The ice spread out of a brilliantly blue Southern sky. It suffused the air. You took it in with every breath, and it got into your blood and spread to your deepest places. It made the world fragile, and you with it, until it seemed that you might shatter at the slightest sound, and all he world shatter around you. On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, there were things that the United States believed about itself, and those things were solid and basic and seemed as permanent as granite. By midday, as the ice spread through them, those fundamental things became delicate and crystalline. Anything loud seemed dangerous.
Cheering was loud. There had been cheering in Dallas, along the streets and on either side of that long, slow—too damned slow—turn from Houston down onto Elm Street past the book warehouse. Some of the cheering was so loud that the gunfire drowned in it. After that, for the next three days, the country breathed shallowly. It spoke to itself only in chapel whispers. Football, by contrast, is loud, and therefore it seemed a perilous thing.
On that Friday at noon, the Washington Redskins were beginning an ordinary practice in the middle of a season that was going nowhere. They'd lost seven games in a row. Their game that weekend was in Philadelphia, against the Eagles, who were even more woeful than the Redskins. Philadelphia was in a long slide in which it would lose eight of its last nine games and finish 2-10-2, slightly worse than Washington's 3-11.
Amid this hopeless flotsam, the Redskins' Bobby Mitchell was having a good season. He was on his way to 69 catches and seven touchdowns. In Philadelphia, Tommy McDonald would end 1963 with 41 catches and eight touchdowns, but neither man had any illusions about his team. "We were pretty terrible," recalls McDonald. "It wasn't the best year, anyway, before all this happened."
The players heard the news, like the country did, in a thousand ways. Raymond Berry and the Baltimore Colts heard it on their airplane, at 30,000 feet, on their way to Los Angeles for a game with the Rams. Sam Huff, the New York Giants linebacker who'd campaigned for John F. Kennedy in 1960 before the pivotal primary in Huff's home state, West Virginia, heard it on his car radio in the middle of the Triborough Bridge. McDonald found out after practice.
In Washington, coach Bill McPeak called the Redskins together in the middle of the field outside D.C. Stadium. Mitchell was baffled. McPeak, an unemotional organization man, told everyone to take a knee and pray because the president was dead.
"The first thing I thought was, God, Mr. Marshall died," Mitchell says, referring to Redskins president George Preston Marshall. His teammates sank to the ground around him, and then he knew. "It never occurred to me," Mitchell says. "I mean, that somebody would shoot the president of the United States? It took me a couple of seconds to realize that was what he meant."
Mitchell had gone to Washington in 1962, two years after the Kennedy Administration began. He'd become close friends with Robert Kennedy, the president's brother and the attorney general, and had met President Kennedy several times, once at a state dinner at the White House. Mitchell had even gone to Robert Kennedy's home in Virginia to play touch football with that boisterous and ever-expanding family. Now, as he fell to his knees on the hardening earth of autumn, Mitchell thought mostly about his friend.
"I was frozen there for a minute because I'd really fallen in love with Bobby," Mitchell says. "My thoughts turned to him, and I thought, Damn, this is going to kill Bobby."
The Redskins practiced anyway, and it was terrible, and McPeak finally gave up and sent the team home. The streets of Washington were a shadow play. Cars disappeared almost entirely. Black crape began to appear in shop windows. Mitchell saw people on the sidewalk, still and weeping, as though they were afraid to move. He felt cold and numb too. He felt close to breaking.