Sunday, November 24, 2013

And the Teams Played On

About a month later, the Chicago Bears won the NFL championship, but, 50 years ago today,
they observed a moment of silence for John F. Kennedy, then played Pittsburgh as scheduled.

"It was a day of sunshine but immeasurable gloom. There was a stadium filled with nearly 63,000 fans too subdued to generate much excitement for a crucial late–season NFL game where the outcome seemed secondary to the staggering events of the past two days."

Richard Rothschild
Sports Illustrated

Those who are old enough to remember will tell you that everything — or nearly everything — stopped on this weekend 50 years ago.

John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas two days earlier. Nearly all of the college football games that were scheduled for the next day were postponed.

But not so the NFL games that were scheduled for Sunday.

From the vantage point of 50 years after the fact, it must be said that 1963 was not a year of smooth sailing for NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Earlier in 1963, he indefinitely suspended Green Bay's Paul Hornung and Detroit's Alex Karras for gambling on their own teams. They wound up missing the whole season. Other players were fined $2,000 each for betting on a game in which they did not participate.

Then came the Kennedy assassination.

The still–new American Football League postponed its games that weekend to show its respect. The NFL could have done the same, but Rozelle had been in college with Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, and the two spoke following the assassination. Rozelle told the Washington Post that Salinger encouraged him to play the games. They agreed that Kennedy loved competition and would have wanted the games to go on.

So the games went on.

No NFL games were televised that weekend. Network TV was providing uninterrupted coverage of events in Dallas and Washington throughout the weekend so none of the NFL games played 50 years ago today were seen by anyone other than those in attendance — which, by the way, was not affected by the assassination.

But, as Richard Rothschild observed in Sports Illustrated, the crowds were subdued that day, and that was understandable.

Rozelle often said he regretted permitting the games to proceed that weekend, but I have often wondered if the NFL games didn't serve a much–needed purpose that weekend.

I recall that, for nearly a week after the September 11 terrorist attacks, no sports events were held — no baseball games (and the pennant races were heating up), no college football games on that Saturday or pro football games that Sunday. When the games finally resumed, there was a real sense that the nation was rising from its grief and embarking on the long journey to return to normalcy.

Of course, the circumstances were different, but the effect was the same. It's like the advice that George Burns (as God) gave to John Denver in the 1977 movie "Oh, God!"

Denver said he felt strange having a conversation in his bathroom with God. Burns told him to shave. He said that, when you're not feeling normal, doing something normal helps you feel normal. Denver started to shave and agreed that he was beginning to feel normal again.

Playing football that weekend may have been like that, at least for those who had tickets to the games. There were those who protested the decision; even some of the players wanted to postpone the games out of respect for the fallen president.

But afterward, the general sensation seems to have been that the games helped people begin their journey back to normalcy. The Washington Redskins, who recorded their third and final win of the season that afternoon, voted to send the game ball to the White House and thanked Rozelle for permitting the games to be played.

It was the football players' way of paying tribute to the president. It was said that they were "playing for President Kennedy."

And, while Rozelle may have regretted the decision, it led to his selection as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.

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