Source: USA TODAY
This story was originally published Nov. 16, 2013 as part of USA TODAY’s coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy
Fifty years ago this month after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, examples were set for what fit and what didn’t when sports schedules overlapped with national tragedy. The late Pete Rozelle made a decision he later called his biggest regret as NFL commissioner, to keep playing games. Midshipman Roger Staubach quarterbacked Navy against Army in a game remembered as an uplifting moment for a reeling nation.
The NFL played its Sunday schedule two days after the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination — and that became the template for how not to handle such decision.
Yet 15 days after Kennedy’s death, the annual Army-Navy game was held, with Navy winning 21-15. The late Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy (D-Mass.) said his brother John, a former Navy PT boat commander who had planned to attend the ’63 Army-Navy game, would have enjoyed the outcome.
There was an element of timing in these two cases, two days versus more than two weeks. But it went beyond that, to different atmospheres surrounding the NFL and professionals games and an Army-Navy game played in tribute to the commander-in-chief and his family.
“There weren’t pep rallies. Or there wasn’t all the stuff that goes on before the game. But there were emotions that were really kept inside that came out in the game,” Staubach, who went on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys, tells USA TODAY Sports.
“I think it really was very positive. We still think about the horrific tragedy 50 years later, but at least at that time, that game, I think, had a lot to with trying to understand how important he was to us and how important he was to the country. … People at that game really let their emotions get out and transferred the sorrow to the football field in a way that I think was very positive.”
CBS Sports Network last week did a special on the 50-year anniversary, Marching On: 1963 Army-Navy Remembered. Sunday, Dan Rather will narrate Rozelle’s Decision To Play on ESPNEWS at 9 a.m. ET and on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET. This week, Bob Costas will host a special on the NBC Sports Network, and NFL Media will have a package of content available on NFL.com and shown on various programs on the NFL Network.
Michael H. Gavin, author of the 2012 book Sports in the Aftermath of Tragedy: From Kennedy to Katrina, also notes the significance of that Army-Navy game.
“Not only because of Kennedy’s relationship to the armed services but because he attended that game a lot in his presidency,” says Gavin.
“In the Cold War era and in an era when your commander-in-chief has just been assassinated, a lot of the stories about that game were about national strength and vigor being reasserted as a result of these two teams that were full of hope, strong individuals playing a game.”
It wasn’t the same for NFL matchups such as the Dallas Cowboys at the Cleveland Browns.
“A lot of people sort of condemned that (NFL) decision to continue with the games … as being insensitive at the very least and sometimes, they said, shaming the entire nation,” says Gavin.
In his book he quotes a column by Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune after a New York Giants game at Yankee Stadium in the aftermath of the assassination. It began, “In the civilized world, it was a day of mourning. In the National Football League, it was the 11th Sunday of the business year, a quarter-million day in Yankee Stadium.”
The NFL telecasts were preempted that Sunday by wall-to-wall assassination coverage.
“The research that I did actually shows that a lot of people weren’t too upset about (playing) right after the games. But that’s how it was remembered,” says Gavin.
It was a different time when it came to the scope and speed in dispersing media and public opinion.
“In today’s society, where the media is so much more saturating in society than it was back then,” Gavin says, “after a moment of tragedy we expect games to be canceled or postponed. … It’s almost as if it’s a part of the tradition of sports to take a moment, pause and allow for people to sort of situate in their own minds how the next game will be meaningful to the story of the tragedy.”
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NFL postponed games set for Sept. 16-17.
On Nov. 24, 1963, the schedule was played.
SPLIT OPINIONS ON WHETHER TO PLAY
Gil Brandt, vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys from their first season in 1960 through 1989, was meeting with his staff the day of the assassination. The draft was early that year, Dec. 2.
Tex Schramm, former president of the Cowboys, interrupted the meeting.
“He came in and said the President had been shot,” Brandt tells USA TODAY Sports.
Brandt says Schramm immediately got in touch with Rozelle to ask about the status of the games. Rozelle contacted Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger. The two had been classmates at the University of San Francisco.
In a 1994 interview with The New York Times, Rozelle said, “I was terribly upset. It was difficult to talk to him. Pierre said, ‘I think you should go ahead and play the games.’”
Rozelle made his decision to play. He told The Times he “brooded” about it at church before attending the Giants game.
“We had a moment of silence. I could not concentrate on the game,” said Rozelle. ” … I had lost someone whom I respected as the leader of our country, but I was also a close friend of the Kennedy family.”
Beginning Wednesday, NFL Media will include analysis of Rozelle’s decision in a package of JFK content on NFL.com. It will air segments on assorted NFL Network shows the rest of the week and weekend.
In the NFL Media coverage, late owner Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders addresses why the then-rival American Football League postponed its games. “We had some owners who wanted to play the games,” says Davis, then coach of the Raiders. “And I said you won’t get me to play the games. Our team won’t play.”
Sam Huff, former Giants/Washington Redskins linebacker and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, says on the NFL package: “That was the one game in my whole career that I didn’t want to play. … The NFL, I think, has a black eye because they played on that day.”
Mike Brown, owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, has a counter view. “I thought it was right to play the games,” he says. “You just can’t stop doing things when tragedy hits. You have to keep on. In my mind, I think President Kennedy would have expected that.”
As Jerry Kramer, former offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers, recalls on the ESPN special: “I remember Coach Lombardi bringing us all together and saying, ‘We’re gonna play the damn game.’ “
COWBOYS, NOT THE ‘DALLAS’ COWBOYS
The Cowboys, that 1963 weekend, faced a trip to Cleveland.
“The team was split on whether you play or don’t play,” says Brandt. “And I would imagine the majority of the players were for not playing.”
