Pete Rozelle was in a quandary. At 37, he had been commissioner of the NFL for less than four years and had not yet become the czar he would be later. Now most of the nation was in mourning, and football seemed unimportant. What to do?
Rozelle buzzed his secretary. “Get me Pierre Salinger on Air Force One,” he snapped. “The plane is somewhere over the Pacific.”
It was Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, and President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated while he rode through the streets of Dallas in a motorcade, beginning a four-day period during which people around the world attempted to deal with the terrible news. But Rozelle’s problem was more immediate. Should the seven games scheduled two days later be played or postponed?
Soon Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary and a former classmate of Rozelle’s at the University of San Francisco, was on the line as Air Force One turned around and headed back to Washington rather than carrying cabinet members to a trade conference in Tokyo.
Rozelle asked Salinger’s advice. The Kennedys had long been associated with the sport because of the famous family touch football games at Hyannis Port and elsewhere, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy played at Harvard.
Salinger’s reply was emphatic: “Play the games. Jack would have wanted it.”
So the NFL went ahead with its regular schedule — the most unfortunate decision of his 29 years as commissioner, Rozelle often said.
Viewed with the assistance of hindsight, it now seems obvious the NFL should have canceled its games, as it did 38 years later after September 11. At the time, however, the decision was not so clear-cut. For one thing, not every American was enamored of President Kennedy and his New Frontier. He defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 in one of the closest and most disputed elections in history, and much of the South hated the administration because it supported the civil rights movement.
On that unforgettable day, advice assaulted Rozelle from all sides before Salinger settled the matter.
“He asked me what I thought he should do, and I told him I thought we should play,” former Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm told the Chicago Tribune decades later. “When something very sad like that happens, the faster people can get it off their minds for at least a short period, the better.”
Others were shocked at the prospect of playing football at such a time. Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell urged Rozelle not to play. The Cowboys were scheduled to be in Cleveland, and Modell feared some fans might take out their anger on Dallas’ football team.
“We took extreme measures with security,” Modell recalled. “I was terribly afraid of an incident. We had sharpshooters on the roof. We beefed up the security around [Cowboys owner] Clint Murchison’s box.”
Modell also instructed his public address announcer to refer to the visiting team merely as “the Cowboys,” not “the Dallas Cowboys.” As Schramm noted, “Dallas was a bad word that weekend. The shooting reflected on everybody in our city.”
The NFL’s ultimate decision to play contrasted with that of the rival American Football League, which postponed its four games almost immediately. Commissioner Joe Foss was a Marine pilot and war hero who had great respect for his slain commander-in-chief. Foss was out of town when news broke of the assassination, but after conferring with his boss by telephone, assistant commissioner Milt Woodard announced the games were off.
“Some [people] were on the fence, but I thought [the decision] was a slam dunk,” said Ralph Wilson, owner of the AFL’s Buffalo Bills. “I felt so strongly that I might not have played if the games had not been called off.”