The decision was not an easy one and his choice was one that Commissioner Pete Rozelle always regretted. But for two NFL teams, the decision to play football only two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was both surreal and frightening.
On Nov. 24, 1963, with a nation shut down in mourning, the Washington Redskins were in Philadelphia and the Cowboys went to Cleveland, hoping to de-emphasize the “Dallas” part of their name. The stadiums were filled, but Tim Layden of MMQB.com writes of a weekend on which players and a nation alike were numb:
“It almost felt like we were all in church, not in a football stadium,” says Betty Lou Tarasovic, wife of Eagles lineman George Tarasovic. “It was crowded, but there was none of that raucous feeling you usually have at a football game. It was solemn. I remember right after the game started, the announcer said that [Lee Harvey] Oswald had been shot in Dallas.” (Oswald’s murder by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, at 11:21 CST in the Dallas police headquarters, had been shown live on national television. None of the NFL games that day were broadcast on network TV.)
The Redskins won 13-10 and Bobby Mitchell told Layden that it was “a lousy-played game. We were all just going through the motions.”
For the Cowboys, there was an added element: shame. “We were the team from Dallas, Texas,” Lee Roy Jordan told Bob Costas on “No Day for Games” on NBCSN. “We were connected with killing the President of the United States.” There were no player introductions and players and team personnel were told, former Cowboys executive Gil Brandt told Costas, “‘Go out and have dinner if you want, but don’t say you are from Dallas.’”
It seems unthinkable that, in the same circumstances today, the game would be played and Rozelle never hesitated to say that he regretted his decision. Although most players would have preferred not to have played, Maxie Baughan told Layden that, during a visit to the Eagles in 1964, Robert Kennedy told players it was right to play. “He said that’s what his brother would have wanted.”
Rozelle was saved, too, by fortuitous scheduling that put both the Cowboys and the Redskins on the road, The Washington Post’s Shirley Povich wrote. “Suppose the Redskins were scheduled to play in Washington that day instead of Philadelphia, and only 20 blocks from the Capitol rotunda where, at the game hour, the Nation’s leaders were in public bereavement before the coffin of the late president, with millions glued to television? How unseemly would have been a pro football game with its sounds echoing from nearby.”
The Redskins took the train back to the city and outside Union Station they encountered a long line of mourners awaiting entry into the Capitol. “I got in the line,” Bob Khayat told Layden. “I don’t know why. I just felt so deeply vulnerable and sad. So I got in the line.”