army was recruiting young men for its Special Forces units as the war in Iraq was gaining traction. He told teammate Marcus Mencotti — a former All-State player at Harrison — about the opportunity to enlist and the pair headed straight to a U.S. Army recruitment office on Jefferson Ave. in Detroit.

“We both tested out well,” Smilo said. “Marcus signed on the spot, but I wanted to talk to my dad (Dave Smilo) first. My dad told me to finish my commitment to Wayne State and once I graduated I could do whatever I thought was right.”

Smilo served several years as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent after graduating from Wayne State before accepting a position earlier this summer with the Detroit Division of the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Members of his Border Patrol team were the agents that drove 90 miles from San Antonio and ultimately took down the Uvalde elementary school gunman.

An article on page B1 of the Sept 16 2001 Canton Observer provided details of the epic Sept 14 2001 game


Prior to the Sept. 14 game, the two teams’ captains and head coaches met near mid-field, where they lit the first candles for a stadium-wide candlelight vigil to honor the people who had lost their lives during the 9/11 attacks.

“It was very, very emotional,” Baechler reflected. “Coach Herrington had lost his wife earlier that summer, so both of us shed a few tears.”

“I’m not exactly sure how many people were at that game,” Gazsi said, “but it looked like close to 10,000. We ran out on the field holding American flags … it was just an unreal atmosphere.”

The Chiefs bolted to a 7-0 first-quarter lead and drove to the Harrison 5-yard line on their next possession, which ended with a fourth-down interception in the end zone by Harrison two-way standout Agim Shabaj.

Minutes later, the Hawks drew even, 7-7, on the game’s biggest play of the night. Facing a fourth-down-and-13 from his own 17-yard line and with the Hawks lined up to punt, future Michigan State University and NFL quarterback Drew Stanton, who doubled as Harrison’s quarterback and punter, connected with Shabaj for an 83-yard fake-punt TD pass.

When asked about the pivotal play after the game, Stanton told a reporter that a bank of lights was out on the side of the field Shabaj was standing, making it difficult for Canton defenders to see the speedy wideout.

Former Canton coaches and players share pleasant memories of the 2001 season when it finished with just one regular season loss

“I was the punt returner on that play,” Gaszi recalled. “Once Shabaj caught the pass (around mid-field) it was one-on-one, me against Shabaj, and I don’t think too many people were laying bets on me winning that matchup.”

The Hawks eventually stretched their lead to 42-14 before Canton stormed back to make the final score close, 45-34. It was the closest margin of victory the unbeaten Division 3 state champion Hawks would experience in 2001.

“I knew Canton had a very good team that year and to beat them was a big win for us,” Herrington said. “But I still remember the feeling after that win wasn’t as exciting as it would have been in a normal world.”

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