Beyond grief over Kennedy, Brandt says there were concerns at the time that the city of Dallas was being blamed.
“There were words of warning, so to speak,” given to the team from management, says Brandt. “‘Don’t go out to eat en masse. And by that I mean don’t 10 guys go to Lula Belle’s Café and say we’re from the Cowboys.’ … They didn’t want us to mention Dallas. We were introduced on the playing field before the kickoff as the Cowboys, not the Dallas Cowboys.”
In a one-hour Costas Tonight Special — No Day for Games: The Cowboys and JFK, to air Wednesday at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Costas addresses that.
“For a league that has no presence in Los Angeles, the Dallas Cowboys are as close to Hollywood as it gets,” Costas says in the opening. “But half a century ago for the Cowboys of 1963, it was fear — not football — that was on their mind. As symbols of the city where the President was murdered, the Cowboys soon found some of the nation’s anger directed towards them.”
Lee Roy Jordan, former Cowboys linebacker, tells NBCSN, “We were the team from Dallas, Texas. We were connected with killing the President of the United States.”
Brandt was in the Cowboys locker looker room at Cleveland Municipal Stadium just before kickoff. He recalls that Coach Tom Landry had just begun to write the first play on a board — a slant pass — when a security man interrupted.
“This security guy opens the doors, and he says, ‘Coach, coach, you know the guy that shot the President? They just killed him dead in the jail house,’” says Brandt.
“And Tom said thank you and kept right on writing, only as Tom could, very concerned but not letting anybody else know he was concerned.”
The Cowboys took the field after learning Jack Ruby had shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Cleveland, quarterbacked by Frank Ryan, beat Dallas, quarterbacked by Don Meredith, 27-17.
Bob Lilly, former Cowboys defensive lineman and Hall of Famer, told NBCSN: “We could have quit our season then, it would have been fine with me.”
Dallas finished that season 4-10 but later went on to become “America’s Team.”
“I think it’s safe to say that because of Landry and the image he projected that he did more for the city of Dallas in diffusing that the city was responsible for what took place,” says Brandt. “I think because of Landry’s character and approach to life and the success of our team, people soon moved away from it being where the President was killed.”
‘FITTING TRIBUTE’ TO SLAIN PRESIDENT
Staubach was in his junior season at Navy in 1963, the year he won the Heisman Trophy and helped the team to a 9-2 record.
The Army-Navy game was originally set for Nov. 30. President Kennedy planned to attend. His plan was to sit on the Army side for the first half and the Navy side for the second half. Two days before his assassination, Kennedy telegrammed Navy Coach Wayne Hardin: “I hope to be on the winning side when the game ends.”
“He liked football, but he loved the Army-Navy game,” Staubach said. “He was, I would say, a little partial to Navy because he was a Navy guy. But he still was commander-in-chief of both sides. … He was all set to come to the game … it’s a shame, the whole thing.”
Staubach, in a Navy football game pose, was the intended cover of LIFE for the Nov. 29, 1963, edition that was scheduled to go to go out Nov. 22. “Navy’s Staubach: The Greatest College Quarterback” was the cover headline.
Instead, very last-minute, LIFE switched to a profile pose of Kennedy and a memorial edition, with the Staubach article still included in the magazine. But several copies of the Staubach cover were kept. Staubach himself asked for one. Copies show up on ebay from time to time, going for anywhere from $150 to $1,000.
Some college games, including Nebraska versus Oklahoma, were played the day after Kennedy’s death. Pittsburgh, however, postponed its home game against Penn State. Army-Navy was postponed until Dec. 7, already a day of remembrance because of the 1941 attack on Pearl Habor.
Jacqueline Kennedy said publicly that playing the game was a “fitting tribute’ to her husband. Says Staubach, “The family really then made this an important event in honoring the President.”
There was a moment of silence before the game. Red Smith described the scene afterward.
“The West Point band played the national anthem,” Smith wrote. “From that moment on, nothing seemed less important than football, yet seldom in the 73 years since cadets and midshipmen first butted skulls in fun had an Army-Navy game furnished more captivating entertainment.”
Navy won 21-15 despite a comeback led by Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh. Time expired with Army at the Navy 2-yard line and unable to get off a play before a crowd of more than 100,000 at Municipal Stadium (renamed John F. Kennedy Stadium the next year). The game clinched a berth for No. 2-ranked Navy in the Cotton Bowl against No. 1 Texas, which won 28-6.
Staubach salutes Stichweh for his play that day.
“Rollie was the hero. … We were ahead 21-7 into the fourth quarter and we never got the ball back. … It was his game,” Staubach says. “We were fortunate to come off the field (with a win). But if it was fourth down, I don’t know if they would have scored or not. But he kind of took blame for not getting that play off at the end.
“He and I have become good friends.”
Staubach enjoyed watching a CBS Sports special Thursday night about the 1963 Army-Navy game that recalled a visit Kennedy made in the summer of 1962 while Navy was doing preseason training at Naval Air Station Quonset Point in Rhode Island. Kennedy was on his way to the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass.
“He came in the locker room. … They made some comments in the (CBS Sports special) that he really said some nice things about me,” says Staubach. “He looked forward to going to the games. He wasn’t just going there because he was president. There was a real good chemistry between Army-Navy and football and the president.”
The 2009 book, The President’s Team: The 1963 Army-Navy Game and the Assassination of JFK, by Michael Connelly, recounts that game. It includes a foreward by Ted Kennedy.
“I remember the 1963 game being on (TV) in the background,” Kennedy wrote. “It was a difficult time, and we really couldn’t give the game our full attention.
“Navy won that year. My brother would have liked that.”
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