Shortly after the JFK assassination, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle decided that the league would play on to honor President Kennedy. Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster Books on YouTube Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster Books on YouTube

“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time…2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago. Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded; presumably, he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the 36th President of the United States.”

— Walter Cronkite, CBS. Nov. 22, 1963.

At nearly the exact moment that Walter Cronkite was announcing that President John F. Kennedy had succumbed to his wounds, Lyndon Johnson was taking the Oath of Office on Air Force One, getting sworn in as the new President of the United States. While the nation was saddened and stunned over Kennedy’s assassination, the quick transfer of power was important to show everyone that the country would move forward.

Americans, and anyone else around the world affected by the assassination, were also all left to figure out how to move on. Pete Rozelle, the then-Commissioner of the NFL, was one of the people who had to make that decision quickly. President Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday afternoon. The NFL had seven games scheduled to be played on Sunday, Nov. 24, just two days later. Eventually, Rozelle made the controversial decision to play the games.

The decision was reached after a conversation that Rozelle had with a former classmate of his at the University of San Francisco, Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy’s Press Secretary. In that conversation, Salinger advised Rozelle that the games should be played. He cited Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother and the United States Attorney General, who not only gave his blessing for the games to be played but requested that they be.

“Salinger, the White House press secretary, said to Rozelle, ‘Jack would have wanted you to play the games,’ U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, had also wanted the games to continue,” Paresh Dave of the Los Angeles Times recalled in 2013.

With that, Rozelle proclaimed that the games would be played.  

“It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy,” Rozelle said (H/T Dave). “Football was Mr. Kennedy’s game. He thrived on competition. We would not — absolutely not — play the game if we really felt it would be showing disrespect.”

Robert Kennedy’s blessing to play football extended beyond the NFL.

While most college football games scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 23 were either postponed or canceled, there were some notable exceptions. One such exception was the rivalry game between Oklahoma and Nebraska. It was a matchup between two top-10 teams, and as was so often the case in that era, the winning team would claim the Big Eight Conference championship and a trip to the Orange Bowl.

A 2013 article from Blair Kerkhoff the Creston News Advertiser recalled that Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson, Nebraska coach Bob Devaney, and Big Eight commissioner Wayne Duke were among those who gathered to discuss whether the game should be played. The decision was made to play on, based on a direct plea from Robert Kennedy.

“We called Bobby,” Duke said in 2013. “And he counseled Bud to play the game. He said the country needed a pick up.”

One other important factor made the decision to play games more plausible. There were no games in either Washington D.C. or Dallas. The Washington Redskins (as they were then known) and Dallas Cowboys were both on the road, taking on the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively.

Washington, of course, was preparing for President Kennedy’s State Funeral on Monday. On Sunday afternoon, his casket was taken from the White House to the United States Capitol Building. Dallas, the city of President Kennedy’s assassination, was dealing with its own media circus. It’s hard to imagine that Rozelle would have decided to play the games if either of those two cities had to play host.

The decision to play had been made. But what was the attitude of the players who had to take the field? That varied. In a 2013 retrospective from ESPN, different players shared their thoughts. One of those was Mike Ditka, then a tight end for the Chicago Bears. His sentiments echoed those that Salinger shared with Rozelle.

“I think John F. Kennedy would have wanted the games played,” Ditka said. “He loved sports, he loved football. I think that was the best way to honor his memory.”

Lee Roy Jordan, then a rookie linebacker for the Cowboys, wanted to play, as well. He hoped that the Cowboys could help give their city a much-needed morale boost.

“We were all, ‘Are we going to play this week or are we not gonna play?’ I think everyone was concerned about it. I was hoping it would be played so our team could help heal the city of Dallas. I just felt like we needed to play the game.”

But that opinion was not universal. Dan Rooney, an executive with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1963, recalled Rozelle asking for his advice. Rooney remembered advising Rozelle against playing. Even after the commissioner spoke with Salinger, Rooney remembered telling Rozelle, “I disagree with you but I’ll back you.”

Jerry Kramer, the future Hall of Fame guard of the Green Bay Packers, remembered not wanting to play and shared that his coach, Vince Lombardi, had a similar mindset.

“I think Coach Lombardi felt pretty much like I felt. I don’t think he wanted to play the game. He was uncomfortable about the game. He let us know that he was uncomfortable about the game…I remember Coach Lombardi bringing us all together and saying, “We’re gonna play the damn game. They’ve decided that we’re gonna play it. Now let’s get on with it.

“I didn’t care,” Kramer added. “I just wanted to get the game over with and get off the field. There’s also a feeling, maybe of embarrassment. That you shouldn’t be there.”

