To understand how difficult it was to make the decision about whether or not to play NFL games on Nov. 24, 1963, you must understand how different news and television were 50 years ago.
I had just started working as a radio newswriter in Minneapolis. Radio was the primary source for breaking news for most people, and newspapers still had huge circulations. Television news primarily consisted of two programs — the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC and the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. ABC was not a serious competitor. Everything was in black and white, and if you wanted to change the channel, you had to get out of your chair and turn a knob on the set.
News was shot on film, meaning it had to be physically transported to the television station, developed and edited before it could air — a process that took a minimum of one hour and could take several. Sound film cameras were big — think about carrying around a couple of cement blocks — and could record a maximum of 12 minutes before changing the film was required. The only videotape machines were massive items, and tape had to be physically edited, a cumbersome process. To transmit news from anywhere, you had to order — well in advance — physical lines from AT&T. Most news was distributed by two wire services — AP and UPI — on machines that printed 60 words per minute. The news sat on the machine until someone went to read it. If you were in the field and wanted to make a call, you had to find a pay phone or talk someone into letting you use a private phone. And if you called someone and they were not there, there were no answering machines — you had to keep calling until someone answered.
Why is all this important? The coverage and dissemination of news was slow (although the facts probably were more accurate) and this made the decision-making process slow as well. Parts of JFK’s visit to Dallas were being covered locally only because the local stations decided to pool their resources. But NBC and CBS were not carrying the coverage. In fact, the networks were not even on the air — stations were carrying their own local programming. It took some time for the national coverage to begin, but when it did begin, it went commercial-free for four days, the first time that had happened.
JFK was, for my generation, the first president who didn’t look like he could be my father. He was young, he was funny and he had a beautiful wife. JFK also was the first “sports” president anyone of my generation knew. Eisenhower played golf, Truman walked and Roosevelt was limited by his paralysis due to polio. The Kennedy family played touch football on the lawn, sailed on Nantucket Sound and went on lengthy hikes. Kennedy actually played golf but refused to let that be filmed to draw a contrast with the Republicans.
Kennedy had intervened with the National Guard in 1961 to allow Paul Hornung to play for the Green Bay Packers in the NFL title game. He was conscious of his image as a young, sports-minded male, and people bought it.
Kennedy was assassinated around noon on a Friday. Nothing like this had ever happened in my lifetime. No one knew if this was an isolated incident or if there was a plot to assassinate other government officials (both the president and vice president were in Dallas); rumors were flying. In fact, the announcement of JFK’s death was delayed to let Johnson get on his way to the airport and Air Force One. Even after Johnson was sworn in and back in D.C., no one was sure what was happening.
So, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had to weigh all this and make a decision in a short amount of time, consulting with a number of people who gave him differing opinions. In the end, NFL games were played, although there was no television coverage of them. And Rozelle later said he had made the wrong decision.
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Special thanks: Bob Eaton; Gil Brandt;
November 22, 1963 – Looking back at that moment in American history
Though he was nearly a year away from the 1964 election, President John F. Kennedy knew it was campaign season even in November of 1963. And one of the most important states he needed to win was Texas. Kennedy along with his wife, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, boarded Air Force One on Nov. 21 for a two-day, five-city trip through the state. Starting with San Antonio, then Houston, they eventually visited Fort Worth. With Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy exits the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth. On Friday, Nov. 22, he will greet crowds and make a speech. It’s 8:45 am.
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 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.”
The 1960’s – Evolution of America’s Team helps rebuild the image of Dallas Texas
Experience the history of the Dallas Cowboys from how they joined the NFL, dealt with an AFL crosstown rival and endured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in their own city before becoming one of the most successful franchises in NFL history.
1959-1960: Clint Murchison Jr. is awarded an NFL franchise, which he establishes in Dallas as the Cowboys. The NFL Draft was in November of the year before, not April as it is today, so the Cowboys had to make up their roster from 36 veterans selected from the 12 NFL teams.
1960: Don Meredith signed a contract with a company owned by Clint Murchison Jr., stating he would play for an NFL franchise owned by Murchison. George Halas, head coach and owner of the Chicago Bears, drafted Don Meredith as a security measure to ensure the Cowboys could get off to a good start.
Halas knew the Cowboys were getting a raw deal when they joined the NFL, as Halas and the other owners hastily approved the Cowboys as a franchise in Dallas because the NFL didn’t want Lamar Hunt (owner of the AFL Dallas Texans) to have the only franchise in city.
The league honored Meredith’s contract with the Cowboys, but made the team compensate the Bears with a third round pick. Thus, Don Meredith became the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.
1960: Dallas Cowboys hire Tom Landry as head coach (former New York Giants defensive coordinator – coming off back-to-back NFL championship game appearances), and Tex Schramm (right) as general manager.
1960: The Dallas Cowboys go 0-11-1 tying the New York Giants in the final game of the season, their only non-loss. They were a team that could score points but couldn’t stop anybody. Tom Landry knew he didn’t have the personnel for a top-flight defense, so he engineered an offense that could put points on the board to keep fans interested. This was odd, as Landry was a former defensive coordinator.
1961: Newly hired talent scout Gil Brandt makes Bob Lilly the Cowboys’ first ever draft pick with the thirteenth overall selection in the 1961 NFL draft. Lilly is perhaps the greatest player in franchise history. The Cowboys go 4-9-1 in their second season.
