Johnny Holliday, Dallas and the JFK assassination

November 22, 2013

(AP file photo)

Years before he became well known to D.C. sports fans as the voice of the Maryland Terrapins, Johnny Holliday served as the public address announcer for Cleveland Browns home games. Fifty years ago this week, that job led to one of the most unforgettable experiences of his career.

But first, some background. Holliday got the gig before the 1961 season, after the previous PA man unexpectedly passed away during the offseason. Holliday — then working as an afternoon rock DJ at Cleveland’s WHK — called the Browns offices to inquire about the position, and was put through to owner Art Modell.

“Mr. Modell, this is Johnny Holliday from WHK….” Holliday began.

“I know who you are,” the owner said. “I listen to you every afternoon.”

Holliday said he’d be interested in the PA announcing job. Modell explained that he’d already promised the job to the man who had previously served as the spotter. But there was an NFL double-header coming up, and Modell said each man could call one of the games as an audition. After Holliday did the first half of the double-header; Modell called down to the field, told him he had the job, and instructed him to do the second game of the double-header as well.

Now, in those days, the Browns PA man wasn’t up in a press box. Instead, he was down on the field, toting a microphone attached to a 100-yard cord, traipsing up and down the field to inform fans about down and distance.

“You’re freezing your tail off, standing on that field, with the wind coming off Lake Erie,” Holliday recalled this week. “You’ve got a towel around your neck, five coats on, four pair of socks, gloves. I’m from Miami, Florida, so I didn’t adapt well to it.”

Still, Holliday did the job for three seasons, seasons that were filled with history, including the famous introduction of Ernie Davis before a 1962 preseason game, a moment that was recreated in the feature film The Express.

And then there was the game against the Dallas Cowboys, on Nov. 24 of 1963. Two days before, John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. NFL leaders debated how to handle that weekend’s games, a debate that has been well covered this week. (See this SI piece focusing on Redskins-Eagles, and this from Cindy Boren, and this from NFL.com.) Modell was among those who thought all games should be canceled, but the decision was made to play on. Even before that decision, though, Holliday received a phone call from the owner.

“I want you to do something for me on Sunday,” Modell said, according to Holliday. “Can you make sure to never mention the word Dallas in the game? Refer to them as the Cowboys. There’s so much unrest, and people are so angry and so shocked at what happened in Dallas, I don’t want you to mention the name.”

“Well, I can do my best,” Holliday remembered answering. “That’s a pretty tall order.”

After then-commissioner Pete Rozelle decided the games would be played, Holliday had more than 24 hours to drill this unusual order into his head. He said he came close to saying “Dallas” many times during Cleveland’s 27-17 win — “I should have said the guys in blue,” he joked. But believes he made it through the entire game without uttering the word once.

As for the game itself, Holliday said it was unlike any he has worked, comparing it only to the days in College Park following Len Bias’s death. The mood in the stadium, he said, was “terrible,” and the teams played poorly, committing nine turnovers.

“I think everybody was in shock,” Holliday said. “It was just silent. There was very little enthusiasm, hardly any excitement. From what I can recall, the players were going through the motions too. They just wanted to get the game out of the way and move on with it.”

After beating the Cowboys, the Browns concluded that 1963 season with three road games. They would go on to win the NFL championship the following year, but by then Holliday had left Cleveland, moving on to a radio job with WINS in New York.

In any case, after that unforgettable November game against Dallas was over, Holliday received another call.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “Mr. Modell called to thank me. He said, that wasn’t easy, was it? I said, no sir. But he said, I knew you could do it, because you’re a professional. And I said, well, I can follow orders.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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