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.
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.
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.
It may have been “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” But in New York, it was “The Greatest Game Never Seen.”
The famous 1958 NFL championship game between the Giants and Colts was televised nationally on NBC, but blacked out in New York.
Fifty years later, New York football fans finally got a chance to see the game — or at least a colorized, condensed version of it — on ESPN the other night. The contest, won by the Colts, 23-17, at Yankee Stadium, is still the only pro football championship game ever to go into overtime.
Why was the game blacked out in New York? NFL policy at the time mandated a black-out all home games regardless of whether they were sold out. That policy was in effect virtually from the beginning of the television era, until 1973, and still holds for games that are not sold out. In fact, all Super Bowl games prior to VII were blacked out in the host market.
The TV broadcasters that day were Chris Schenkel, the voice of the Giants, and Chuck Thompson, the voice of the Colts. Many Giants fans listened to Bob Wolff call the game on radio.
Those days, Giants fans would migrate to Connecticut to see games, or build large antennas to pick up TV signals from Hartford and New Haven.
The Giants had a much tougher road to the 1958 championship than the Colts. Going into the final game of the regular season, they needed to beat the Cleveland Browns at Yankee Stadium to earn a tie at the top of the Eastern Conference.
A seven-year-old kid, I vaguely recall that game — the oldest sibling listening to the game in the car on the way back from a family trip to Brooklyn in a driving snowstorm. Pat Summerall kicked a 49-yard field goal to give the Giants a 13-10 win.
The following week, in a playoff game at Yankee Stadium, the Giants limited Jim Brown to a career-low eight yards in seven carries and shut out Cleveland, 10-0, their third win over the Browns that season.
The Colts were the more rested team in the championship game and it showed, as they wore down the Giants in the fourth quarter and overtime to earn the win. The game that is credited with increasing the popularity of professional football in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
A total of 17 players, coaches and owners involved with the 1958 championship game are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Here’s the list:
New York Giants
OL Rosey Brown
HB Frank Gifford
LB Sam Huff
WR Don Maynard
DE Andy Robustelli
DB Emlen Tunnell
Offensive Coordinator Vince Lombardi
Defensive Coordinator Tom Landry
Owner Tim Mara
Vice President / Secretary Wellington Mara
WR Raymond Berry
DL Art Donovan
DL Gino Marchetti
HB/WR Lenny Moore
OL Jim Parker
QB Johnny Unitas
Head Coach Weeb Ewbank
Jim Brown faces Green Bay in his final game, the 1965 NFL Championship
What’s the best team in football history? Who’s the greatest all-time hitter ever? The best boxer pound for pound?
You can spark some lively debates with any one of those questions about sports, or thousands of others like them.
But when it comes to the question of who is the best running back in football ever, the answer is easy.
Jim Brown of course.
There are certain, well shall we say, certainties in life.
Water is wet. Fire is hot.
And Jim Brown is the best runner in football history.
Nine Years with Browns
Drafted sixth overall in the 1957 draft, Brown played nine years, all with the Cleveland Browns, and led the NFL in rushing eight times. Playing 12 and later 14-game schedules, he rushed for 1,000 yards every year but two, his rookie year of 1957 when he led the NFL with 942 yards, and 1962, when he lost five yards on his final carry of the season and finished with 996.
The following year, Brown set an NFL record with 1,863 yards rushing in 14 games. He finished his career with 12,312 yards gained rushing yards, which still ranks eighth all-time today.
In his career, he scored 126 touchdowns in just 118 games, averaging 104 yards per game, the only rusher in NFL history to average over 100 yards per game for a career. Brown still holds the career record for yards per carry (5.2).
For comparison’s sake, Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, finished with 18,355 yards — but he played in 226 games in his career, more than 100 more than Brown.
Before Brown, the NFL career rushing leader had been Joe Perry of the San Francisco 49ers, but Brown surpassed Perry’s 8,378 career yards in 1963, on his way to 12,312. Buffalo’s OJ Simpson broke Brown’s season record, rushing for 2,003 yards in 1973, and Walter Payton surpassed the career record during the 1984 season.
Four-Time NFL MVP
Brown was Rookie of the Year in 1957 and MVP in 1957, 1958, 1963 and 1965. Every year he played, Brown was voted into the Pro Bowl. He never missed a game in nine seasons, and earned an NFL title in 1964 when the Browns blanked the Colts, 27-0.
:”For mercurial speed, airy nimbleness and explosive violence in one package of undisputed evil, there is no other like Mr. Brown,” the noted sports columnist Red Smith once wrote.
Or as Sam Huff, former Giants linebacker, once described trying to tackle Jim Brown: “All you do, is grab hold, hang on and wait for help.”
In the summer of 1966, Brown stunned the sports world with the announcement that he was retiring from football to pursue an acting career. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
In 2002, Brown was named by The Sporting News as the greatest professional football player ever. Brown was every bit as good a lacrosse player, with the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame stating that he was “widely considered to be the greatest lacrosse player ever.” Sportswriter Bert Sugar named Brown #1 in his book The Greatest Athletes of All Time.