1962: While the Cowboys improve again to 5-8-1 in their third season, their crosstown rival the Dallas Texans win the AFL title in an exciting game aired on NBC. This AFL title game factored into NBC signing a five-year deal with the AFL in 1964 worth $36 million. Each team would get $900,000 a year from TV rights under this deal.
1962: Despite the success of the Texans, owner Lamar Hunt was rumored to be losing north of $400,000 dollars a year since 1960 (roughly $3.1 million dollars today). Both Murchison and Hunt were losing money hand-over-fist with two franchises in a market only 700,000 people strong.
1963: Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle lures Lamar Hunt to Missouri by promising he could deliver three times as many season tickets as the Texans sold in Dallas the year before. He also promised to enlarge Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, and give Hunt a favorable lease of just $1 for each of the first two years.
The Cowboys now had the Dallas market all to themselves, and with their win total going up every year, as well as a talented offense and defense, the organization viewed 1963 as a pivotal year in growth of the franchise.
1963: The Dallas Cowboys started slowly in the 1963 season but were set to face the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 24 having just won two out of three with the loss coming narrowly on the road to the 49ers. That was until President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22.
1963: Due to the proximity of the assassination, coupled with the Cowboys’ losing ways and infancy in the league, the Cowboys were an unattractive visiting team for the rest of the NFL. So much so, that the Cleveland Browns announcer was instructed by Art Modell (the Browns owner) to not even mention the City of Dallas by name when the two teams played shortly after the assassination.
1963: Following the JFK assassination, the Dallas Cowboys dropped eight of their next 10 games, starting with the game against the Cleveland Browns.
1964: Clint Murchison signs Landry to an unprecedented 10-year deal, even after Landry endured a rough first three years in the league. This was the longest coaching pact in the history of pro sports at that time. Dallas continues to struggle during what should have been a period of growth for their football team, while the city they play in is known worldwide as the assassination site.
Oct. 31 1965 – After two years in a malaise, Dallas Cowboys players respond to an emotional Tom Landry after a tough loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers parks them at a 2-5 record. The team comes together winning five of its next seven games to finish .500 for the first time in franchise history.
1966: The not yet famous Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders squad was created in 1961. The 1966 Dallas Cowboys season was the seventh for the franchise in the National Football League. It involved the 10–3–1 Cowboys qualifying for the NFL post-season for the second time in franchise history, by winning the NFL Eastern Conference title, before losing the NFL Championship Game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
With the growth in popularity of televised NFL games, the league began looking for a second team in addition to the Detroit Lions, to host an annual Thanksgiving Day game. Every team turned down the offer, except for the Dallas Cowboys. General Manager Tex Schramm recognized this as an opportunity for the franchise to increase its popularity and establish its own Thanksgiving Day game tradition.
Top Row (L-R): Christina Krise, Susie Kendall, Paul Ott, Richard Wallace, Janie Chambers, Jeanne Carter, Cindy Armstrong, Lee Jackson, Judy Tsukahara, Gary Freeman, Keith Graham, Rosalind Barry, Johnny Reed, Director Dee Brock, Sherry Atkinson, Tex Knight, Millard Elder, Not shown: Laurie Seltzer, Phil Baker
December 1967 ICE BOWL: The 1967 National Football League Championship Game between the Western Conference champion Green Bay Packers and the Eastern Conference champion Dallas Cowboys was the 35th championship game in NFL history. The game was held at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin on December 31, 1967. The winner of the game would meet the champion of the American Football League in Super Bowl II. Because of the adverse conditions in which the game was played, and its dramatic climax, it has been immortalized as the Ice Bowl (though it was not a Super Bowl) and is considered one of the greatest games in NFL history.
The 1967 game was a rematch of the 1966 NFL title game; the Packers had won consecutive NFL Titles in 1965 and 1966. The game would pit two future Hall of Fame coaches against each other, Tom Landry for the Cowboys and Vince Lombardi for the Packers
1968: The 1968 Dallas Cowboys season was their ninth in the league. The team improved on their previous output by winning twelve games. Dallas qualified for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The team averaged 30.8 points per game, and holds the record for most points scored through the first three games of a season.
1969: The 1969 Dallas Cowboys won eleven games and qualified for the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. The Cowboys were second in the NFL in scoring (369 points), and led the league in rushing yards (2,276) and total yards (5,122). The Cowboys’ defense also allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL (1,050) and the fewest rushing touchdowns (3).
1970: The 1970 Dallas Cowboys season was the team’s 11th in the National Football League. For the fifth consecutive season, the Cowboys finished first in their division. In 1970, the club made its debut on Monday Night Football. and made it to their first Super Bowl.
It is the only Super Bowl in which the Most Valuable Player Award was given to a member of the losing team: Dallas Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley, who intercepted two passes (sacks and tackles were not yet recorded). Howley, the first non-quarterback to win the MVP award, refused to accept it because it was meaningless to him after his team lost. In a similar vein, Baltimore Colts defensive end Bubba Smith would later refuse to wear his Super Bowl V ring because of their “sloppy” play.
1960-1985: Ultimately, the Dallas Cowboys launched a run unprecedented in NFL history by appearing in 12 championship games and five Super bowls before having their next losing season in 1986 — 21 years later.
The original November 22, 1963 issue of Life Magazine
The original November 22, 1963 issue of Life Magazine was supposed to have featured Navy football star Roger Staubach, but instead the events of the day ended up making that original issue one of the rarest Life Magazines ever printed.
-Dr. Steven Lomazow, Magazine Historian
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