NEW YORK – Americans mourned in front of their television sets on a brutally grim Sunday afternoon 50 years ago as a horse-drawn caisson took the body of President Kennedy from the White House to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
In Dallas, a nightclub operator named Jack Ruby further stunned the nation that day by shooting Lee Harvey Oswald to death in black-and-white images broadcast across the country.
And in seven U.S. cities, men put on their shoulder pads, strapped on their helmets and took the field to play games that suddenly didn’t seem so fun anymore.
As unimaginable as it might seem today — and did seem to many even then — the NFL played on despite the assassination of a president just two days earlier.
“Everyone has a different way of paying respects,” commissioner Pete Rozelle said that day at Yankee Stadium. “I went to church today and I imagine many of the people at the game here did, too. I cannot feel that playing the game was disrespectful, nor can I feel that I have made a mistake.”
Rozelle was wrong on both counts, something he would later admit when he called his decision to play the games the worst mistake he made in 29 years as commissioner. But play them they did, from stadiums in the East to the Los Angeles Coliseum even as the rival American Football League canceled its slate of games and most colleges had canceled theirs the day before.
Rozelle would later say he made his decision the afternoon of the assassination based partly on advice from Pierre Salinger, the White House press secretary, who told him Kennedy would have wanted the games played. The decision was made a bit easier by the fact teams in Dallas and Washington were both playing on the road that weekend and the NBA and NHL went on with their limited schedules.
But even within the league there were deep divisions on the propriety of playing before Kennedy had even been laid to rest. The Redskins offered to forgo their $75,000 guarantee so they wouldn’t have to take the train to Philadelphia, and Eagles president Frank McNamee was so unhappy about his team playing that he went to a memorial for the president at Independence Hall rather than the game.
“Simply and flatly the game is being played by order of the commissioner,” McNamee said tersely.
If there were any great performances that day, they went widely unnoticed. The games were not televised because CBS was devoting its airwaves fulltime to coverage of the assassination, and sports writers of the day were as much in mourning as everyone else.
“Big men were playing a boy’s sport at the wrong time,” sports columnist Arthur Daley wrote in The New York Times.
Some players — particularly those on the Los Angeles Rams — had no desire to play. They took the field because they had to, because the commissioner had declared the games would go on.
Others almost seemed to welcome the respite from the dreariness of the day.
“It was hard to think football before the game,” St. Louis quarterback Charlie Johnson said that day. “Then it passed.”
“I think everybody felt something,” Chicago Bears tight end Mike Ditka said. “Not having known the man, however, I think he would have not wanted it postponed. So we go out on the field — and it’s business to us — and after the first kickoff all you think about is the Steelers.”
The fans might have been seeking an escape themselves. Despite worries that stadiums could be half empty, games in New York, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were all sellouts. And while about 150 tickets were sent back for refunds in Pittsburgh, another 300 were sold the day before the game.
At the stadiums, flags were at half-staff and there was a moment of silence before the game. Fans were asked to join in singing the national anthem, and many had transistor radios tuned in to the latest developments in Dallas and Washington.
The NFL was hardly the sports behemoth it is today. It had just 14 teams — the Detroit Lions were sold that week for $6 million — and lagged behind baseball and college football in popularity. The league had just weathered a gambling scandal, it faced competition from the upstart yet still decidedly inferior AFL and the first Super Bowl was still four years away.
Still, the decision to play was shocking to many, made even more so when the shooting of Oswald was captured on TV just minutes before the East Coast games were scheduled to kick off. So much had happened in the previous 48 hours that it seemed incomprehensible that playing football games would somehow restore some normalcy to a shattered nation.
That they played football that Sunday was a blunder Rozelle would come to regret. It was also one the NFL would take pains to avoid after the 9/11 attacks, when the entire season was pushed back a week while workers dug through the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Sports can be a healer, but it can’t heal everything. Certainly not a nation traumatized by the killing of a president who always seemed so full of life.
On that painful Sunday a half century ago, nothing could.