Chris Gizzi played 23 games in the NFL, starting one as an outside linebacker. As an Air Force graduate he’s one of the rare service academy players to make it in the league, but otherwise he would have had a relatively forgettable pro career.
Except that he had perhaps the NFL’s most iconic moment after 9/11.
The Green Bay Packers hosted the first “Monday Night Football” game after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Packers coach Mike Sherman had an idea: Gizzi, then a reservist in the Air Force, would lead the team out on the field.
Even 20 years later, it’s easy to get choked up at the moment. Gizzi ran out, holding the American flag high in his right hand. The crowd at Lambeau Field, many holding small American flags themselves, let out a loud roar. Gizzi sprinted the length of the field as the crowd got louder. He stopped when he got to the south end zone to wave the flag.
It was a moment to feel joy.
“We were all feeling that energy. That’s the part that was so powerful,” Gizzi said. “We were all pulling in one direction.”
That moment almost didn’t happen. That flag he memorably carried out of the tunnel? He forgot to bring one.
Chris Gizzi runs out with the flag
Gizzi, currently the Packers’ strength and conditioning coordinator, is often reminded of his moment. He said he’ll see the picture of himself carrying the flag in bars or at schools around Green Bay. He’ll get texts from friends he hasn’t heard from a while who will see the moment, which became part of the intro for “Monday Night Football” He’ll see the photo in his parents’ house.
“My mom asked me, ‘Can you autograph this?'” Gizzi said. “I’m like, “Mom, are you kidding me?'”
He signed it.
The photo and the moment was almost lost. He was a few minutes from leading the team out of the tunnel. Someone asked him where his flag was. Whoops.
“I’m like ‘What do you mean?'” Gizzi said. “Nobody thought about it.”
Packers assistant equipment manager Bryan Nehring had a plan. He called his wife to get the flag at his house ready and meet him.
“He literally ran home,” Gizzi said. “It was five minutes away.”
Only in Green Bay.
Gizzi was handed the flag in the tunnel as the team waited, and he turned and ran. There was no plan for what he’d do. He just went.
“It was like that, boom-boom-boom,” Gizzi said. “I didn’t have time to think. I stepped on the field and you could feel it. I just took off. I just tried to keep my footing because the ground was shaking from the fans. I literally mean that.”
Sherman had asked Gizzi a week before if he would lead the team on the field with an American flag. Gizzi said he consulted his 16-count manual of arms, not knowing if he’d be presenting the flag like the color guard. There was no real plan. On that Monday night, he grabbed a flag that was just handed to him and ran across the field.
There have been many memorable moments in the 50-year history of “Monday Night Football,” but that one was unique.
“The energy of that crowd was unbelievable,” Gizzi said. “That’s the magic of the memory for me.”
Gizzi still remembered for his run
There were other memorable, emotional NFL moments in the return to the field after 9/11, which was delayed a week after games were canceled. There were tears and cheers, and plenty of flags.
The unity of those days has dissipated. Gizzi, always energetic and optimistic, thinks there’s a path back.
“I think we have more things in common than we give credit for,” Gizzi said. “I think sometimes we focus on the negative. But we can have empathy for everyone. If we can do that, we can unite. You can look at someone and say, ‘I hear you.’
“We have to see each other through each other’s eyes. We have more things that are similar than dissimilar.”
Maybe there’s no better example than Gizzi’s moment 20 years ago at Lambeau Field.
It was a hard time. Gizzi remembers calling his commanding officer in the Air Force reserves right after the attacks, asking “What do you need me to do? Where do you need me to go?” Gizzi was told to continue to represent the Air Force and military with the Packers. He did an exceptional job of it two weeks later. Anyone who was there will remember Gizzi’s run forever.
Gizzi has four children, and the oldest was born about 10 years after he led the Packers on the field. They’ll see the picture and as they get older, Gizzi said they understand that their dad was part of something special.
Even after all these years, he doesn’t mind retelling the story.
“Anytime you can bring a smile to someone’s face, that’s something to be thankful for,” Gizzi said. “I’m extremely thankful to have that moment and the memories and to be a part of football acting as the ultimate social common denominator for everyone.”
After the game, his cell phone voicemail box was full of messages from old teammates and classmates and people he’d served with. Still today, he’s reminded of it. He was asked to lead Air Force out of the tunnel carrying the flag at a game in 2011, 10 years after 9/11, and did the same for a Packers game that year. He said anytime he sees the photo from 2001, he smiles.
“People will say, ‘Oh, you were that guy!'” Gizzi said. “It was a moment bigger than yourself.
“You can’t ask for a better moment.”