SI Vault
Charles P. Pierce
November 24, 2003
Forty years ago this weekend, as America grieved for President John F. Kennedy, stunned NFL players were told to take the field
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November 24, 2003

Black Sunday

Forty years ago this weekend, as America grieved for President John F. Kennedy, stunned NFL players were told to take the field

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"It was just silence," he says. "That's what I remember. Even the playgrounds were empty and quiet. I felt, I don't know, slow, somehow, and like everything had slowed down around me."

On the way home through the stunned and silent streets, the last thing Mitchell thought about was the game in Philadelphia two days later. It had been a forgettable piece of business anyway, and now it seemed unspeakable. Why did we even practice? he wondered. He was home that evening, glued to his television like the rest of his frozen and fragile country, when Air Force One came back from Dallas.

Football was what they played on the New Frontier. Oh, they paid the usual obeisance to baseball, the ritual national pastime. But football ran deep in the Kennedy family mystique. All four Kennedy brothers had played the game at Harvard. John was a halfback undersized even by the standards of the Ivy League in the 1930s, but young Edward once scored a touchdown in the Yale game. Football was an integral part of Joseph Kennedy's grand plan—a demonstration of muscular Americanism that would help break down the prejudices his children would face for being rich, Irish and Catholic.

"Politics is like football," JFK once noted. "If you see daylight, go through the hole." And photographs of John Kennedy hauling in passes from his brothers helped camouflage his myriad health problems, some of which have only recently come to light.

Moreover, the touch football games at the compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., were part of the glamour of the Kennedy White House, as much as Jacqueline Kennedy's horses and the iconic PT-109 tie clips. There was a tyranny of the new at work, stretching from outer space to Southeast Asia. Football was a part of all that.

By 1963 Pete Rozelle and his National Football League already were well on their way to developing a new national pastime, changing the way Americans watched their spoils, much as the Kennedy campaign had changed the way Americans elected their presidents. Both were perfect creatures of television, a medium just then coming into the fullness of its power. Rozelle tailored his games to TV the way that Kennedy tailored his press conferences to it. Both the NFL and the Kennedy Administration were pure products of the brawling, confident America that had been built by the generation that had fought World War II.

The year had not been the easiest for Rozelle. In April he'd indefinitely suspended two star players, Alex Karras of die Detroit Lions and Paul Hornung of die Green Bay Packers, for gambling on their teams' games, and a bidding war for college players still raged because the renegade American Football League had stubbornly refused to fold. But on Nov. 22 Rozelle was confronted with a decision that seemed to render all the others he'd made that year trivial.

There was no blueprint for what to do on the weekend that a president is being buried on national television. In Wisconsin more than 100 high school basketball games were played on the night of the assassination. Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore ran all weekend, and games were played in both die NBA and the NHL. In college football Nebraska and Oklahoma played each other, but all four games in the Big Ten were rescheduled, and Iowa and Notre Dame canceled their game. The AFL wiped out its entire slate of games, but Rozelle had made Sunday afternoons the property of the NFL, and because of that he was on the hook.

He called his college friend Pierre Salinger, who was Kennedy's press secretary. Speaking from the Honolulu airport, shell-shocked by the events of the day, Salinger gave Rozelle what amounted to the dead president's permission to play. "Football," Rozelle said in making the announcement, "was Mr. Kennedy's game."

The reaction very nearly undid Rozelle. At least two owners called and begged him to reconsider. Cleveland's Art Modell wound up paying for extra security to guard the Dallas Cowboys, who were in town that weekend to play the Browns. In Philadelphia, Eagles owner Frank McNamee announced that he would miss his first game in 15 years and Mayor James H.J. Tate, who'd shared a platform at Independence Hall with President Kennedy a year earlier on July 4, tried to get a court to stop the Eagles-Redskins game.

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