Pete Rozelle didn't have many regrets about the critical choices he made in steering the NFL to the top of America's sporting life. But his determination to have the league play just two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas 50 years ago -- at the behest of administration officials and the Kennedy family itself -- remains a singular, searing memory.
"Right after the word was out that he had died, we spoke and I said, 'This is a tough situation. I really don't think we should play,'" recalled Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, who was a good friend of Rozelle's and a supporter of Kennedy's.
Rozelle had met Kennedy and had been University of San Francisco classmates with Pierre Salinger, the president's press secretary. With the country frozen in grief, Rozelle spoke to Salinger, who was en route home from Japan, less than six hours after the assassination. Salinger implored Rozelle to play the games.
Rozelle relayed his conversation to Rooney later Friday.
"He said, 'Jack would say we should play,' and that it would be good as far as lifting the nation out of the doldrums," Rooney said.
Rooney told Rozelle he still did not believe the NFL should play, but that he would support whatever the commissioner decided.
Salinger's words rang in Rozelle's ear, said Joe Browne, a senior NFL executive who worked for Rozelle in later years.
With little time to make a decision -- some teams traveled to games on Fridays and were waiting to find out what to do -- and with no firm timetable set for the national period of mourning, Rozelle had to decide. By Friday night, he had, and when Rozelle announced that the games would be played -- after the American Football League had canceled its games -- he said, "Football was Mr. Kennedy's game."
There would be no player introductions, no music, no halftime shows, none of the pomp and circumstance usually associated with the games. Some teams played "Taps." The decision then did not seem as momentous as it does now. The NFL was not nearly the cultural force it is today, still only the third most popular sport behind baseball and college football. Browne said a quirk in the schedule also contributed to Rozelle's decision: No home games were scheduled in Dallas or Washington, D.C. that weekend. Had there been, Browne said, they certainly would have been postponed. And because the television networks were in round-the-clock news coverage of the assassination and its aftermath, the games were not broadcast on TV. The NFL, in fact, returned 1/14th of the television money that year.
Still, the seven games -- a full slate in the 14-team league -- were played while mourners filed past the president's casket in the Capitol rotunda and Rozelle was excoriated by several newspaper columnists. Emotions were raw within the league, too. A savage fistfight broke out between Philadelphia Eagles teammates Saturday night, following a team meeting in which the assassination was discussed, and both players were sent to the hospital. Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, was so troubled by the events and worried about the potential for retribution that he ordered his public address announcer not to utter the word "Dallas" when referring to the Cowboys, an early indication of how the city and the team that represented it would come to bear some of the country's anger.
"Dallas was a bad word," Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm told the Chicago Tribune many years later. "(The shooting) reflected on everybody in the city."
Rozelle went to church that Sunday morning, then to the New York Giants' home game against the St. Louis Cardinals. He later said he brooded about his decision, unable to concentrate on the game.
The Steelers hosted their game against the Chicago Bears at Forbes Field, and Rooney, as was his habit, headed to the roof with a radio. Less than an hour before kickoff, Rooney heard the radio announcement that Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's assassin, had been shot in the basement of a Dallas police station.
"It was unbelievable to me," Rooney said. "How could you have a police station and Oswald be shot? It was bizarre." The Bears-Steelers game was sold out, and Rooney remembers the fans as down and quiet. But when the game began, the fans got into it, as Salinger had imagined would happen. The Steelers tied the Bears 17-17, but two weeks later, they had a lonely burden. They played the Cowboys in the second game in Dallas since the assassination.
"That was even worse," Rooney said. "We took a lot of people with us. A lot of people were very upset. The funeral had happened. People were upset and saying so." Nearly 38 years later, Rozelle's wrenching decision was revisited in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. They happened on a Tuesday morning, and on Wednesday afternoon -- with teams practicing while awaiting NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's decision whether or not to play that weekend's games -- Browne received a call from a high-ranking Bush administration official asking what the league planned to do. Tagliabue had not yet decided, although the Giants could see from their practice field the smoke rising from the World Trade Center site, and the Jets already were suggesting they would forfeit the game if forced to play it.
Late Giants owner Wellington Mara, who had become convinced Rozelle made the wrong decision in 1963, strongly argued for postponing the games. Ultimately, Tagliabue agreed with Mara, and the games were postponed. But in an echo from a much different time, the White House had wished otherwise.
"He said, 'That's your decision, but we in the White House want to get the country back to normality as quickly as we can,' " Browne remembered of his conversation with the official. "That gave me a little insight into what Pierre Salinger must have been thinking."
I am going to begin where I ended up. And that’s simply with the word family.
The first day of shooting was with Mary Jo and Dick Clasby. Mary Jo was Rose Kennedy's niece. Dick played football with Ted Kennedy at Harvard, and they became close friends. Ted introduced Dick to Mary Jo, and they have been married for over 50 years. There were cameras and lights and boom poles and all the elements needed to create what would wind up on TV. But more importantly, there was Mary Jo talking about Ted and Jack and Bobby and an unwillingness to say which of them was her favorite cousin. There was Dick talking about when he first arrived at Hyannis Port, he didn't take the games very seriously, until Bobby, perhaps the most competitive one of all, gave him a bit of a shove and he realized, this was serious ... and he shoved Bobby right back.
Mary Jo and Dick talked about football, they talked a lot about fun and in the end they talked mostly about family. Why did they play football? They played because it was the game that everyone could participate in, whether you were a brother, a sister, a cousin or a neighbor. It was not about being the most skilled, nor even about playing by the exact rules of the game (the Kennedys were big fans of the forward pass and not so much of the line of scrimmage). It was not about who won or lost. Well, perhaps it mattered to Bobby and Ted, who often were the captains, unless their brother, the president, was there.
