Column: A nation grieves and the NFL plays on

Americans grieved 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.”

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