September 12, 2012
RISING TO THE OCCASION
Petke put his best foot forward in 911
By Kristian R. Dyer
UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- Like the rest of us, Mike Petke will never forget.
The story from Petke 11 years ago on tuesday is the same as for millions of others in the tri-state area. Sept. 11 was a beautiful Tuesday morning and Petke was dropping his wife off at the Lincoln Tunnel so that she could take a bus into New York City to work. The couple was living in Weehawken, N.J. at the time and their routine was pretty much the same every day; after dropping her off for the bus Petke headed down to Kean University where the then MetroStars practiced.
He did not think much of the unusual traffic pattern going the other way and as he remembers it now, cars were pulling off to the side of the road, watching the fire at the World Trade Center towers. Petke heard about the first plane hitting the Twin Towers but like many people, didn’t know the extent of the damage or even what to think of it.
“The first one hit and I never thought of terrorism – none of us did,” the Red Bulls assistant coach said on Tuesday. “We went to practice just thinking it was a crazy accident. Then 10 minutes later we were called in and told about what happened – that a second plane hit. We knew it wasn’t an accident then. I get goose bumps talking about it now.”
Fans new to supporting New York’s MLS team might not remember what Petke meant to the area in those days and weeks and months after the towers went down. His character and class in uniting fans to remember the sacrifice of the first responders who lost their lives that day remains iconic.
The next time the MetroStars took to the field, Petke walked out wearing an NYPD hat and carrying an American flag. Raised in Long Island, Petke lost childhood friend Glen Pettite of Ronkonkoma, N.Y. that day. The two grew up playing youth soccer against each other. Then there was the Concert for Life event at Madison Square Garden where Petke stood alongside celebrities such Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Adam Sandler and Jay-Z and he took a microphone and spoke to the sold-out audience that night.
He spoke not as a celebrity or a soccer player. Instead Petke, who still has that noticeable Long Island accent, spoke with the passion of the local boy who never forgot his roots.
“The moment that happened, the day that followed changed millions of life and mine certainly,” Petke said.
“Standing out at Madison Square Garden and being handed a microphone, other than the birth of my kids, nothing that happens can ever compare in that moment. It was surreal, it was like standing above people, it was surreal.”
He did more, however, than just use his celebrity cache as a rising young star in Major League Soccer as Petke rolled up his sleeves and pitched in as he could. He went down to the piers of Jersey City with friend Duane Eckelman of Howell, N.J. to help load trucks filled with supplies that were heading to New York City to assist first responders looking for survivors. No task was too big, no request went unfilled.
On one instance Petke walked away from his friend, maybe no more than 100 yards away to help with something in the loading effort and when he came back, Eckelman was on a barge crossing the river to assist in the search and rescue effort. Petke remembers standing there, feeling helpless and wanting to be on the boat and help any way he could.
The tragic events of that day and the loss of life forever changed Petke, both in the days after the towers came down and even today.
“It’s a very emotional day every year, almost a depressing day. I wore my NYPD shirt today, my brother was former NYPD but he moved down to Virginia before that day, thank God,” Petke said. “They were the real heroes and the people on the plane too. A lot of people as well, it took it awhile to take soccer seriously, I mean just to get pissed off with someone for a bad pass, it didn’t make sense to me. In light of that, sports was nothing. I don’t think we’ll ever forget that – at least we never should.”