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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 911 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.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at) or