- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Philadelphia Eagles were having a team meeting. America was reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Eagles, like many players throughout the NFL, were reeling from the news that commissioner Pete Rozelle said the league would play that Sunday — just two days after the death of the president — while the country was in mourning.

The Eagles would face the team from the nation’s capital, the Washington Redskins, at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.

The story goes that while the Eagles were talking about Rozelle, defensive end Bill Quinlan referred to the commissioner with an ethnic slur. Cornerback Ben Scotti, a University of Maryland graduate who had played for the Redskins, objected to it. Defensive tackle John Mellekas jumped up and started arguing with Scott, and the two of them went into another room.

When they were done, both men had to be hospitalized, according to accounts. Mellekas suffered a broken nose, a black eye and lost several teeth. Scotti had severe cuts to the tendons of his hands.

“I knocked him down, and I stood over him and worked him over,” Scotti told New York Post columnist Milton Gross.

“We had fights,” said Sonny Jurgensen, who was playing for the Eagles in 1963. “Nobody wanted to play that game. It felt like a preseason game. Everybody was in shock.”

Fifty years later, the decision by Rozelle — the man who helped usher the NFL into its place today in America as the national passion — to allow football to be played while feelings were still so raw over the death of the president is still a dark cloud over his legacy.

It has been reported that Rozelle had a conversation with Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, about whether or not to play football that Sunday, and supposedly Salinger told him that Kennedy would have wanted the games to go on.

The Kennedy interest in football went beyond touch football at the Kennedy compound. The family actually expressed interest in buying the Eagles franchise the year before JFK was killed.

Despite the wishes of many players around the league, the NFL played its games that Sunday, and more than 60,000 fans showed up in Philadelphia on Nov. 24, 1963, to watch the Redskins defeat the Eagles 13-10. “Everybody was going through the motions,” said Jurgensen, who would wind up playing for the Redskins the following season.

“They were two bad teams,” Jurgensen said (Washington was 3-8, while Philadelphia was 2-8-1). “Everybody was like, ‘Let’s just get this over with and get out of here.’ Everybody would have been better off if they had not played that day.”

Jurgensen recalled they had just ended practice at Franklin Field on Nov. 22 and were at a sandwich truck getting something to eat when they heard the news President Kennedy had been shot.

“People were walking around crying,” he said.

In Washington, the feelings hit home much closer, particularly for Redskins running back Bobby Mitchell, who was a friend of Robert F. Kennedy.

“We never really talked about our decision to play the game, but I received a call at home,” Mitchell told NBC News. “[Bobby Kennedy] wanted me to come to downtown Washington, where a playground was going to be named the John F. Kennedy playground. They was having a groundbreaking ceremony and his office called to say he wanted me there. Well, I’m nervous because of all the stuff and I didn’t want to go, and so they said, ‘We’ll send a car for you.’ And I said, ‘No, no. I’ll drive.’

“When he arrived, I had moved to the back of the group,” Mitchell said. “[Walter] Washington and everybody was up front. And Mayor Washington told him, ‘Bobby Mitchell is back there, Bobby.’ And that’s when he told me, ‘Get up here. Get up here.’ And I came up there, and when we leaned over he said, ‘I want you to help me with this shovel, because I’m weak.’ And I remember leaning over with him to pick up the dirt, and I had his arm and it felt like his arm was about that big. He was so drained. He was shaking and I was shaking and that was just … I’ll never forget that, what it had done to him in that very short time.”

It was a deeply personal loss to Americans from all walks of life — not just the NFL — but one that required a sense of understanding that business as usual did not recognize that loss. Pete Rozelle didn’t recognize that.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com

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