During the 1930s, when America struggled economically in the midst of the Great Depression, the NFL -- still a fledgling league -- struggled to make ends meet, too.
During the 1960s, when America questioned authority and itself in a tumultuous decade of change, the NFL endured its own turmoil and change with the arrival of the AFL. The two leagues eventually merged.
During the 1990s, when America prospered in a period of sustained economic growth, the NFL enjoyed unprecedented growth and solidified itself as this countrys number-one spectator sport.
And last September, when America mourned following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the NFL mourned along with it. And when America bounced back stronger then ever, with a dazzling display of unity, the NFL did, too.
Not everyone finds solace or refuge in sports. But for those who do, the NFL always has been a reflection of society at large.
The NFL is part of American life, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue says.
That was perhaps most evident in New York, where the Giants helped the city rebound from the terror inflicted on September 11.
Bring it home for New York! people shouted to Giants defensive end Michael Strahan in a restaurant. Rescue workers at ground zero in Manhattan told Giants players how much they were looking forward to seeing the team on the field again. Youngsters who hadnt looked forward to anything since the tragedies looked forward to meeting Giants players at practice.
You realize how important this game is for people, Strahan says.
Never more so than the afternoon of September 23, when the NFL returned to the field after postponing its games on the Sunday following the attacks.
All across the nation, from Seattle to Miami, players, coaches, and fans were swept up in a wave of patriotism.
American flag decals were added to players helmets, and stadiums were adorned with United We Stand bunting. The Stars and Stripes was unfurled in mammoth displays at each stadium -- often with the help of players and coaches -- for pregame renditions of America the Beautiful and the National Anthem. All fans received small American flags.
In New England, Patriots fans accustomed to loathing the division rival New York Jets saluted their visitors. In Kansas City, boisterous Chiefs fans welcomed the Giants to the heartland with a resounding standing ovation.
On the sidelines, Giants and Jets players donned caps saluting their citys fire department and police department.
A lot of them are our fans, Giants linebacker Mike Barrow says. Theyve cheered for us. Now were cheering for them.
NFL efforts were more than just ceremonial, however. Hundreds of players and league personnel participated in aid efforts.
In New York, Jets and Giants players purchased relief materials and helped load supply boats. They visited ground zero to offer support and encouragement to rescue workers.
In Tampa, receiver Keyshawn Johnson donated a weeks pay to the Red Cross. This is much more important than football, he said.
In San Francisco, 49ers players, coaches, and front-office personnel made a trip to a blood bank en masse -- more than 100 people in all.
The Redskins launched the Redskins Relief Fund with a donation of 250,000.
In Buffalo, Bills players gathered at a shopping mall to sign autographs and raise funds for the rescue effort.
Seventy Steelers players, coaches, and administrators joined a memorial service for the victims of the hijacked flight that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
In Indianapolis, members of the Colts helped raise more than 100,000 at the RCA Dome for relief efforts.
In Nashville, Titans players spent time at the local Red Cross office, helping workers and distributing team memorabilia to blood donors.
In Atlanta, Falcons players participated in a flag-football game to raise money for the families of New York police officers and firefighters.
In Oakland, members of the Raiders volunteered at a local recreation center.
We wanted to let the children know that what they have been seeing this week isnt what the world is all about, wide receiver Tim Brown said.
At the 49ers-Jets Monday night game on October 1 in New York, NFL players presented a check for 500,000 to the New York Police & Fire Widows & Childrens Benefit Fund.
The check represented the first of more than 5 million pledged by the players in response to the tragedies of September 11. Another 5 million has been pledged by the league through NFL Charities, with the combined 10 million placed in a special relief fund administered by a board co-chaired by Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association.
The NFL and the NFL Players Association also teamed on eBays Auction for America, donating proceeds from merchandise and experiences (such as trips to an away game) to the Websites disaster relief program.
We play one role in the healing process by playing our games, honoring the victims and heroes, and by saluting brotherhood, diversity, and tolerance, Tagliabue says.
The leaguewide display of togetherness did not go unnoticed. Fans from around the country and those closest to the disasters expressed their gratitude to the players.
It amazes me when people say thank you, Strahan says. What are they thanking me for?
What really picked me up was hearing from the firefighters and the rescue workers who told us how we helped pick them up, Giants running back Greg Comella says. We are a function of the healing process.
That process will take time, but it is well underway.
People show their true colors in adversity, Giants coach Jim Fassel says.
Ordinarily, that would sound like a football cliche, but it meant much more this time. In the aftermath of last September 11, America showed its true colors. The NFL did, too.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times