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.”
The AFL decision became an unintentional public relations coup in the fledgling league’s battle to gain parity with the long-established NFL. Said Bud Adams, owner of the AFL’s Houston Oilers: “We couldn’t believe the NFL was going to play.”
But play it did. None of the games was televised by CBS, the NFL’s only TV partner, because the network was showing the ceremonies as President Kennedy’s body lay in state in the Capitol rotunda. But most local radio broadcasts went on, and many fans in the stands carried transistor sets to follow the news.
Sellout crowds watched the Redskins and Eagles in Philadelphia and the Cardinals and Giants in New York. But the Browns and Cowboys in Cleveland and the Rams and Colts in Los Angeles played before thousands of empty seats in huge stadiums, and a mere 28,000 turned out to see the Vikings and Lions in Minnesota.
All the games were solemn affairs. Rozelle had decreed there be no player introductions, music or halftime shows. And many of the players themselves were distracted.
“It was a very disappointing time for our country, and nobody wanted to play football,” said Mike Ditka, then an all-pro tight end for the Chicago Bears and later their Super Bowl-winning coach. “But once they said we had to play, that was our job. It would have been [worse] to go out there and play a terrible game.”
In some cities, “Taps” was played during pregame salutes to President Kennedy.
“By game time, everybody was emotionally drained,” Philadelphia Eagles tight end Pete Retzlaff said. “‘Taps’ isn’t exactly a fight song, and it left everybody limp. We had no emotion at all.”
As teams warmed up for games in the Eastern time zone, events spun further out of control. Around 12:20, the networks switched from the Capitol to the basement of the Dallas jail to show accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald being transported to another facility. As millions watched, the stocky figure of Jack Ruby moved into the TV picture from the right and fatally shot Oswald.
Earlier Sunday morning, Rozelle attended church with his daughter and then went to Yankee Stadium to watch the Giants play the Cardinals.
“[In church] I brooded about my decision,” Rozelle said decades later. “That was before I was [well] recognized, so I didn’t have to face anyone. Later I could not concentrate on the game and brooded about my decision the entire game. I was more than depressed over the assassination. I had lost someone I respected as the leader of our country, [and] I also was a close friend of the Kennedy family.”
And, in retrospect, what about his decision to play?
“Obviously, it was a mistake — the biggest one I ever made.”