Archdeacon: After 9/11, Bellbrook football became ‘the picture of the nation’

The 2001 Bellbrook High School football team, led by Charlie O'Dell (with flag), PHOTO by Nick Falzarano, Nicholas Studios
Caption
The 2001 Bellbrook High School football team, led by Charlie O'Dell (with flag), PHOTO by Nick Falzarano, Nicholas Studios

Credit: Photo credit: Nick Falzerano

Credit: Photo credit: Nick Falzerano

It was just three days after the September 11th attacks in 2001 had killed nearly 3,000 people and injured over 6,000 at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and on an airliner that hijackers had planned to slam into the White House, but instead crashed into a Pennsylvania field when passengers fought back.

Today, sadly enough, terrorism has become ingrained in our consciousness, but 20 years ago it was something Americans weren’t used to and those deadly attacks left so many of us sad and suffering and afraid.

The NFL and major colleges cancelled their games for that coming weekend, but Miami Valley high schools decided to play their scheduled football games.

And that Friday night – Sept. 14, just three days after the mostly deadly attack on American soil in history – Bellbrook High School found itself hosting Northridge.

Before the game, Kevin Basinger – then the Bellbrook head coach and now a Golden Eagles assistant – spoke to his team about being American and the freedoms and privileges we have.

One player who was trying to listen was Charlie O’Dell, a beefy, senior lineman with a burr haircut, who had spent the three previous seasons in a backup or junior varsity role. He’d worked hard to become a starter and a team co-captain and on this night he would live up to his role as a team leader.

Before the game, he and co-captain, Todd Castor, had gone to Walmart and bought the last packet of American flag decals, which they then gave to their teammates to paste on their helmets. Several players used felt-tipped pens to print “USA” or “Remember NYC and D.C.” on the tape that wrapped their hands.

But as Basinger spoke, O’Dell was struggling.

“I was trying to focus hard on the game, but I was having trouble,” he told me back then. “I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened – how all those people were killed and how everything was being threatened.”

When Basinger finished, assistant coach Todd Paul said he’d brought an American flag to the game. He asked if one of the players would carry it and lead the team onto the field.

O’Dell volunteered, but then began worrying about everything from stumbling or being passed by his faster teammates to not holding the flag high enough.

Out on the field, photographer Nick Falzarano readied himself for the Golden Eagles’ entrance, which was always a bit of high theater anyway. And on this night someone had tipped him about the addition of the American flag.

Falzarano – a Bellbrook High and University of Dayton grad – had worked the Hollywood scene in Los Angeles after graduation and had had photos of Madonna, Wil Smith, Lenny Kravitz, KISS and so many other celebrities published in the likes of Rolling Stone and People.

Now he was back home taking photos of high school kids.

He didn’t realized he was about to take the shot that to this day remains at the top of his all-time images.

‘I knew it was something special’

The purple gates in front of the goalpost opened and instantly parents crouching nearby with fire extinguishers unleashed a magical blanket of smoke.

And through the haze there came O’Dell, big No. 72, an intense look behind his face mask, the Stars and Stripes held high with his left arm. He was flanked by his equally-impassioned teammates and up in the stands, many in the crowd – including O’Dell’s mom, Jeri – broke into tears.

Falzarano began backpedaling from the surge of players and managed to shoot just four frames.

“Back then we were still using film, so I didn’t know what I’d gotten,” he said Friday afternoon. “I had to wait until Saturday for my film to get processed. I’d had 4-by-6 prints made up and when I saw the one photo, I knew it was something special.”

He sent it on speculation to Sports Illustrated in New York and said he later called the magazine’s photo editor, Jim Colton, to see if it had arrived:

“He said, ‘We’re not allowed to drive down to the Fed Ex building at all, so I don’t know. I’ll see what I can do.’ “As far as I know, he sent one of his people or a courier on foot to get it.”

SI ran the photo over two pages in its Sept. 24 issue.

“Nick’s photograph captured the essence of what we were looking for,” Colton said. “It was very poignant and colorful and the kid carrying the flag had a great expression on his face.

“It showed these kids weren’t ruffled. And the background with the scoreboard reading “1st and 10” very subtly expressed the challenge ahead.”

The magazine quickly sold out in the Bellbrook area and later Falzarano turned it into a poster – entitled United We Stand – that became just as popular.

“It’s something we’re all very proud of,” Basinger told me at the time. “But it’s not so much that we were in Sports Illustrated as the fact that we could be the picture of the nation that night. That’s what was so humbling.”

‘It brought us all together’

Today is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

You can still find some of the posters around Bellbrook, including a few in classrooms at the school.

O’Dell has the photo and the article I wrote about that 2001 night framed on the wall of his home office. His parents gave them to him as a high school graduation gift back then.

A much-celebrated photographer, Falzarano runs Nicholas Studios and now has two daughters in high school: Ava is a senior and Sophia is a sophomore.

“My kids weren’t born when 9/11 happened,” he said. “They learned about it in school and they know about the picture. I told Ava, ‘That’s Mr. O’Dell, your old (junior high) history teacher running out there with the flag.’ She said, ‘No, it’s not!’ And I said, ‘Oh yes, it is.’

“It’s just that Charlie is not one to walk around telling the kids about it.”

Charlie O'Dell. Photo by Nick Falzarano/Nicholas Studios
Caption
Charlie O'Dell. Photo by Nick Falzarano/Nicholas Studios

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

After graduating from Bellbrook, O’Dell played football a Wittenberg University, taught and coached at his alma mater, was an assistant on the University of Dayton football staff and, for the past four years, has been the athletics director at Bellbrook High.

He and his wife Erin have two sons: 3-year-old Luke and Lane, who is 1 ½.

Back on that September night in 2001, he didn’t just lift a flag, he lifted a stadium, a community and with the help of SI, a lot of people nationwide who saw the image Falzarano captured.

Today, the Bellbrook football team still takes the field running behind the American flag.

“When I think back to those times I don’t think of myself as part of the whole 9/11 memory,” O’Dell said Friday morning. “Like the rest of the America, I think about all those people who lost their lives – some 3,000 people – and the wars on terror that have followed.

“I think about how the whole world had been changed over the last 20 years.”

And just the other day he said he found himself thinking about something else from back then:

“Today, we’re so divided as a nation, but back then, one part of that tragedy that became beautiful was the way it brought us all together. Rather than the things that seem to divide us now, it reminded us how much we have in common.”

Falzarano agreed:

“I just read this yesterday. It said right after what happened back then, we were not red, we were not blue. We weren’t black and weren’t white. We were all just Americans.”

United We Stand.