NFL games two days after JFK's assassination a fitting tribute


HYANNIS PORT, Mass. -- Half a century later, the anniversary and the calendar again coincide. On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was killed. On Sunday the 24th, there was a full slate of NFL games.

The sequence is commonly recalled -- by historians and fans alike -- as an assassination followed by a desecration. Pete Rozelle, the commissioner who presided over the NFL's rise to hegemony in American sports, considered the decision to play the games the great mistake of his tenure.

I have no memory of those days. But walking along the water by the Kennedy compound, I'm left to wonder.

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Was it really a desecration?

Or a celebration?

With 50 years of hindsight, knowing the fate of the family and its favorite game, can the decision be reconsidered?

The Kennedys were touchstones for admiration and envy, the closest thing most Americans had to a royal family. But they also were, in their way, a first family of football.

The games they played at the compound became part of the Kennedy myth. Touch football? Well, that's part myth, too.

"Those were incredibly tough games, really intense," recalled John Culver, a former United States Senator who met the president's youngest brother, Teddy, while playing football at Harvard. "It meant a lot."

By game's end, Culver went on, "you really felt like you'd just been in a fight."

The compound's emerald lawn wasn't merely a proving ground for alpha males, but for aspiring presidents, too.

JFK, whose war wounds left him with a painful back condition, usually served as the designated quarterback. "He couldn't really run comfortably," Culver said. "But he would pass for both sides."

"He was the boss," remembered Dick Clasby, the son of a Boston cop, who, like Culver, was a teammate of Teddy's at Harvard. "The president, Jack, he called the plays and he did things he probably shouldn't have done."

Bobby, who'd serve as JFK's attorney general, made up for his lack of size with a hyper-competitive temperament. "Not big -- but strong and tough," Culver said. "Very courageous physically."

"If Bobby and Ted were there," Clasby said, "there was a lot of trash-talking going on."

Teddy was the biggest and most talented. "Probably 6-2 and 215 pounds," Culver recalled. "He didn't have great speed, but his hands were good."

Ted Kennedy played football at Harvard, one of his family's many connections to the game.
Ted Kennedy played football at Harvard, one of his family's many connections to the game. (Associated Press)

There's a famous photograph of Teddy catching a touchdown pass against Yale. It hung in his office at the Senate.

Clasby's wife, Mary Jo, remembered that JFK took a particular interest in his kid brother: "He loved watching Teddy. All the things, physically, that Teddy could do, he could never do. And he would want Teddy to sing South Boston songs. Whatever Jack wanted, Teddy would do for him."

The famous brothers came of age with the game they loved. On Dec. 7, 1941, Jack was at Griffith Stadium, a young Naval cadet watching the Washington Redskins beat the Philadelphia Eagles when news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor spread.

In 1960, the Kennedys waited on the election returns while tossing around a football. And after Richard Nixon conceded, they celebrated with -- what else? -- another game on the lawn. Actually, the celebration was not universal. As Theodore White noted in his classic, "The Making of The President, 1960", "the Secret Service men watching from the dune grass looked on in horror ... as players tangled and men fell to the ground and the President of the United States (whom they were sworn to defend) rose and fell with them."

For the record, Bobby's team beat Jack's by a touchdown.

Even JFK's inauguration was football-themed. As a prelude to the festivities, Bobby challenged Ted. Each future senator drafted his own ringers -- from the ranks of the NFL. "Here we have 10 or 11 big, strapping pro players ... unbelievable," Clasby said. "I mean, they didn't have any pads on, and they should have, to protect themselves."

This was a different kind of administration and Kennedy our first "football" president. I think that anticipated something about the American condition. Their ascent wasn't merely confluent; it was congruent. Both JFK and the NFL were harbingers of a new age, their success made possible by television.

The president and his attorney general spent their Sundays like increasing numbers of Americans, watching and rooting. Before it was the custom, Jack sent Vince Lombardi a telegram congratulating the coach when the Green Bay Packers won the title in 1961. The brothers even considered buying a team.

"It was the Philadelphia Eagles," said Culver, recalling that the team was available for "an incredibly modest price" before most owners understood the possibilities for profit with partners like CBS. "Jack, I remember, talked to Bobby and Ted both about whether or not it would make any sense. ... Think it was ultimately concluded that it really wouldn't work very compatibly with Jack's responsibility as president."

It's also worth noting that the administration forced Washington's franchise -- then owned by an avowed segregationist, George Preston Marshall -- to integrate. A portentous move, I'd argue, the significance of which seems curiously neglected. When it comes to the Kennedys and the NFL, however, the most remembered item remains the decision to play two days after the assassination.

If it was Rozelle's great mistake, I offer respectful dissent. The commissioner spoke with Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, on that Friday. "Both men agreed that the president would have wanted the games to go on and that the country would be reassured by the presence of football games on Sunday," according to Michael MacCambridge's masterful history of pro football, "America's Game."

Fifty years later, one can argue either way. "The president did love football," Mary Jo Clasby said. "I think the awfulness of his death might have made me think maybe they shouldn't play."

"I thought how Jack would feel," Dick Clasby said. "And I know that he would want to play it. Absolutely. He wouldn't want something like that to stand in the way of not playing football. ... I know that was something he would want."

What's more, who knew the assassin -- Lee Harvey Oswald -- would himself be assassinated that Sunday morning?

Average attendance for the NFL's 1963 regular season was 42,486. For Nov. 24, 1963? 48,921.

Perhaps that had something to do with the games not being televised. But maybe it was something else. Rozelle and the owners, as MacCambridge wrote, "were right about one thing: The people wanted the games."

John F. Kennedy (lower left) always enjoyed the family football games that frequently took place at their Massachusetts home.
John F. Kennedy (lower left) always enjoyed the family football games that frequently took place at their Massachusetts home. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/)

And I have to believe, on this issue at least, the Kennedys were of the people.

As it happened, the famous play of that infamous afternoon came in Pittsburgh. Late in the game, with the Chicago Bears down and facing a third-and-33, Mike Ditka caught a pass, then rumbled over and through a multitude of Steelers defenders for 63 yards. In retrospect, it was a crucial play in what proved to be George Halas' last championship season.

In the moment, though, it was something else. You didn't have to be a Kennedy to appreciate the way Ditka rumbled toward the goal line. It embodied those virtues the Kennedys held dear: the physicality, the sheer ambition.

So, again, I ask: Was this a desecration? Or a celebration?

From Hyannis Port to Los Angeles, some people needed football. This wasn't about the press. Or the politicians. Or even the players. It wasn't about royal families, either.

Just American families.

Follow Mark Kriegel on Twitter @MarkKriegel.



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