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.


Don’t Forget Your Playbook: Glory Days

Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas scrambles against Giants in 1959 NFL championship game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Colts won, 31-16.

It was 1959, the caboose of the 1950s, a simpler time in a different world. President Eisenhower was finishing out his second term, the Barbie Doll was launched, and Castro was running wild in Cuba.

Pro football was a simple game in 1959. A dozen teams in the NFL played 12 games apiece. The AFL was still a dream away.

No playoffs. No Super Bowl. One championship game.

In a rematch of their “greatest game” in the 1958 NFL title game, the Colts were looking to defend their championship against the New York Giants in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

Two days after Christmas, in the midst of a tight defensive battle, Giants wide receiver Kyle Rote suffered an apparent concussion. His replacement was Joe Biscaha, a 27th round draft out of the University of Richmond.

Almost A Touchdown
“Near the end of the first half, (Giants quarterback Charlie) Conerly tried to connect   with me on a corner route, but slightly overthrew the pass and I cou022_22ldn’t quite make the catch, even with a diving attempt,” Biscaha, right, recalls more than 50 years year. “If completed. it would have resulted in a touchdown, but it unfortunately fell incomplete in the Colts end zone.

“I continued to play in the third quarter without making any significant contributions to our efforts, and was later replaced by a somewhat ‘foggy’ Rote during the fourth quarter. The Colts had trailed throughout the game by a 9-7 score but eventually scored 24 points in the final quarter to defeat us, 31-16.”

It was the second straight title for the Colts, who beat the Giants 23-17 in a memorable overtime classic to win the 1958 championship.

“In our post-game locker room there was disappointment, but there were also words of encouragement exchanged,” said Biscaha. “And even Charlie Conerly commented to me on the overthrown pass that ‘we almost had one.’.

“Given the fact that he had thrown my way and even had spoken to me, I had felt as though I would be a part of the Giants plans for the coming year. We returned to New York by train that same evening amidst local friends and fans sharing many drinks in commiseration of the loss.”

That would be the last game of Biscaha’s Giants career. When he signed with the Giants he went from $25 a month laundry money at Richmond (part of a football scholarship) to a $7,500 contract.

In eight games that year, he caught one pass for five yards and recovered a fumble.

Playing in The Original AFL
Biscaha failed to make the Giants roster in 1960. He was substitute teaching and making about $100 a week when the Boston (now New England) Patriots of the AFL offered him $4,500 for the last month and a half of the season. So Joe played for that first Patriots team in the AFL’s inaugural season, calling the Kenmore Station Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue home.

“The head coach was Lou Saban, a former Cleveland Brown, who seemed to have been influenced in the ‘General George Patton mentality,'” Biscaha recalled, “while my position coach was Mike Holovak, a likable gentleman from the Boston College coaching background. It seemed like most of the players were from a Boston College or Syracuse (1959 championship team) playing pedigree.

“I was being tried out as a wide receiver and needed to learn the skills to compete against the bump and run techniques utilized by the AFL defensive backs. Having played with the Giants as primarily a tight end, those were skills that I never had to acquire.”

In September of 1961 Biscaha, realizing his playing days were over after a tryout with the New York Titans (now Jets), “signed a teaching contract with the Paterson (NJ) School District for $4,500 for the year and got  $400 more to assist in coaching football.”

His teaching career continued for more than 25 years and was highlighted by three New Jersey State Championship seasons, 1975,1979 and 1980, at Passaic Valley High School, as well as numerous coaching honors. After an eight-year retirement from education, while working in financial services, he returned to serve ten years as a school administrator at Passaic County Technical Institute until his retirement in 2005.

More than 50 years later, he wonders if his career might have taken a different path if Conerly, the NFL MVP in 1959, had not overthrown him in the end zone. “Had I caught that pass would my life have turned out differently?”

Joe’s blog is called “don’t forget to bring your playbook,” a commonly used expression players heard when they were about to be cut. Postings on the blog include his childhood experiences and memories of his pro football career and beyond.


Mr. Goodell, We Have a Problem

Scientests, researchers and other bright minds around the world are working to figure ways to make NFL late-season-playoff-deciding-games more meaningful.

Every year, the NFL plays two sets of exhibition games. The first, called pre-season games, are played in the summer and help teams determine rosters and get ready for the regular season.

The second set of exhibitions, unfortunately for the NFL, happens at the end of the season, oftentimes in key match-ups for playoff spots, when games should mean the most.

These are the games where playoff-bound teams start resting or sitting regulars. They’ve earned that right. Other teams can whine, but no one is listening.

It goes back to that old adage about controlling your own destiny and not depending on outside factors to make the playoffs.

Players are rested all the time in  sports. Everyone wants to avoid injuries. Baseball teams, for instance, give pitchers and other regulars a break as they prepare for the  post-season.

But major league baseball teams play 162 games, NFL teams 16. A single NFL game carries 10X the weight of a baseball game.

Which means, the NFL and its fans really suffer from these late-season-playoff-deciding-exhibition-games.

Here’s a Solution
It doesn’t seem fair for the league to force teams to play their regulars. Or to penalize them be taking away draft choices as some have suggested.

And trust me, teams aren’t going to start refunding gate receipts for games in which teams don’t really try. Heck, teams charge fans for exhibition games as part of their season-ticket package.

But there is something the NFL could do to at least make late-season games more compelling. Set up the schedule, so that the final two games for all 32 teams are played within divisions.

Certainly, the natural rivalries within divisions and the fact that the teams play each other twice per season always fires up the competitive juices.

For instance, have the Giants and Cowboys ever played a meaningless Giants-Cowboys game? Those two teams hate each, as do many other divisional rivals. . Familiarity, after all, breeds contempt.

And then there’s the added possibility the teams could be fighting one another for either first place or a wild-card spot within the division.

The final games of any season in any league should count for something.


Will The Real Giants Please Stand Up

When the Giants are going right, the opposing quarterback – not Eli Manning – is the guy facing the big pass rush.

Since their Thanksgiving Day debacle in Denver, the New York Giants have had 10 days to figure things out; 10 days to try and save their season.

The Giants, pre-season picks to win the Super Bowl in some circles, showed why they are the NFL’s most overrated team in that  26-6 drubbing by the Broncos. .

They looked like turkeys against the Broncos. It was their fifth loss in six games following a 5-0 start.

Even during their bad times, the Giants have almost always played their trademark smashmouth football style. Put pressure on the quarterback and stop the running game on defense. Maintain ball control with a strong running attack on offense.

Not lately. These Giants have been imposters in blue.

“Well to be honest with you, I don’t even know what is going on.” defensive end Osi Umenyiora, left, said earlier this week. That was before Tom Coughlin decided to bench both Osi and Fred Robbins — at least in certain situations — when the Giants play their divisional rival, the Dallas Cowboys, on Sunday.

The Forgiving NFL
The National Football League can be very forgiving. In spite of their prolonged slide, the Giants have a chance to turn their season around against their hated rivals.

A win over the Cowboys would put the Giants just a game behind Dallas in the NFC East. And the Giants would own the tiebreaker over the Cowboys by virtue of a 33-31 win that spoiled the opener of Cowboys Stadium.

Following the Dallas game, the Giants host another divisional rival and playoff contender, the Philadelphia Eagles.

The G-Men wrap up their season with road games at Washington and Minnesota, sandwiched around a home tilt with Carolina.

Amazingly, if they can figure things out in time, the Giants could still make a playoff run. They have the talent — less than two years ago they won the Super Bowl, and last year they started out 11-1 before losing four of their last five games, including a home playoff loss to the Eagles.

“We can deal with being 6-5,” said quarterback Eli Manning. “We’ve got to play better football. That’s our concern. That’s what we go to worry about. We’ve got five games left. Let’s see what we can do with those five games.”

So which Giants team will show up against the Cowboys — the Super Bowl contender or the club that’ has lost nine times in its last 16 games?


Football: Is It Real, Or Is It Fantasy?

QB in pain: A sight feared by fantasy football owners and NFL fans alike.

With the possible exception of dwindling 401ks, expanding waistlines and gray hair, there’s nothing fantasy football owners fear more than injuries to key players. Especially in the pre-season.

Just last week, the Dutchess Dawgs took Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with the fifth overall pick in the Nightcap Fantasy League draft.

The very next night, Brady was clobbered by Albert Haynesworth late in the first half of New England’s pre-season game against Washington. Brady left the game with what is initially diagnosed as a bruised shoulder

Right now, the Patriots are saying the injury isn’t serious. But the Patriots are known for not being exactly forthright about injuries.

So the Dawgs, gleeful that Brady was kept out of action against the Giants in the exhibition finale for both teams, must wonder if Tom Terrific, coming off serious knee injury after missing virtually the entire 2008 season, was a wise selection.

Wait, there’s more. The Dawgs selected Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings with the 25th overall pick. Jennings got banged after making a reception last week against Arizona and suffered a concussion.

Concussions are not exactly good news for your leading wide receiver.

So far, the Dawgs second pick, St. Louis running back Steven Jackson, has managed to stay healthy. But Jackson has only carried the ball 10 times in three pre-season games.

What happens when he starts seeing serious action? Only time will tell.


Winning and Losing in the Sports Book

Ever since I first stumbled into a sports book, at Caesar’s Palace in Last Vegas more than 20 years ago, I’ve wanted to have a “book” right in my playroom.

Imagine a room with dozens upon dozens of huge, high-definition screens, bringing you live action from ballparks, race tracks, arenas and stadiums around the country.

A place with cheap $1.50 drafts, bar food and gambling, where you can bet on everything from the fifth race at Churchill Downs to who will win Super Bowl XXIV.

Years ago, on a business trip to Vegas, a bunch of work colleagues were hanging around the sports book at Bally’s. Most of us were losing small sums of money on football games.

But one guy knew the ponies and wasn’t afraid to put down large wagers.

