As mourners filed past the coffin of the slain John F Kennedy in the US capital, 140 miles away the Washington Redskins kicked off against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The date was November 24, 1963, and it was less than 48 hours since President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, sending a shocked nation into mourning.
The players would rather have been anywhere else as the game began at Franklin Field, but against the advice — even pleas — of most of the club owners, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had ruled the weekend’s full slate of games should go ahead.
It was not a decision he took lightly, but it was one he would regret for the rest of his life, the most controversial entry on a résumé otherwise filled with moves that positioned the fledgling NFL to become the behemoth it is today.
Immediately after hearing the news from Dallas, Rozelle had reached out to his former college room-mate Pierre Salinger, now the White House press secretary, for advice and when word came back, the message was “Play”.
When Rozelle announced the decision, he cited Kennedy’s love of the sport.
“It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy,” he said in a statement. “Football was Mr Kennedy’s game. He thrived on competition.”
What followed was one of the more surreal days in the NFL’s history.
Today’s familiar game-day razzmatazz did not yet exist, but even by the more muted standards of the early ’60s, there was a deeply sombre tone to the pre-game rituals.
Many teams chose to play the traditional American song of remembrance, Taps before kick-off. It hardly helped the players get ready to try to play.
Several players admitting to shedding tears throughout the national anthem.
“When they got ready to kick off,” Eagles wide receiver Tommy McDonald told Sports Illustrated, “I was still bawling like a baby.”
Games lacked intensity, scoring averages were down, and one of the all-time great running backs, Jim Brown — on his way to a career-best 1,863 yards that season — rushed for just 51 that day.
The Dallas Cowboys were facing Brown and his team-mates in Cleveland.
Only formed in 1960, Dallas was a young franchise, en route to a fourth straight losing record, and a long way from becoming ’America’s Team’ as they are now. That weekend they bore the brunt of a nation’s anger towards their home town.
Cleveland owner Art Modell feared reprisals against the visiting team, and stationed armed guards around the Municipal Stadium, where only 55,000 filed into the 83,000-capacity bowl.
He also ordered his PA announcers to refer to the visiting team only as ‘the Cowboys’. Dallas would not be mentioned.
Just an hour before the game was to kick off, word came through that Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had himself been shot by Jack Ruby.
Cowboys quarterbackEddie LeBaron recalled in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram how the players watched TV open-mouthed in the locker room before trying to raise themselves to play.
“Put your helmets on,” LeBaron told his team-mates. “And keep ’em on.”
Rozelle took in the New York Giants’ game against the St Louis Cardinals at Yankee Stadium, but admitted he could not concentrate as he worried he had made the wrong decision.
He would ultimately conclude he had.
History largely agrees, but there are dissenting voices. Salinger said in Sports Illustrated the NFL playing helped return a sense of normality, even if the league’s broadcaster CBS kept the games off the air to focus on news from Dallas.
“Absolutely, it was the right decision.” Salinger said. “I’ve never questioned it. This country needed some normalcy, and football, which is a very important game in our society, helped provide it.”
The Eagles had sent their game ball to the White House with a message of condolence, and later JFK’s brother Robert visited the team to thank them for taking the field that day.
But most agreed with Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney.
“It [helped] me put things in perspective,” he wrote in his autobiography decades later.
“There are more important things than playing football every Sunday.”
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