Stephen Palgon, Feature Producer, NFL Network
We talked the next day with former Iowa Senator John Culver, who also played football with Ted at Harvard. Just as it had been with Mary Jo and Dick, the conversation was about football and not about football at all. Mr. Culver spoke about how those games were unlike anything he had experienced before. Not the games themselves, but the feeling that existed within the experience of it. And I don’t believe that was because he was playing football with THE KENNEDYS. It was clear that it had nothing to do with that.
On the final day of shooting, we traveled to Hyannis Port and spent much of the afternoon in a movie theater, watching and filming Kennedy home movies and photos that we had projected onto a screen. We played them over and over and over again.
It wasn't easy to watch. The piece I set out to do had shifted. Those images captured exactly what Mary Jo had shared with me. Football, fun and family. It was hard to watch because I knew the loss that was to come. But as the images would roll by, I would let go of that and simply watch. Not the Kennedys. Not a president. But rather a family, who loved the game, loved each other and loved the experience of playing this game that brought them all together.
Human lifetimes are shaped by marker event moments. In the second half of the 20th century, no event impacted America’s collective psyche more than the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Nobody who lived through it will ever forget where they were, what they were doing and how their families reacted to this era-changing tragedy
From 1960 through 1989, Gil Brandt served as vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys. He played a pivotal role in the team's maturation from struggling expansion franchise to "America's Team." But on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, Brandt was just another Dallas citizen whose life was affected by JFK's death -- only in a very personal way.
Bob Angelo, Senior Producer, NFL Films
Gil presently is 85 years old. But as I walked the assassination route with him earlier this fall, his detailed recollection of that day and its aftermath brought chills to my spine. As fate would have it, Gil's wife might have been the last person to shake President Kennedy's hand. Gil's personal reminiscences underscored the doubts that many of us still harbor regarding that day's events. And his candid observations about being from Dallas and having to play a road game in Cleveland that Sunday reminded me just how difficult that weekend truly was for NFL players and coaches in general, and the Cowboys in particular.
This is one man’s story of one long and difficult weekend. And five decades have not negated its poignancy.
John Kennedy's assassination was front-page news all over the globe. Fifty years later, it is still making headlines. And while there are layers and complexities to every world-changing event, the death of the United States' 35th President has inspired an uncommon fascination. Every facet of what did or did not happen in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 continues to provoke examination, conversation and, perhaps most of all, speculation.
Against this backdrop, it was a thrill to explore a lost footnote in JFK history: the issue of LIFE Magazine that reported the news of Kennedy’s death. That the commemorative cover dated 11/29/63 -- on which LIFE’s iconic masthead was printed in black rather than its typical red -- had a connection to football, was first uncovered here at NFL Films by producer Chip Swain.
Paul Camarata, NFL Films Senior Producer
I was assigned to produce the feature, so along with cinematographer Dave Malek, I traveled to Dealey Plaza and The Sixth Floor Museum. There, in and around the same building that once housed the Texas School Book Depository, we dug into a "cover story" unlike any we'd ever heard. Of all the JFK retrospectives you might see this anniversary month, we believe this caper tale of American sports, media and pop culture succeeds as well as any at pulling back a previously unknown curtain on perhaps the most dissected event in American history.
November 22, 1963. It's a date that immediately brings to mind a tragic event in American history. From the time I was a kid, the assassination of President Kennedy has always fascinated me. When I was a teenager, I even wrote a letter to President Clinton telling him MY theory on what happened that day in Dallas. Needless to say, I did not get a response. So when I realized there was a way to do a piece about JFK and football, I was all in.
When I pitched the idea, I thought this could be a bigger segment on the Kennedys and their love for the game of football, but I decided to focus on an aspect of the story that often isn't told: NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle's controversial decision to play games just 48 hours after the president had been shot. A decision Rozelle was said to regret for the rest of his life.
Brian Rosenfeld, Producer NFL Films
We were lucky that the people we interviewed had such vivid memories of an event that happened 50 years ago. Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue remembered hearing the news like it was yesterday. Bengals owner Mike Brown could clearly recall thinking he agreed with Rozelle’s decision, both then and now. And James Rosen, a fan at the Eagles-Redskins game that day, gave us a firsthand account of what it was like to be in the stands on a day when almost no one wanted to be at a football game.
The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy provides an easy opportunity to look back -- not just on that fateful day in Dallas, but on history in general. How did the NFL survive and respond to the Great Depression? World War II? Or even the Iran Hostage Crisis? Through the words of Steve Cyphers, that’s what we did with this feature.
I was fascinated at the assignment and thoroughly enjoyed the research. Scrolling through the hours of archive footage was like a visual romp through a history textbook. And I realized something as I did it -- through eight decades of ups and downs in our nation’s history, the NFL’s always been there. And like Steve writes, whether you agree with it or not, the games do go on. More often than not, they are crucial cogs in our nation’s healing process. Look back at Super Bowl XV in the days following the release of the Iran hostages or Whitney Houston’s national anthem at Super Bowl XXV or especially the first games after 9/11.
Steve Trout, Producer NFL Films
Football has a rightful place in our history and our culture. It's a constant. And while we commemorate the tragic events of Nov. 22, 1963, let us also take a look at all of the watershed moments that shaped our country. And the NFL.