Surviving attacks helped exec find calling in sports

By Ted Keith
Robert Herzog started working on the 96th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower (left) two months before it was destroyed.getty images

It was dropping off the laundry. And picking up the mail. And taking the local train instead of the express.

 

It was the slow return to a normal routine after spending the previous week on vacation in California.

It was a busy morning. It was life.

That’s why Robert Herzog was turning the corner at Church Street in lower Manhattan at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. That’s why he wasn’t at his desk as a vice president of operations with Marsh & McLennan on the 96th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. And that’s why he’s alive today.

Herzog founded ZogSports in 2002, and it now has leagues in six cities across the US.Getty Images; ZogSports

When Herzog heard a noise in those final, fateful seconds before the world changed he didn’t even look up. It could have been from a garbage truck, or a generator, or any one of the dozens of sounds that contribute to the symphony of the city.

But this was from an airplane, and it sliced right into the floors that housed his company in the 110-story building, sending a massive fireball into the clear blue sky.

“I counted down the floors from the top then started seeing people jump out of the building,” he said. “If I hadn’t known the timeline I wouldn’t know how long I stood there. I literally stood the entire time until the second plane hit the second tower.

“I was thinking, ‘I have to get upstairs and help people.’ I was trying to inch my way closer until it got so tight I couldn’t move any closer. Then the second plane hit the second building and I’m sure the sound waves hit my ears but I never heard it. You know the scene in Saving Private Ryan where it’s silent? Like the echo-ey, tunnel vision? That’s exactly how it was for me. All of a sudden everything sprang back to life. Then there was debris falling from the second plane on to me. I was standing there and people were running toward me, then I turned around and started to run.”

The next day he went to his boss’s apartment in their neighborhood on the Upper West Side, where he spent four days calling colleagues hoping to find survivors. In the end, all 295 of the Marsh & McLennan employees who were on those floors that morning died.

Herzog attended 19 memorial services and battled survivor’s guilt for months. In early 2002 he was sitting on a beach in St. Martin when he had what he called his Piña Colada Epiphany. “I looked at my drink and it was exactly half full. I looked up at this sky and I said, OK you, I accept your challenge.”

ZogSports bills itself as the nation’s largest social sports league.ZogSports

Herzog was 32 years old, a Long Island native armed with degrees from Brown and Wharton, with an entrepreneurial spirit, a love of sports and a newfound sense of purpose. “My mission in life has always been building community, creating real personal connections and reminding people that it’s OK to have a sense of play,” he said. “And I saw all these people in New York being incredibly altruistic. How can I harness that?”

He went back to his hotel room and began writing down on a message pad what would become a 990-line Microsoft project plan for the creation of a new recreational sports company that would provide camaraderie and competition to a city that badly needed a little of both. Inclusivity was prioritized — each football team, for instance, had to have at least two women and they had to be primarily involved every three downs. Each team had to play for a charity.

He spent eight hours a day working for Marsh & McLennan and another 10 building his business. ZogSports launched on Sept. 21, 2002. Herzog was the only full-time employee at the start and it was profitable in its first year. In 2005 Herzog expanded operations to New Jersey, then to Washington, D.C., in 2010 and California in 2012. It is now in six locations across the country and offers versions of nine sports. It is popular among corporate workers and former athletes, both of which describe its founder. At its peak before the pandemic it had 44 full-time employees and has donated more than $3.5 million to charity. Herzog has been the CEO since its inception, and has since founded two other, non-sports companies under the Zog brand.

For almost 20 years, nearly every Zog game ends with teams rejoining to a nearby bar for happy hour. In the early years, before he and his wife had two sports-loving boys of their own, Herzog would join too, reveling in the community he had created. It was at one such gathering in 2002 when someone offered a toast to the roughly 200 people assembled.

“Everybody raise your glass: Cheers to Rob Herzog, thanks for organizing everything.”

“They were cheering, not me but what we had accomplished, which was about building community and making connections,” said Herzog, who still lives in Manhattan. “It was a year after 9/11 and it was reminding people that it was OK to not be so serious and have a sense of play, and to not take yourself too seriously. Life’s too short for that.”

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