One time he came back from the betting cages waving $800 in the air, another time $1400. And the third time back, he returned with yet another large wad….and an IRS form.

That same guy now owns several thoroughbreds and is a fixture at race tracks around the country.

The NFL in Vegas

There’s nothing quite like a Sunday in Vegas during the NFL season. The sports books are packed, and crowds are watching each and every game with a strong rooting interest. A seemingly inconsequential play in a game between two losing teams may draw a huge ovation. A single play, a touchdown or a turnover, swings millions of dollars.

One betting scheme I’ve always liked in the sports books is the long-term football odds. For example, the Giants are currently the NFC favorites, and are listed as 11-1 to win the Super Bowl, behind the Patriots at 11-2 and the Steelers at 9-1.The G-Men are favored to beat the Redskins by five points in their NFL opener at home on September 13.

In college football, Florida is 9-5, Oklahoma 11-2 and USC 15-2 to win the national championship. On the other end, Kansas State, Louisville and Kentucky are all 200-1.

At the end of the day, betting sports is a lot like life. There are winners….and there are losers.


Lords of The Ringless: Wide Receiver Edition

That’s not a Super Bowl trophy Randy Moss is pointing to – he doesn’t own a ring.

Here’s the latest in the Lords of The Ringless series, a litany of losers featuring wide receivers who have never won a championship — Super Bowl, NFL or AFL.

The team nobody wants to join includes four Hall of Famers — Steve Largent, Charley Taylor, James Lofton and Charlie Joiner — and a host of receivers who rank in the top 20 in the major statistical categories — career receptions, touchdowns, yardage and yards per reception.

And perhaps most surprisingly, two of the top three players on this list — Randy Moss and Terrell Owens — are still active. Both have come close, Moss with the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and Owens with the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

But close doesn’t count with Lords of The Ringless.

Ringless Wide Receivers

1. Randy Moss: 1998-present, Vikings, Raiders, Patriots — 3rd all-time in touchdowns with 135, including record 23 in 2007; 15th all-time in receptions with 843, 9th in yardage with 13,201; led NFL in TDs, 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2007; Offensive Rookie of the Year, 1998.

2. Steve Largent: 1976-89, Seahawks — Ranks 6th all-time in touchdown receptions with 100; Hall of Famer ranks 17th in career catches with 819; led NFL in receiving yards in 1979 and 1985; seven time Pro Bowler; 1998 Walter Peyton Award winner. (Shown left)

3. Terrell Owens: 1996-present, 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills — 2nd all-time in touchdowns with 139, trails only former teammate Jerry Rice (197); 5th in yardage with 14,122 and 6th in receptions with 951; TO has been named first team All=Pro five times.

4. Cris Carter: 1987-2002, Eagles, Vikings, Dolphins — Stands 3rd all-time with 1,101 receptions; 4th with 130 touchdowns; 7th in yardage with 13,899; 8-time Pro Bowler; led NFL receivers in TDs 1995, 1997, 1999; Walter Payton Award winner in 1999.

5. Charley Taylor: 1964-77, Redskins — started career as halfback before moving to split end; ranks 19th all-time with 79 touchdowns; led league in receptions in 1976 and 1977; 8-time Pro Bowler; inducted into Hall of Fame in 1984

6. Andre Reed: 1985-2000, Bills, Redskins — Tied with TO for 6th in all-time receptions with 951; 11th with 87 touchdown grabs; and 10th in yardage with 13,198; played in four straight Super Bowls with Buffalo; 7-time Pro Bowler.

7. James Lofton: 1978-93, Packers, Raiders, Bills, Rams, Eagles — Stands 6th all time in yardage with 14,004; led league in yards per reception in 1983 and 1984; made Pro Bowl eight times; NFL Hall of Fame.

8. Tim Brown: 1988-2004, Raiders, final year with Tampa Bay — 4th in receptions with 1,094; tied for 6th in TDs with Steve Largent at 100; 3rd in yardage with 14,934; led league in receptions in 1987 with 104; Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame in 1987

 9. Charlie Joiner: 1969-86, Oilers, Bengals, Chargers — 65 regular season touchdowns ranks 40th all-time; 3-time Pro Bowler; retired as NFL’s all-time receiving leader; member of NFL Hall of Fame. (Shown right)

10. Irving Fryar: 1984-2000, Patriots, Dolphins, Eagles, Redskins — Ranks 13th all-time in receptions with 851; 5-time Pro Bowler was drafted #1 overall by New England in 1984; 14th overall in TDs with 84.

Honorable Mention

Bobby Mitchell: 1958-68, Browns, Redskins — Hall of Fame flanker; led NFL in receptions and reception yardage in 1962.

Henry Ellard: 1983-98, Rams, Redskins, Pats — 8th all-time in yardage with 13,777; 19th in receptions with 814.

Warren Wells: 1964-70, Lions, Raiders — All-time leader in yards per reception with 23.1; caught 42 TDs in brief 5-year career.

Others Lords of The Ringless

Quarterback Edition

Running Back Edition

Baseball Edition

Hoops Edition