Hays-area coaches reflect on 20th anniversary of 9/11

By Randy Gonzales
Special to the Hays Daily News
Coach Mark Watts, far right, back row, with his 2001 Hays High girls’ golf team.

They were players, coaches and administrators 20 years ago. With the 20th anniversary Saturday of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on this country, they all reflected last week on that day in 2001, and what has transpired since.

Brian Flax, in his 24th year as women’s tennis coach at Fort Hays State University, turned on the news that morning when he got up. He quickly learned of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

“I sat in front of the TV, just upset, feeling sadness,” Flax said.

Mark Watts, the boys’ and girls’ golf coach at Hays High School for 32 years, was teaching elementary physical education when he learned of the attack. He kept his radio on while teaching. The decision was made to not inform the children of the events. He stepped outside that day to a different world, one with no planes in the sky.

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“One of the things that was so eerie, I left the gym and go outside and there are no planes,” Watts said. “That was weird.”

Watts’ girls’ golf team had a tournament in Garden City a few days later, and he saw something else unusual.

“A bus pulls up, and all these people get out,” Watts said. “They had grounded the planes, and they were feeding them at the course. That was really weird.”

Flax remembered driving to Colorado for a tennis tournament a few days after the attack when he received a scare.

“I was driving and we get out to Colby, and a crop duster plane flew over the top of my van,” Flax said. “Scared me to death.”

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Flax said he remembers what it was like then and how it has changed him.

“Twenty years ago, everybody came together,” he said. “One thing it did for me, I got more into politics. I follow things a lot closer than I used to.”

Watts said things have changed in the wake of 9/11.

“I still have an anger toward this,” he said. “A lot of things have changed. … This whole world is messed up. That was a sad day in our country, it affected all of us.”

Watts’ son, Marcus, was the senior quarterback for the Hays High football team 20 years ago. The Indians were at home against Garden City three nights later. Watts said players from both teams linked arms in a sign of unity and there was a moment of silence for the victims.

“You still remember it as if it happened yesterday,” he said.

Watts heard the news at home before going to school, and the football team practiced that day.

“We tried to return to normalcy as much as we could,” he said.

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Gene Flax was the athletic director and football coach at Thomas More-Prep Marian 20 years ago. The Monarch football team traveled to Clay Center for a game that Friday after the attacks.

“I don’t think there ever was any thought about not playing,” Flax said. “As administrators, we said we needed to keep things as normal as possible for the kids.”

Flax gave a talk to his players at football practice the afternoon of 9/11.

“I remember the main thing I shared with the football team, we had been so blessed as a country to have all these freedoms,” he said. “How quickly things can change from being so secure to all of a sudden feeling insecure.”

Flax admitted to feeling a little uneasy leading up to the 20th anniversary this weekend.

“I’m scared to death right now, coming up on the anniversary,” he said. “Is something going to happen?”

Flax said something has happened to the country in the 20 years since 9/11.

“I don’t think there’s any question that when 9/11 happened it united our country, but now we’re as divided as we’ve ever been,” he said. “I’m concerned for the country, for we seem to be tearing ourselves apart from within.”