KNOXVILLE -- For 10 years Patrick Lenoir couldn't talk about it. Not a word. Not to newspapers. Not to church counselors. Not to anyone but his closest friends and family.
Early September would roll around, another somber 9/11 anniversary having arrived, and Lenoir would refuse all requests to discuss his brother Rob, who perished in the World Trade Center's south tower in New York City that awful Tuesday morning, reportedly attempting to help others to safety.
"It just hurt too much," Patrick said. "I even went to a grief counseling group at church. When it came my time to say something, I couldn't do it. I never went back."
But then the University of Tennessee, where he once played college football, called his Chattanooga home this past week. UT officials wanted him to hold the American flag during Saturday's national anthem, then carry it through the "T" just before the Cincinnati game.
"I was a little surprised," Lenoir said during halftime of the Volunteers' 45-23 rout of the Bearcats. "But I decided to give it a try. I thought it would be a real treat for my family."
Family. On this day above all days, we are a family of 312 million people strong, all of us deeply touched in one way or another by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Or as Lenoir said, "Everybody in this country was affected. Everybody was hurt. I just had a little more personal experience with it than some."
But his father, John, had begun to talk to media outlets the last few weeks as the 10th anniversary swiftly approached. Patrick followed suit with The State paper in Columbia, S.C., mostly because that's where he lived the first time he visited Neyland Stadium in 1982, the year Rob would throw the key block on a Duke kickoff return that would do in the Big Orange.
"I was for Duke that night," Patrick said. "But then my parents moved to Memphis and I became a Vol."
So 20 years after he'd last run through the "T" as No. 65 in the UT game program, nine years and 364 days after one of the two worst days in this nation's history and the worst day of the Lenoir family's life, here came Patrick running down the middle of Neyland Stadium's perfect grass field, the Stars and Stripes held high, 94,207 roaring their approval.
"I was pumped in the locker room," he said. "It was just like 20 years ago. I was slapping helmets, telling guys to go get 'em. They probably thought, 'Who the heck is this guy?'"
In truth, they all knew who he was.
"That meant a lot," said senior linebacker Austin Johnson. "That day is a tragic day for all of us, but just seeing him, seeing everybody come together, is a great sign."
Patrick was the last Lenoir to quit looking for some sign that his brother would return home 10 years ago to his wife and children.
"I think my dad knew right away," said Patrick, who has yet to visit Ground Zero. "I held on for two or three days. I just kept telling everybody that Rob was out there somewhere, that his cell phone just wouldn't work, that he'd call one of us any minute."
Instead, every year at this time, "The television channels all run videos of the planes hitting the building. I never get to let it go."
But something different happened this year. Perhaps it was the gentle, comforting love of his wife, the former Kristy Dobson, who once starred for the UT volleyball team.
Maybe it was strong encouragement from his close friend Andy Kelly, the former UT quarterback for whom Lenoir once blocked.
Perhaps it was the endless support of his Chattanooga friends, the ones who phoned and sent food all those years ago, or the ones he didn't even know who "wrote three- and four-page letters of support."
Maybe it was the hugs of his three children: sons Jackson and Bailey, who caught two touchdown passes Friday night for East Hamilton, and daughter Emma.
Perhaps it was even the May killing of Osama bin Laden, the evil mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
"That was special," Patrick said. "You're crazy if you think that will stop terrorism. But, hopefully, the world will be more peaceful now."
Or maybe, hopefully, the passage of 10 years finally has brought some peace to the entire Lenoir family and all those other families whose lives were torn apart that awful Tuesday morning.
Perhaps to that end, when asked how he intended to spend anniversary No. 10, Lenoir said, "I've never actually been to a 9/11 service, but I'm going to go tomorrow."