When the College of the Desert football team runs out of the locker room and onto the gridiron at Boone Field on the Palm Desert campus, they pass a sign with words meant to encourage and inspire: “Carry the Spirit – Give Your All.”
Also printed on the sign are the names of two former Roadrunner players – Daniel Suhr and James Gray – men who would go on to careers with the New York City Fire Department. They died while rushing in to save others when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
In 2002, a small group of COD faculty, supporters and Rotary Club members, led by Cindy Farrell, gathered quietly one day in the spring and took turns “turning the screwdriver” to mount that sign on a red door outside the gridiron. The Palms-to-Pines Rotary Club spearheaded the memorial program, which included scholarships to the high schools attended by Suhr and Gray. Farrell attended COD from 1981 to 1983, and Suhr was among her classmates.
College of the Desert head football coach Jack Steptoe stands in front of the memorial sign for former players and New York City firefighters Daniel Suhr and James Gray, who died in the Twin Towers explosion on Sept. 11. (Photo: Denise Goolsby/The Desert Sun)
Current head football coach Jack Steptoe, who began his coaching career as an assistant coach at the college in 1984, said the memorial sign is a fitting tribute to these former players, who went about their lives with passion and purpose.
“It’s a great idea to honor these two men – Daniel and James – for their service with the fire department. They were great players when they were here and great men,” Steptoe said. “I know that these two young men did what they did here to be able to move on. I’m an educational buff and it’s about taking care of education so that it opens up doors later on in the future. I know that these guys were examples of the way it should be done.”
‘Carry the Spirit – Give Your All’
Suhr, 37, and Gray, 34, both played linebacker for a singular year with the football program. They played integral roles on their respective teams, according to Desert Sun accounts of their on-field exploits.
Suhr competed as a sophomore in 1983 and was named to the Foothill Conference Defensive Team the same season.
In a story in the Dec. 3, 1983 edition of The Desert Sun headlined, “Marman kept his vow to give COD winning season,” then-head coach John Marman gave big props to his defense, which helped carry the Roadrunners to a 6-2-1 record. It was a remarkable transformation for a team that went 2-8 (actually 0-10, but they were awarded two forfeits) the prior season. The ’83 defense gave up just 9.8 points per game.
In a position-by-position breakdown, Marman said, “This was without a question the strongest point of COD’s team. The inside linebackers were Danny Suhr and Fred Adams. We had four outside linebackers that could do the job. Inside, Suhr found himself and became the defensive leader after about the third game.”
A story in the Nov. 16, 1983 Desert Sun announced that Suhr – 6-foot, 215-pounds – and Adams had been named co-defensive players of the week by the COD coaching staff for their defensive play against Grossmont College.
Legacy: Hundreds of people who died on Sept. 11 remembered across the desert
As a freshman, “Jimmy” Gray – 5-foot-9, 195 pounds – earned a starting position at outside linebacker at the beginning of the 1985 football season.
COD defensive coordinator Ray Adams called out a strong defensive performance against East Los Angeles College in the Sept. 16, 1985 edition of The Desert Sun. Adams commended a nose guard and linebacker Jimmy Gray for their efforts in putting “more pressure” on the opposing quarterback in the second half of the game, which limited the QB to two pass completions for 18 yards the last two quarters. The quarterback had passed for 236 yards in the first half.
The implications are clear in these accounts that Suhr and Gray gave their all to be the best for themselves and their teammates. They ran, head-first, into the challenge. Not unlike their actions on Sept. 11, 2001.
‘There were people jumping’
On a clear, blue sky morning, the Twin Towers dropped from the skyline of Manhattan and fell to the ground into great piles of ash and rubble after the Islamic terrorist group Al-Qaeda slammed two hijacked, commercial, fuel-heavy passenger planes into the World Trade Center.
A third plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth aircraft – thanks to passengers’ attempts to subdue the hijackers – crashed into the ground in a field in Pennsylvania instead of into its suspected target, the U.S. Capitol.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed within a span of just an hour and 17 minutes beginning at 8:46 a.m. when the first aircraft – an American Airlines Boeing 767 loaded with 20,000 pounds of jet fuel – plowed into the North tower (Tower 1) near the 80th floor of the 110-floor skyscraper. Eighteen minutes later, a United Airlines Boeing 767 crashed into the midsection of the South tower (Tower 2).
Among the dead were 343 members of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY).
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States – a bipartisan commission created by congressional legislation signed by George W. Bush in late 2002 – wrote in its 9/11 report that, “The first FDNY fatality of the day occurred at approximately 9:30 when a civilian landed on and killed a fireman near the intersection of West and Liberty streets.”
