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Attending NFL game two days after JFK's death was surreal, cathartic

Photo: Herb Scharfman/SI

Nearly 63,000 fans attended the Nov. 24, 1963, game between the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals at Yankee Stadium.

It was a day of sunshine but immeasurable gloom. There was a stadium filled with nearly 63,000 fans too subdued to generate much excitement for a crucial late-season NFL game where the outcome seemed secondary to the staggering events of the past two days.

Indeed, many Americans questioned whether the game should even be played.

It was the most solemn atmosphere I've ever experienced at a sporting event.

So it was, 50 years ago, on the afternoon of Nov. 24, 1963, when the New York Giants played host to the St. Louis Cardinals at Yankee Stadium, only 48 hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. I was a 13-year-old junior high school student watching with my brother from our family seats overlooking the 35-yard-line in Section 20 of the original Stadium, an arena I always considered much grander than its remodeled and smaller successor that re-opened in 1976.

There was little pregame buzz about whether the conference-leading Giants could handle the second-place Cardinals. Instead, many fans turned on transistor radios to follow the latest shocking news: accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had been gunned down in a Dallas police station.

GALLERY: JFK and Sports

There was none of the usual pregame music from Herb Steiner's ensemble and no local high school band entertained at halftime. The only sounds over the public address system came from announcer Bob Sheppard, who worked Giants games nearly as long as he did the Yankees.

When Sheppard asked for a moment of silence to honor the fallen president, Yankee Stadium grew as quiet as a house of worship during a memorial service. Only a week before these same fans had cheered themselves silly, watching the Giants rout the San Francisco 49ers, 48-14, to move into first place in the Eastern Conference. There could not have been a more dramatic contrast. I suspect the mood was similar at stadiums in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Bloomington, Minn., where six other NFL games were kicking off that day.

Through the decades, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle has been universally taken to task for his lack of sensitivity in not postponing games that tragic weekend. Rozelle himself came to regret the decision, calling it the worst mistake of his 29-year tenure as commissioner. His successor, Paul Tagliabue, utilized the Rozelle experience to inform his decision not to play any NFL games on the Sunday following the 9/11 attacks.

LAYDEN: How the JFK assassination changed two NFL lives

Rozelle, however, did not act blindly. Before giving his OK to the games, he spoke with Pierre Salinger, Kennedy's press secretary and a former classmate of Rozelle's at the University of San Francisco. Perhaps Salinger was too shaken to offer a reasoned opinion but he urged the commissioner to play the games as scheduled. "It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy," Rozelle said. "Football was Mr. Kennedy's game. He thrived on competition."

The NFL games weren't the only football action during those grief-laden days. A number of college contests went on as scheduled that Saturday, including Oklahoma at Nebraska, and Florida State at Auburn. Amazingly, Wake Forest played at North Carolina State on Friday night, only hours after the assassination.

Yet it was Rozelle and the NFL that suffered the biggest hit for playing football at the same time that the president's body lay in state under the dome of the Capitol Rotunda in Washington.

It's a cliché but nearly everyone does remember where they were when they heard the news from Dallas that Friday. I was changing out of my gym clothes in the boys locker room of my school in Westchester County, N.Y., when I heard someone say, "Kennedy's been shot." What had been an unusually warm sunny day for late November in the Northeast began to turn cold. On Saturday it was pouring rain, as if the heavens themselves were in mourning.

By Sunday, which dawned sunny but windy, I was happy to get away from the non-stop assassination coverage on television and on the radio, where even rock 'n' roll stations were playing what used to be called "serious music."

Perhaps many fans were thankful for the chance to spend a few hours of leisure away from the searing sorrow of the events in Dallas and Washington. Capacity crowds also showed up in Milwaukee (the Packers' alternate home in those years), Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Nearly 50,000 fans came to the Los Angeles Coliseum and an audience of more than 55,000 arrived at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium to watch the Browns defeat the Dallas Cowboys.

Perhaps people needed a reprieve from all the sadness, a reason to cheer, a diversion, if only for a few hours. And in New York in the early 1960s there was no better athletic diversion than the Giants.

Hall of Famers Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli, Roosevelt Brown and the Bald Eagle, quarterback Y.A. Tittle who had arrived in 1961, were well liked. Indeed, they were loved. They won the NFL title in 1956 and then played in five more NFL Championship Games, most notably the sudden death classic with the Baltimore Colts in 1958.

The Giants sold out every home game. New York area fans who couldn't see the action from Yankee Stadium on TV because of the NFL's Dark Ages policy of blacking out home games, could listen to one of the best radio broadcast teams in NFL history: play-by-play announcer Marty Glickman and analyst Al DeRogatis. A few intrepid rooters packed their cars and drove to the motels of Stratford, Conn., whose location just beyond the 75-mile blackout zone meant all Giants home games were on television.

Fans can debate which Giants team was the greatest but there is no argument over which one had the best offense. The 1963 Giants scored a franchise record 448 points in 14 games, or 32 per game. Tittle threw an NFL record 36 touchdown passes, breaking his record of 33 from the year before.

Unfortunately, this offensive arsenal was nowhere to be seen on that sad Sunday at Yankee Stadium. Perhaps the Giants were distracted. Maybe their hearts weren't in the game. Whatever the reason, the Giants turned the ball over four times and lost to the Cardinals 24-17 despite outgaining St. Louis 336-177. It was the only game during the final nine weeks of the regular season that the Giants didn't score more than 30 points.

With Cleveland also winning, there was a three-way tie in the Eastern Conference but most of the NFL action from that day is little remembered. One astonishing play, however, deserves recognition a half-century later.

At the next-to-last NFL game at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the Steelers and Chicago Bears battled to a 17-17 tie. The best player on the field was Bears tight end Mike Ditka, a former All-America at Pitt who was making his first professional appearance back in the Steel City. He caught seven passes for 146 yards, and one catch was special.

With the Bears trailing 17-14 late in the fourth quarter, and facing an almost-impossible second-and-36 challenge from inside their 20 yard-line, Ditka caught a short toss from quarterback Billy Wade, only to be met by three Steelers defenders. Iron Mike blasted through them and headed downfield before finally being caught at the Steelers 20. The 63-yard play set up the game's tying field goal and kept the Bears in first place in the Western Conference.

Years later Ditka told NFL Films his performance "was my way of committing myself to what I thought about President Kennedy. He was someone, to me, who gave his all and I tried to give my all."

Another Ditka catch five weeks later, this time on a third-and-12 play in the 1963 NFL Championship Game at Wrigley Field, set up the winning touchdown as the Bears surprised the favored Giants 14-10. It would be 23 years before the Giants would play for another NFL title as the franchise began a 17-season nightmare (1964-80) that included five head coaches, four stadiums in three states, only two winning teams and zero playoff berths.

On Nov. 24, 1963, however, all that was in the future. Sure, I was disappointed that the Giants had lost but I appreciated the chance to be out in the late-autumn air, to cheer with fellow Giants fans and to begin seeing signs, small as they might have been, that life during one of the most painful weekends in U.S. history was slowly returning to normal.

Army vs. Navy 1963: Remembering Kennedy
In 1963 the Army vs. Navy football game was postponed after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The game was played a week later, at the insistence of his widow Jacqueline, and a Navy team led by Roger Staubach beat Army.

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