The NFL carried on after JFK’s assassination, even as players mourned
The Los Angeles Rams huddled inside the Dew Drop Inn Tavern. Though less than 48 hours remained until kickoff, the group of about 20 quietly agreed that it didn’t want to play.
The pictures on the television in the bar were more captivating than the potential thrill of ramming Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas into the Coliseum grass. Plus, the live programming had no end in sight. Surely, CBS wouldn’t even televise the game. No point in playing.
The players had reached the bar soon after Coach Harland Svare whistled together the team — 37 active players — on its San Fernando Valley practice field.
He told them something unbelievable had happened in Dallas. President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed.
Lamar Lundy, the normally menacing right end on the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome defensive line, was among those especially distressed. Moans, groans and curses popped. A few knees dropped to the turf.
“Some guys showed it emotionally. Some guys didn’t show it,” said fullback Ben Wilson, looking back on that Friday 50 years ago. “But everyone shook their head. That’s the one expression of grief I remember.”
Later at the bar, the Fearsome Foursome swore off playing Sunday. Quarterback Roman Gabriel agreed.
But one big problem blocked the plan to postpone the game. The players had no say.
In New York, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle received call after call from owners. Several thought like the Rams’ crew — they didn’t want to play. At least one said Sunday’s games should go on.
The competing American Football League games and nearly every major weekend event, except for a few high school and college football games, had been canceled.
Rozelle diverged, making a decision that would later dog him and remain a major consideration for decades to come whenever unimaginable calamities befell the nation.
The deciding factor for Rozelle was a call that day with the “uniquely situated” Pierre Salinger, according to the book about the 1963 season “Clouds Over the Goalpost.” 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.
By Saturday morning, word reached the Rams.
“It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy,” Rozelle announced. “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.”
Respect didn’t concern the players. They worried whether they could put their hearts into playing.
“Sometimes people take the attitude that you have to move on and evidently that’s the view the NFL took,” Rams wide receiver Carroll Dale recently said.
The dullest practice of many Rams careers came Saturday. It was the rare day that the bullying now associated with football because of Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin disappeared.
The jokesters didn’t rub burning balms on teammates. The rousers didn’t tease players taking it too easy. The kidsters didn’t tap someone’s helmet and then hide.
“A football player’s life, you keep it going by laughing, joking and pranks,” kicker Danny Villanueva said. “There was none of that.”
Players recalled arriving like “zombies” at the Ambassador Hotel that night. The few of them who were not watching TV studied together in rooms — since replaced by Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools classrooms.
The Colts and the Coliseum should have been on players’ minds. But, “Dealey Plaza was the center of the world for us for that weekend,” Villanueva said.
CBS, the exclusive NFL television broadcaster, refused to abandon its special coverage of the assassination. Columnists criticized Rozelle for placing the NFL’s business above the nation’s mourning. But Rozelle doubled down as the early-afternoon games began.
“Everyone has a different way of paying respects,” he told reporters at Yankee Stadium, where the New York Giants lost, 24-17, to the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. “I went to church today and I imagine many of the people here at the game did too. I cannot feel that playing the game was disrespectful nor can I feel that I have made a mistake.”
The Rams drove themselves to the Coliseum. A few players lingered at the Ambassador long enough to see Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. Fans at the East Coast games missed it.
Several thousand people called the Coliseum on Sunday morning to inquire about the game and whether tickets remained. About one in 15 complained, a Coliseum official told The Times in 1963.
“If we offended anybody, we apologize,” Rams owner Dan Reeves said after attending Sunday morning Mass. “But there can be no disrespect to President Kennedy’s memory when none was intended.”
Reeves offered refunds to fans unwilling to come to the Coliseum, where Kennedy had accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president three years earlier in front of 50,000 people.
Two days after his death, almost 49,000 people entered the Coliseum. It was a slightly above-average crowd for the Rams. Four of the six other NFL games that Sunday sold out.
Minutes before the coin toss, few players were energized to play. Kick return specialist Carver Shannon barely found motivation.
“Sometimes, the guys today will say we got to win this game for the coach if he’s just collapsed or had a heart attack,” Shannon said. “We had the same feeling: ‘We have to win this game for the president to show him we can carry on, that it’s going to be OK.’ ”
Coming through the tunnel, Villanueva noticed something off. Flags were at half-staff. The band that would typically entertain fans was absent. Cheering fans replaced thunderous applause with “pitter-patter” claps, he said.
The 5-5 Colts scored first against the 3-7 Rams. Fifty years later, players recall fewer details about the game than any other in their careers. Some remembered subdued celebrations.
The Rams won, 17-16, because of Villanueva’s 13-yard field goal in the third quarter, a kick that the Univision co-founder had forgotten 45 years later until a nephew discovered a yellowing newspaper.
“We were going through the motions, and I think the game score reflects that,” Villanueva said. The game was the Colts’ third-lowest in scoring during the 14-game season.
Players returned home after, eschewing the typical victory dinner and “orange juice,” Gabriel said.
Rozelle eventually regretted forcing the players out there before Kennedy’s funeral.
“As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t have played those games if I could make the judgment again,” Rozelle told The Times in 1989 after baseball officials postponed Game 3 of the World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants because of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
The criticism in 1963 was minimal — remember the players only whispered their grumbles, said Michael Gavin, author of “Sports in the Aftermath of Tragedy: From Kennedy to Katrina.” But Rozelle’s regret gave more credence to the backlash he faced, fostering a negatively toned mythology around Nov. 24, 1963 that has become justification for post-tragedy cancellations.
To be sure, games after events such as Sept. 11 and Superstorm Sandy had unprecedented safety concerns not present in 1963.
Players’ unions also have increased leverage.
“Football was survival for us, and the league had this incredible dominance over us,” Villanueva said. “Players now would make their voices known.”
After Sept. 11, they did. Most owners wanted to play. But players didn’t.
“We need to pause, stop, and reflect and we need to grieve,” players’ union chief Gene Upshaw said.
The NFL moved the season back a week. It switched New Orleans hotel room dates with a massive auto dealers’ association convention to move the Super Bowl a week into February for the first time in history.
All of the maneuvering still links back to Rozelle’s decision, said Lee Igel, a professor in New York University’s program on sports and society.
“Leaders today are now fortunate to have had him make that decision, and then reflect on it and be honest in that reflection,” Igel said. “Now, you use sports as a device to get the nation back on track — but after a pause. That’s largely the pattern for the foreseeable future.”
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