That firefighter was Suhr. He was hit by someone jumping from the south tower.
In a World Trade Center Task Force interview, Captain Paul Conlon – who was working that day with Suhr and his Engine 216 crew – described the difficulties maneuvering the engine through traffic and debris. He finally got out and walked towards the towers, having been assigned to the lobby command post near the entrance of the south tower. He estimated the lobby was about 200 yards away.
“There was burning debris on the ground,” Conlon said. “There were people jumping. So we’re looking at the scene, and Dan Suhr said something like, ‘Let’s make this quick.’ I was thinking the same thing. I said to the guys, ‘Let’s go.’ We start walking. We got about halfway there and Dan Suhr gets hit by a jumper.”
His fellow firefighters worked quickly to move Suhr under some nearby scaffolding and out of further danger. Conlon made a mayday call to the fire department and called an ambulance. Conlon said two firefighters from 216 were in the ambulance doing CPR on Suhr when the ambulance pulled away.
Suhr died from his catastrophic injuries.
Suhr ‘kept everyone safe’
According to his obituary in The Desert Sun, Suhr “was the recipient of many nicknames. Captain America is one. Whenever he went out with friends, he would point to exit doors and tell them where to meet him if anything happened. ‘He kept everyone safe,’ said his wife, Nancy.”
The 16-year FDNY veteran also left behind his 2-year-old daughter, Brianna.
“For Suhr, firefighting was a family tradition,” according to a post on the National Fallen Firefighters Association webpage. “His father was a career firefighter and his brother became a firefighter as well. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Suhr was the captain of both the James Madison High School baseball and football teams. The South Shore High School football team, which Suhr helped to coach, dedicated its 2001 season to him.”
Suhr, who continued playing ball after his college days, was captain of the FDNY football team and the Brooklyn Mariners, a semi-pro team. He played middle linebacker.
Gray ‘reveled’ in camaraderie
After a six-year stint as a bus driver for New York City Transit, Gray joined the fire department in 1996. He also followed his father – a retired FDNY lieutenant – into a career of helping others in life-threating situations.
According to a story from Staten Island Live, his wife, Jean Marie, said she last spoke with her husband at 7:30 a.m. on the morning of the attack. He was working overtime and called to wish his girls – daughters Colleen, 8, and Caitlin, 6 – a good day in school. He told his wife he would call back later.
She said she never again heard from her husband, who was last seen on the 35th floor of Tower 1.
Gray was assigned to Ladder Company 20 – one of 133 ladder companies deployed during 9/11. Ladder companies’ primary function was to conduct rescues; engine companies focused on extinguishing fires, according to information provided in the 9/11 commission’s report.
Ladder Co. 20 lost its entire crew of seven while performing rescue operations on the 35th floor of the North tower when it collapsed.
A memorial board at Ladder Co. 20’s fire station lists the names and job assignment of each member of Ladder 20 on the day they perished. Gray occupied the position of “Irons,” which meant he was the “forcible-entry firefighter” responsible for bringing a set of irons (an 8-pound flathead ax and Halligan forced entry tool) and other break-in-capable equipment.
This was unlike any fire, however, and on Sept. 11, the entire crew rushed in to try to save those trapped in the blazing skyscraper.
Gray, who was born in Jackson, N.J., graduated from New Dorp High School on Staten Island before attending College of the Desert. He relocated to the Staten Island neighborhood of Rosebank in 1992, a year after his marriage.
In the Staten Island Live story, Gray’s wife said, “He reveled in the camaraderie at the firehouse on Lafayette Street.”
She said he had been studying for the lieutenant’s test prior to the terrorist attack.
A sports enthusiast, Gray rooted for the Yankees, Rangers and Giants. He also enjoyed fishing and crabbing, and playing softball and football. Collecting miniature lighthouses and working on older muscle cars were favorite hobbies.
Suhr and Gray left behind a spirit of living life to the fullest. It’s a legacy that continues every time the Roadrunners take the field.
When COD football players pass through that locker room door, they’re following in the footsteps of these brave men whose cleats could be heard clattering over that same path years ago.
Daniel “Danny” Suhr
College of the Desert: Linebacker, 1983
Fire Department City of New York: Engine 216
FDNY years of service: 16
Family: Wife Nancy; daughter Brianna, 2
James “Jimmy” Gray
College of the Desert: Linebacker, 1985
Fire Department City of New York: Ladder 20
FDNY years of service: 5
Family: Wife Jean Marie; daughters Colleen, 8 and Caitlin, 6
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