50 years ago: NFL plays as nation mourns JFK

With the flag flying at half staff, Nick Pietrosante left, and Detroit teammates stand during a moment of silence before the start of a game in Minnesota the weekend JFK was killed.

The car turned the corner as the motorcade wound through the streets of Dallas. Shots rang out…..and America would never be the same.

It was, Pete Rozelle would later admit, the worst decision of his life. Allowing the NFL to play a full Sunday of games less than two days after the assassination of  President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was the major blight on Rozelle’s otherwise glossy resume. Despite the pleas of many NFL owners, including Dallas Cowboys owner Clint Murchison Jr., Rozelle — citing JFK’s “avid love of sport” — determined that the games would go on.

Kennedy’s press secretary and Rozelle’s college classmate at the University of San Francisco, Pierre Salinger, told Rozelle the president would have wanted the games played. “It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy. Football was Mr. Kennedy’s game. He thrived on competition,” Rozelle said in a statement.

And that Sunday, while the nation mourned its fallen leader, NFL games went on as scheduled in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Milwaukee (Green Bay), Minnesota and Los Angeles. None were televised.

Rozelle was at Yankee Stadium and saw the St. Louis Cardinals beat the New York Giants, 24-17. He later told the New York Times: “I could not concentrate on the game. I brooded about my decision the entire game.”

In an interview around the time of his retirement, Rozelle was asked what his biggest mistake was as league commissioner: “Playing the game on Kennedy Sunday,” was his response

“Worst mistake Rozelle ever made.” said Sam Huff, the Giants Hall of Fame linebacker.

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Players and fans pay their respects to the late President Kennedy in Cleveland.

Signs point to Dallas
That Sunday, in Cleveland, where the Browns beat the Cowboys 27-17, Cleveland fans carried signs that pointed to the city of Dallas as having “killed the president.” The Cowboys fielded boos from a crowd angry over the assassination.

“We were the team from Dallas, Texas,” Cowboys linebacker Lee Roy Jordan said. “We were connected with killing the president of the United States.”

After beating the Eagles 13-10 in Philadelphia, Washington Redskins players asked coach Bill McPeak to send the game ball to the White House. They said they were “playing…for President Kennedy and in his memory.”

Less than an hour before kickoff of the early games that day, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. In Pittsburgh, the Bears and the Steelers tied 17-17. “Before the game you’re usually talking about picking up blitzes,” said Pittsburgh running back Dick Hoak. “Instead, we were saying, ‘Did you hear that Oswald was shot?’ ”

In his autobiography, “Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL” Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney wrote: “[Rozelle] later told me it was the wrong decision, one of the few he regretted making during his term as commissioner.”  Rooney said, “There are more important things than playing football every Sunday.”

The fledgling American Football League exercised better judgment. The AFL postponed all games and pushed the end of the season back to December 22. The First AFL game played after the assassination was on November 28, Thanksgiving Day. Rookie coach Al Davis led the Oakland Raiders to a 26-10 win over the Broncos in Denver.

Bears players bow their heads prior to game against Pittsburgh in Chicago.

College football
Most college football games that weekend were either postponed or cancelled. Harvard, the President’s alma mater, and Yale were the first to announce they would not play. By Friday evening, all eastern schools had determined they would not take the field.

Oklahoma and Nebraska decided to play for the Big Eight title and an Orange Bowl berth. The Cornhuskers won, 29-20. In Miami, school president King Stanford was ready to tell the waiting crown of 57,773 at the Orange Bowl that the game with Florida had been cancelled but was talked out of it by the university’s board of trustees. The Gators won 27-21.

NBA, NHL, horses
Although most contests in the NBA and NHL were postponed, in New York, both the Knicks and Rangers played at Madison Square Garden the weekend that America mourned. The Knicks beat Detroit 108-99 on Saturday; and the Rangers tied the Maple Leafs 3-3 on Sunday. NHL games were staged in Montreal and Toronto over the weekend as well.

In addition to the Knicks, the St Louis Hawks and Cincinnati Royals split a home-and-home weekend series. The rest of the nine-team NBA — Celtics, Lakers, 76ers Warriors and Bullets — did not play on the weekend.

Horse racing and harness racing were cancelled across the country.

Personal: 50 years later, I vividly recall November 22, 1963. I was 12 years old, a seventh grader in Catholic elementary school in White Plains, New York,  when we were informed of JFK’s death over the school PA system. The entire school was sent into church to pray for the President, then we were sent home early. Strangely, when I arrived home with my younger brother and sister, my mother was not in the house. The woman living across the street from us had gone into labor, and my mother took her to the hospital where she delivered a baby girl. That joyous occasion was the only bright light in a memorably tearful weekend, one where I saw my father cry for the first time. The previous weekend, my father took me to Yankee Stadium to see my first NFL game. The Giants beat the 49ers, 48-14.

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