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 also became clear that Rozelle's golden touch with the media had deserted him. He was barbecued for going ahead with the schedule. In the New York Herald-Tribune, Red Smith all but called Rozelle a heartless mercenary, and Melvin Durslag of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner called die games that weekend "a sick joke." In The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sandy Grady wrote, "I am ashamed of this fatuous dreamland."

Perhaps the most significant thing of all was that players around the league began to rebel, in their hearts if not on the field. "Nobody wanted to play," says McDonald. "There wasn't anything you could do about it, but there was no way anybody wanted to go out and play a game that weekend. I'm a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve, and I couldn't stop crying.

"It was bad enough playing, but that weekend, to be playing the Redskins, from Washington, where the president lived, that was just another reason to be upset."

For his part, Mitchell felt strange leaving Washington. "Everywhere you looked, down along the street, people would just start crying," he says. "It didn't seem like the time to leave." The Redskins drove the three hours to Philadelphia and checked into their hotel. Across town, at the Sheraton on Chestnut Street, where the Eagles always stayed before home games, the team was falling apart.

The Eagles had decided to collect money for the family of Dallas policeman J.D. Tippitt, who'd been shot to death on Friday afternoon, allegedly by Lee Harvey Oswald. A team meeting, which also reportedly dealt with the Eagles' feelings about playing die game the next day, ended with a fistfight between defensive back Ben Scotti and defensive lineman John Mellekas. The two went behind closed doors to finish it, and both wound up in the hospital that night, Scotti with a broken hand and Mellekas with severe facial cuts. In his room, McDonald watched TV and never heard a thing.

That Sunday dawned cold and surreal. In their hotels, caught up in what became the first national news miniseries of the television age, the template for CNN and Fox and for the Watergate hearings and the O.J. trial and everything that came after, the players were drowning in the coverage, and how strangely that strangest of Sundays began depended vitally on where you were playing that weekend.

Kickoff was at 1 p.m. Eastern standard time. Some players around the league were at stadiums and some were in their hotels, but wherever they were, many of them were watching television at 12:21 p.m. EST when the Dallas police were transferring Oswald to the county jail and Jack Ruby gunned him down. "That was the last thing that weekend that I couldn't believe," says McDonald.

Then people showed up to watch football. That was the remarkable tiling. There were 60,671 fans at Franklin Field to see the Eagles and the Redskins play a game that didn't matter on a weekend on which almost everything else seemed to matter. There was no pregame hoo-ha; Rozelle, at least, had drawn the line at that. There were no player introductions. The Eagles and the Redskins simply walked out to midfield and joined hands. A bugler blew Taps, which nearly finished McDonald on the spot. Then the whole stadium sang the national anthem a cappella.

After that the stadium was as silent as a football stadium can be, as if tearing themselves away from the extended obsequies on television had used all the energy the fans had left. McDonald was bawling when he went back to receive the opening kick-off, and Mitchell noticed that even his coaches' words seemed hollow. "Before the game there was a lot of what you could tell was false chatter," Mitchell says. "Coaches are always over there saying, 'Grr, let's go get 'em.' And me, I gave them a weak yell."

He made plays. So did McDonald. They each caught four passes in the game. Once, while running down the sideline for a pass, Mitchell felt the game dissolve around him. "I was there, looking up, concentrating on the ball spiraling in the air, like you're supposed to, and then I started thinking about everything that was going on in Washington," he recalls. The ball sailed over his head.

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