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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Redskins quarterback Norm Snead had a hot hand. He pushed his team out to a 13-0 lead at halftime, hitting on 12 of his first 17 passes for 192 yards. Late in the second quarter he found Dick James for a 31-yard touchdown. The game, however, seemed to be played in a virtual vacuum. "You didn't hear anything," Mitchell says. "I don't remember any noise from the stands, and in the pileups, where guys are always shouting and jiving, there was none of that. It was one play after another, trying to get the game done. To this day, sometimes I can't believe that I played that game. I still think I was out there in slow motion."

It wasn't a day for coming from behind. It looked for a long while as though Washington was on its way to its first shutout since 1958. However, playing with a stiff wind behind them in the fourth quarter, the Eagles mustered 10 points, highlighted by a 25-yard touchdown pass from Sonny Jurgensen to Timmy Brown. But on Philadelphia's final drive McDonald let a pass go through his hands, and Mike Clark missed a 16-yard field goal that would have tied the game. The Redskins won 13-10.

Out in the players' parking lot, Eagles backup quarterback King Hill discovered that all the windows in his car had been shattered. The car had Texas plates.

That night, when he got home, Mitchell was struck for the last time that weekend by how quiet the streets of Washington had become. It was the strangest game any of the players had ever played and, in some ways, the most dangerous. Football is best (and most safely) played with heedless emotion, and everyone on the field seemed to be holding back. They played like men who had become aware of some unfamiliar fragility deep in themselves—far beneath muscle and bone, ligament and tendon, where they hadn't noticed any before.

Bobby Mitchell avoided Bobby Kennedy for as long as he could. Finally, about a month after the Philadelphia game, somebody from the Justice Department called Mitchell and told him that Kennedy wanted him to help dedicate the John F. Kennedy Playground on Seventh Street in the Washington ghetto. Mitchell went, distractedly driving slowly around the block, again and again, until he realized what he was doing. He was looking at all the rooftops for someone with a gun.

At the playground Mitchell took a spot in the back of the crowd, hoping that Kennedy wouldn't see him. "I was afraid," he admits. "I didn't know what I'd say to him." Kennedy spotted him, though, and brought him up to the front of the crowd, near where they had already turned the cold earth for the groundbreaking.

Kennedy was gaunt, almost lifeless in the face. He gripped Mitchell as if with iron talons. "I don't think I can do this," he said, and he couldn't. His hands were shaking too hard to work the shovel. He handed it to Mitchell so they held it together.

"I was so nervous," Mitchell recalls, "I must've thrown that dirt 50 feet over my head behind me."

He's older now, telling his story in the lobby of the Willard, a great old history-laden pile on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the White House. Abraham Lincoln was taken there when he was smuggled into Washington before his first inauguration, and it was the Willard's lobby that reputedly inspired the word lobbying when people gathered there to ply and beg and otherwise try to sublet President Ulysses S. Grant.

History has more or less passed judgment on those three frozen days in November. Later in his life Rozelle wrote that the worst decision he ever made was to play the games that weekend. And history sits with Bobby Mitchell in the awful synchronicity of anniversaries: Every commemoration of John Kennedy's death follows a commemoration of Robert's. This week will mark the 40th anniversary of John's death, not long after the 35th of Robert's, and Mitchell knows that the ice is still there, deep within him.

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