While the Cowboys didn’t have a home game that Sunday, their players did have concerns that no other visiting team dealt with.

The players were told to not identify themselves as Cowboys or from Dallas while in Cleveland. They were also advised to keep their helmets on at all times. Browns owner Art Modell instructed the public address announcer at Cleveland Stadium to refer to the visiting team only as the “Cowboys,” rather than the “Dallas Cowboys” or “Dallas.” This was all done with the fear that the players and coaches might feel the backlash of an angry nation.

Fortunately, while some untoward heckling did take place, nothing went beyond that.

As uncomfortable as things might have been for the Cowboys in Cleveland, things in Dallas only got weirder and more chaotic on Sunday.

One thing the NFL did not have to worry about was appeasing its broadcaster sponsor. Excluding the people in the stadiums, nobody would be watching the games. CBS, then the only network that covered the NFL, quickly decided that it would devote itself completely to the Kennedy assassination coverage through the weekend, at least.

Part of that coverage included Lee Harvey Oswald, President Kennedy’s alleged assassin, being taken through the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters. Oswald was to be taken through the basement to a car, which would transport him from the city jail to the county jail. Oswald was not only accused of assassinating President Kennedy but also Dallas Police Officer, J.D. Tippit, who was gunned down shortly after JFK was shot. 

Given the high-profile nature of his alleged crimes, a sea of media was there to meet Oswald for his short walk to the car, where he’d be transported to the county jail. Most of the people waiting to see Oswald were either media members or police officers — but there was at least one exception. Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, who knew several of the police officers in town, was also present.

Shortly after Oswald entered the garage, Ruby lunged at him, shooting the alleged assassin in the gut. Ruby was quickly wrestled to the ground by the police but by that point, it was too late. The damage to Oswald was done. JFK’s alleged assassin was taken to Parkland Hospital, the same place where President Kennedy had been pronounced dead two days earlier. But like JFK, Oswald succumbed to his wounds.

“We’re watching the television, that’s when they were moving Lee Harvey Oswald,” recalled Wayne Walker (in the ESPN retrospective), then a linebacker for the Detroit Lions. “And that’s at the point where I’m up on the table, getting my knee taped, Jack Ruby comes out of nowhere, sticks his arm out with a gun in it, and shoots Oswald. It just totally blew me away.”

Several conspiracy theories of widely varying plausibility have emerged in the 60 years since JFK’s assassination. While that’s inevitable in a situation like this one, Oswald going to trial might have given some of the questions that have persisted over the decades a chance to be answered. Of course, in the moment, people weren’t thinking about that.

In a two-day window, President Kennedy was assassinated. Then, the man alleged to have assassinated the president was himself murdered — and on live television, no less. What was going on? Most importantly, what was next?

Next was something that given the events of the previous 48 hours, certainly felt trivial — seven football games. In one of those games, Ditka made one of the greatest plays in the history of the league, certainly in the pre-merger era. He caught a pass and broke no fewer than six tackles before getting free. He couldn’t quite score, running out of gas short of the goal line. But that helped set the Bears up with the tying field goal in their game against the Steelers, which ended in a tie.

From an on-field perspective, that’s easily the most memorable moment from the games that were played. Despite that, and that he wanted to play, Ditka also shared that the environment at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field was a lot different than he’d been used to.

“People were there — but I don’t think too many people seemed like they were excited to be there,” Ditka recalled. “It was very eerie. It wasn’t a whole lot of cheering and I don’t think anybody was watching it. I really don’t. I didn’t think it was watched by very many people.”

It’s worth noting that the NFL was not the only league playing that weekend. In addition to the aforementioned rivalry game between Oklahoma and Nebraska and a select few other college games, the NBA and NHL both quickly returned to action. The NBA postponed the games scheduled for Friday, Nov. 22, while the NHL didn’t have any games on the schedule. But on Saturday, Nov. 23, just one day after President Kennedy’s assassination, both leagues were in action.

The NFL’s rival, the American Football League, then in its fourth year, made the decision to postpone its games that weekend. They were moved to Sunday, Dec. 22, one week after the originally scheduled end of the regular season.

The decision to play was one that Rozelle — who passed away in 1996 — came to regret. He would later call it the biggest mistake of his career.

Grieving is an individual thing and there’s really no wrong or right way to do it. We certainly can’t blame the AFL for not playing or for Kramer (and his like-minded peers) who didn’t want to. But it’s also easy to understand what those who wanted to play were thinking. Because of that, it’s no surprise that, years later, there are still such differing and strong opinions on the matter.


[Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster Books on YouTube]

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