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Recalling NFL’s decision to play after Kennedy’s death

Two days after President Kennedy died, the flag in Minnesota was lowered before an NFL game, and the visiting Lions honored a slain leader.AP file/Associated Press

Friday is the 50th anniversary of the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

Three-quarters of the people in this country today are not old enough to remember the tragedy, but Baby Boomers forever will recite where they were and what they were doing when they got the news from Walter Cronkite.

Two days after the assassination — the day before the president was buried in Arlington National Cemetery — the NFL went ahead with its full schedule of seven games. The decision was made by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and it haunted him for the rest of his days.


"Whether it was the right call, I can't say,'' said former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy Wednesday. "We were devastated by what occurred, but there has to be some notion that the country can recover.''

Joe Kennedy was JFK's nephew. His father was Robert Kennedy, the president's brother and the attorney general of the United States. Joe Kennedy has never been bitter about the NFL's decision to play on the weekend of his uncle's assassination.

"I was a 12-year-old boy,'' said Kennedy. "I was standing next to my father at our home in Hickory Hill [Va.] that afternoon when he took the call. We went outdoors and played football. In some ways, that was how we dealt with it. We went right out and started tossing the ball around.''

While Bobby Kennedy consoled his family and waited for Air Force One to arrive from Dallas, Rozelle reached out to his college classmate (University of San Francisco) Pierre Salinger, who was JFK's press secretary. Rozelle said Salinger told him the president would have wanted the games to be played.

Former Patriots general manager Upton Bell, who was working with the Baltimore Colts in 1963, believes Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom also was involved in the decision.


"Rosenbloom and my father [Bert Bell, who was NFL commissioner before Rozelle] were friends and neighbors in Atlantic City,'' said Bell. "Rosenbloom was also a friend of Joseph Kennedy [the president's father].

"Rosenbloom had his own plane and used to fly Colt players up to Hyannisport for those touch football games the Kennedys had. The Colts were a team identified with the Kennedys. In my job with the Colts, I sometimes would drive books or sneakers or other Colts items to the attorney general's office or to the White House.

"When the president was shot, our team was on the West Coast to play the Los Angeles Rams, but Rosenbloom said he was going to Hyannisport to be with Joseph Kennedy. Rosenbloom said he went up there and was told the president would have wanted the games to be played. Rozelle checked with Salinger and got the same thing Rosenbloom got. Then it was up to Rozelle.''

Most NFL games were scheduled to kick off less than 48 hours after the president was killed. Neither the Washington Redskins nor Dallas Cowboys were home on the weekend of Nov. 24. This made it easier for Rozelle to blunder.

The Cowboys went to Cleveland to play the Browns. Dallas players said bellhops at their Cleveland hotel turned their backs on the team.

Before the game on Sunday, Dallas coach Tom Landry was diagramming plays on a chalkboard in the visitors locker room at Municipal Stadium when a security officer came into the room and told the team that Lee Harvey Oswald, the man charged with assassinating the president, had been killed while being transferred to a Dallas jail.


In an interview with USA Today, former Cowboys boss Gil Brandt said Landry "kept on writing, only as Tom could, very concerned but not letting anybody else know he was concerned.''

At the urging of Browns owner Art Modell, the visitors were introduced to the Cleveland crowd as “the Cowboys,’’ rather than “the Dallas Cowboys.’’

The Browns defeated the Cowboys, 27-17. Dallas quarterback Don Meredith completed 13 of 30 passes for 93 yards and was intercepted four times and later told the Dallas Morning News, "I remember we were in no frame of mind to play a ballgame.''

It was the same in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York. None of the games was televised.

Covering the Giants and Cardinals at Yankee Stadium (a game attended by Rozelle), New York Herald Tribune columnist Red Smith wrote, "In the civilized world, it was a day of mourning. In the National Football League, it was the 11th Sunday of the business year, a quarter-million dollar day at Yankee Stadium.''

The upstart AFL, meanwhile, postponed its games.

"We were quite proud of that,'' said Boston Patriots wideout/placekicker Gino Cappelletti. "Our league made the decision not to play and thought it was the right thing to do.

"This was the right thing to do because the whole country was watching the historic events unfolding on television. It was a no-brainer for us, but the stodgy old NFL went on and played.''

The Harvard-Yale game, scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 23, was postponed for the first time in its history.


"Every [college] game in the country, for the most part, waited for us to make the decision,'' said former Yale head coach Carm Cozza, who was an assistant in 1963. "It's something I will never forget.''

The NFL learned its lesson. The league postponed all games scheduled for the weekend after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy