9/11 Responder Starts Tournament to Honor the Fallen, Give Back

John Fee, a former New York City firefighter and 9/11 first responder, competed in the Bravest vs. Finest exhibition Sept. 11, 2016 at US Lacrosse's Grand Opening and dedication of its 9/11 Memorial.

This is an updated version of an article that originally ran Sept. 11, 2019. 

To recognize the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are sharing several stories throughout this week that capture the lives and legacies of the people, families and communities impacted most.

Dawn Kloepfer stood on a lacrosse field on a beautiful day on the South Shore of Long Island in September 2019. It had been nearly two decades since another beautiful day, when if one stood on a lacrosse field on the South Shore of Long Island, they could see smoke on the horizon.

“It’s been 18 years,” Kloepfer said. “And you’re still talking about my husband.”

Ronnie Kloepfer won a national championship at Adelphi in 1982. Then he joined the NYPD, where he founded, coached and played for the Finest’s lacrosse team. He died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but the lacrosse world is still talking about him.

“I told her that’s what this is all about,” said John Fee, a 9/11 first responder who represents the FDNY and runs the Never Forget Lacrosse Tournament, which will be renewed Oct. 9-10 at Cantiague Park in Hicksville, N.Y.

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The roots of Never Forget started in September 2016, when FDNY played NYPD in conjunction with the grand opening of USA Lacrosse’s headquarters in Sparks, Md., and the dedication of the 9/11 Memorial.

Fee, moved by the experience of playing on Tierney Field, then arranged for US Lacrosse to receive a piece of steel from the towers, displayed prominently today in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum.

The Bravest vs. Finest exhibition was a success, but Fee knew 9/11 was bigger than two groups. So he Googled “Washington Lacrosse Firefighter,” eventually reaching a fire chief from Baltimore to set up a New York vs. Baltimore game. A piece of limestone from the Pentagon followed. Fee even tried to find a team from Shanksville, Pa., where a fourth plane went down in a field that fateful morning. “But they don’t have lacrosse,” he found. “They don’t know what it is.”

The final score of that game ended up being 12-9. It had been 11-9, or 9-11 depending on how one looks at it, until someone scored with 10 seconds remaining. Guys itching to score so bad that they would ruin a perfectly symbolic score and the fact that the sidelines ran 50 guys deep convinced Fee he needed to expand the event further.

He put the word out. More and more lacrosse teams, all made up of first responders, materialized. This year, the tournament grew to include 12 teams, including one from the Mohawk Nation in Canada, a group that inspired everyone by opening the ceremonies with a traditional prayer, then frustrated everyone by playing an aggressive box-style game.

“They’re the centerpiece,” Fee said. “Without them we have no game.”

This belief is reflected by Never Forget’s logo, which features a native lacrosse player flanked by red and white stripes, representing police and firefighters, above a green stripe.

“We are protected on both sides by first responders and we stand on the shoulders of the military,” Fee said.

Fee shakes hands with then-USA Lacrosse CEO Steve Stenersen during a November 2016 ceremony in which US Lacrosse was provided a piece of World Trade Center steel for its 9/11 Memorial.

At the tournament, awards are given out and eulogies are read, honoring members of the lacrosse community who died while serving. Kloepfler, whose widow spoke before the tournament. Lt. Brendan Looney, the former Navy player who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Sgt. James Regan, the former Duke player who was killed Iraq in 2007. And Officer Fadi Rafeh, a Suffolk County police officer who died unexpectedly in 2019.

Never Forget makes a point to honor people like Looney and Regan, whose stories are known, as well as those of Rafeh, whose stories may otherwise be overlooked. Rafeh left behind two young sons. One had just started playing lacrosse.

“A lot of times if you don’t know someone when something like this happens, no one ever knows about it,” Fee said. “Those are the people we’re looking to help.”

In the past, the organization has donated the money it raises to Tunnel to Towers and USA Lacrosse’s First Stick Program. In 2019, Fee decided to do something different. Those organizations have plenty of donors. Fee wanted to go grassroots and, again, highlight those that may be overlooked. He reached out to coaches from three of Long Island’s most underserved areas: Freeport, Hempstead and Uniondale. He told them to find him a former player who was in college. Then he called the players and told them Never Forget would give them a scholarship if they wrote an essay explaining how lacrosse changed their lives.

In different words, they all wrote the same letter.

“These kids never met each other, but they all wrote the same thing,” Fee said. “‘Lacrosse has taught me how to be a leader. It has taught me how to be a team player. And if has taught me that I can have friendships with people who don’t look me.’ It was humbling.”

Fee’s health has suffered as a result of his work as a 9/11 first responder. He failed his lung test four years ago and had to leave FDNY, but remains connected to the brotherhood through lacrosse.

The entire event is humbling. Fee also made sure the Never Forget tournament highlighted the efforts of local leaders to help push through the U.S. Senate Bill 97-2, permanently compensating individuals who were injured during the 2001 terrorist attacks and their aftermath rescuing people and removing debris under hazardous conditions.

“There are three classes of guys,” Fee said. “Those that have passed. Those that are sick. And those that are afraid they’re going to get sick.”

Fee is in the second category. He failed his lung test four years ago and had to leave the FDNY.

“September 11 took my career earlier than I would have liked,” he said. “I’d love to be hanging out at a firehouse right now.”

Thanks to the tournament, Fee still finds a way to hang out with firefighters. And he’d love to find more to hang with and play against. The tournament will grow as large as it needs to in order to accommodate teams that want to play.

“I know there are more teams out there that will want to be a part of this,” Fee said. “Everyone said it was one of the most beautiful things they’ve ever been a part of. It was more than lacrosse. It was so much more than lacrosse.”

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