This week marks the 30th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. When Pete Rozelle retired as NFL commissioner in 1989, he said that the biggest mistake (if his career had been his decision to go ahead with the games that were scheduled to be played only 48 hours after Kennedy was pronounced dead on Friday afternoon, Nov. 22, 1963. The three-year-old American Football League postponed its games that weekend, and many NFL players were bitter that Rozelle ordered the show to go on as Kennedy's body lay in state in the Capitol. "Worst mistake Rozelle ever made." says Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff. Over the years, few have disagreed with that view.
Rozelle's decision was not made lightly. That weekend, he consulted with presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger, who thought that the games should be played. "Absolutely, it was the right decision." says Salinger. "I've never questioned it. This country needed some normalcy, and football, which is a very important game in our society, helped provide it."
Of course, there was nothing normal about that Sunday. Less than an hour before kickoff of the early games., Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. In Pittsburgh, the Bears and the Steelers played to a 17-17 tie. "Before the game you're usually talking about picking up blitzes," says former Pittsburgh running back Dick Hoak. "Instead, we were saying, 'Did you hear that Oswald was shot?' "
In Cleveland, Brown owner Art Modell, fearing that someone might try to seek revenge on the visiting Cowboys, ordered extra security for Dallas owner Clint Murchison. At Yankee Stadium, Cardinal safety Larry Wilson had two interceptions to lead St. Louis to a lackluster 24-17 win over the Giants. "I had two interceptions?" says Wilson. "I would never have known unless you'd told me. All I remember about the game was how emotional the anthem was."
Huff, then with the Giants, had campaigned with Kennedy in Huffs home state of West Virginia before the 1960 primary. Of the game that was played on the Sunday after the assassination. Hull" recalls, "That was the only game I ever played on any level that I didn't care about at all. There was no desire, no determination. I kept thinking. This is America? America was a safe haven. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn't. It lives with me to this day."
In Philadelphia, before a 13-10 Washington win, Eagle president Frank McNamee announced that he would not attend the game in protest of Rozelle's decision, and many players were in tears during the national anthem. "When they got ready to kick off," recalls wide receiver Tommy McDonald of the Eagles, "I was still bawling like a baby."
Emotions were raw the night before the game. During a team meeting at which the players set up a fund for the family of slain Dallas policeman J.D. Tippit, 185-pound Philadelphia defensive back Ben Scotti and 260-pound defensive tackle John Mellekas went behind closed doors for a brutal fistfight that put both men in the hospital for three days.
"The game was the strangest thing I've ever been involved in," says King Hill, an Eagle backup quarterback to Sonny Jurgensen on that Sunday. "Officials were officiating it to get it over with. The fans were absolutely dead. It was emotional for me because I was from Texas, and I was ashamed to be from Texas. After the game, I went out to my car, which had Texas plates, and somebody had smashed the windows. That gives you some idea of the frustration of the people that day."
That spring, McDonald was driving somewhere in Philadelphia, and he heard on the radio that he had been traded to Dallas. "You want to know my first reaction?" says McDonald. "I didn't want to go. I thought. Oh, no! They traded me to the place that destroyed the President!"
And Hill has a final recollection—a visit by Robert Kennedy in the '64 preseason to the Eagle locker room. Apparently, like Salinger, the Kennedy family had felt that the games should be played. "He came into our locker room," says Hill, "and went around shaking our hands. He said he appreciated us playing the games that weekend."
BOB GOMEL/LIFE MAGAZINE
As Kennedy lay in state, the Giants paused for the national anthem.
[See caption above.]