Archive for Sunday, September 16, 2001

Rozelle regretted decision to play in ‘63

NFL games went on as nation mourned two days after Kennedy assassination

September 16, 2001


— The official word of President John F. Kennedy's death in Dallas came at 2 p.m., Eastern time, on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.

The Baltimore Colts flew to Los Angeles on Friday for their Sunday game against the Rams.

"We always left for West Coast trips on Friday and then had Saturday to adjust time-wise," said Don Shula, who was 33 and in his first season as the Colts coach. "Planes were slower and everything was slower. I can't remember whether we were in the air or not, but if the games were going to be canceled, it would have been on Saturday and we would have already been out there. Everything hit so quick I don't think any of us had time to think."

Pete Rozelle, 37-year-old commissioner, had to make a decision. There was a full slate of seven games scheduled for Sunday in the 14-team NFL.

Rozelle called his friend and mentor Tex Schramm, general manager of the Cowboys.

"He asked me what I thought he should do and I told him I personally thought he should play," said Schramm, now retired in Dallas. "When you have something very sad like that happen, the faster people can get their minds off it for at least a short period, the better.

"He said he had a call in to Pierre Salinger."

Salinger was Kennedy's press secretary and a classmate of Rozelle's at the University of San Francisco. Salinger was en route from Japan. He returned Rozelle's call and told him, "Jack would have said, 'Play."'

On Saturday, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney urged Rozelle to change his mind. The AFL had postponed its games a week.

"It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy," Rozelle said.

The late commissioner later called it his most regrettable mistake. Rozelle had to make a hasty decision before anybody knew the timetable for a national mourning period and the president's funeral. It turned out NFL games were being played while people were filing past Kennedy's casket in the Capitol rotunda.

"I remember sitting in the press box when we got the word about Ruby killing Oswald," Schramm said.

The NFL games were not televised, of course, because the networks were locked in to coverage of the assassination and its aftermath. At 12:20 p.m., before any of the kickoffs, television showed Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby shooting and killing accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald while Oswald was in custody in Dallas.

Rozelle later said his decision might have been different had games been scheduled for Dallas or Washington. The Cowboys traveled to Cleveland and the Redskins played in Philadelphia.

In Cleveland, Modell ordered his P.A. announcer to refer only to "the Cowboys" and not say the word "Dallas."

Said Schramm: "Dallas was a bad word. (The shooting) reflected on everybody in the city."

Rozelle ordered that there be no player introductions, halftime shows or music during stoppages in play. There would be a silent tribute to the president before each game. In some cities, "Taps" was played during the pregame tribute.

"By game time, everyone was emotionally drained," Eagles tight end Pete Retzlaff said. "'Taps' isn't exactly a fight song."

Mike Ditka, tight end for the Bears, recalled that nobody felt like playing football. The Bears were in a tight race with Green Bay. It was the year the Bears won the title and they had to pull out a 17-17 tie with Pittsburgh for a 9-1-1 record to stay ahead of the 9-2 Packers.

"It was a very disappointing time for our country and nobody wanted to play football," he said. "But once they said we had to play, that was our job."

The players union obviously wasn't as strong in 1963 as it is today. Had Rozelle had the time or inclination to poll players, he might have made a different decision.

Sellout crowds attended the St. Louis Cardinals-New York Giants game in New York, the Redskins-Eagles game in Philadelphia and the Bears-Steelers game.

The smallest crowd was 28,763 in Minnesota for the Vikings-Detroit Lions game. The Browns-Cowboys drew only 55,096 in Cleveland's 80,000-seat stadium, and the Rams-Colts drew 48,555 in the 80,000-seat L.A. Coliseum. The Packers and 49ers drew 45,905 in Milwaukee.

Rozelle, who was a friend of the Kennedy family, later said the decision was a mistake. His conversation with Salinger was pivotal.

"I said, 'We've got planes with the players ready to get in the air and I don't know when the services will be. What can you tell me?' " Rozelle said in an interview after his retirement.

"Pierre said, 'I think you should go ahead and play the games.'"

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